The Battle of Brandy Station, also known as the Battle of Fleetwood Hill, fought June 9, 1863, in Culpeper County, Virginia, was the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War.
In early May 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia soundly defeated Major General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite the Rebel victory, Lee’s army was in need of food, horses and equipment after the battle. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee decided to take the war to the North. In early June, Lee began consolidating his army near Culpeper, Virginia in preparation for an invasion into Pennsylvania. To mask his intentions and screen the assembly of his invasion force, Lee stationed his cavalry, commanded by Major General J.E.B. Stuart, at Brandy Station, a few miles northeast of Culpeper. Union officials mistakenly interpreted Lee’s cavalry deployment as evidence of an impending attack on Hooker’s supply lines or, perhaps, an assault on the nation’s capital. Stung by the defeat at Chancellorsville, Hooker went on the offensive and ordered Major General Alfred Pleasonton to lead his cavalry corps, augmented by 3,000 infantrymen, in a two-pronged attack to “disperse and destroy” the enemy cavalry.
At 4:30 a.m. on June 9, 1863, Brigadier General John Buford led 5,500 Federal soldiers across the Rappahannock River, surprising Stuart’s pickets at Beverly’s Ford. At the same time, Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg led 2,800 Federal cavalrymen and infantrymen across the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, about four miles downstream.
After crossing the Rappahannock, Buford’s command moved south toward Stuart’s encampment at Brandy Station. Confederate Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones’s brigade rushed forward and briefly delayed Buford’s advance long enough for Stuart’s main force to escape and to form battle lines to the south. As Buford advanced farther, he encountered stiff resistance, resulting in heavy Federal losses.
At approximately 11 a.m., Stuart was surprised a second time when Kelly’s force approached Brandy Station from the south, providing Buford’s soldiers some relief. A series of charges and countercharges ensued for the remainder of the battle, which continued until Confederate infantry reinforcements from Culpeper approached. By late afternoon, Pleasonton ordered a withdrawal as the Rebel reinforcements began to arrive.
Despite being surprised twice in the same day, Stuart was able to drive his attackers from the field. The Rebels suffered fewer casualties than the Federals (575 to 866) making the battle, technically, a Confederate victory. Nevertheless, the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War served as a morale booster for the battered Army of the Potomac by demonstrating that the Union cavalry was beginning to emerge as a worthy opponent for their formerly, far-superior Confederate counterpart.