Buford’s Morning Fight at Brandy Station, June 9, 1863.
Following a series of meetings held in Richmond after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee persuaded the Confederate leadership that the time had come for another invasion of the North. A northward thrust would serve a variety of purposes: First, it held the potential of relieving Federal pressure on the beleaguered Southern garrison at Vicksburg. Second, it would provide the people of Virginia with an opportunity to recover from “the ravages of war and a chance to harvest their crops free from interruption by military operation.” Third, it would draw Hooker’s army away from its base at Falmouth, giving Lee an opportunity to defeat the Army of the Potomac in the open field. Finally, Lee wanted to spend the summer months in Pennsylvania in the hope of leveraging political gain from such an invasion.
PLEASONTON’S PLAN FOR HIS RAID
When he arrived at Warrenton Junction, Pleasonton knew only of the great concentration of enemy cavalry near Culpeper. He did not know that Confederate infantry was also camped there. Pleasonton and Hooker did not know that Stuart’s cavalry had gone to Brandy Station to cover the northward march of the infantry corps of Lieutenant Generals Richard S. Ewell and James Longstreet. Lee had ordered that the march north resume on June 10. Pleasonton worried about the whereabouts of the Southern foot soldiers and requested infantry support for his cavalry.
Responding, Hooker notified Pleasonton that two brigades of handpicked infantry under the command of Brigadier Generals David A. Russell and Adelbert Ames would report to Pleasonton at Kelly’s Ford. Each brigade consisted of 1,500 selected foot soldiers. These regiments came from all of the corps of the Army of the Potomac and represented the best marching and some of the best fighting regiments of the army. The foot soldiers considered it a great honor to be selected for this mission. “The infantry force selected challenged particular admiration,” reported a newspaper correspondent. “The regiments were small, but they were reliable—such for instance as the Second, Third, and Seventh Wisconsin, Second and Thirty-third Massachusetts, Sixth Maine, Eighty-sixth and One Hundred and Twenty-Fourth New York, and one or two others of like character.”
Disregarding Pleasonton’s note of caution about the extent of Duffié’s reconnaissance, Hooker fired off instructions that would send the Federal horsemen directly into the area where Pleasonton believed the bulk of the Southern cavalry lay waiting. “From the most reliable information at these headquarters, it is recommended that you cross the Rappahannock at Beverley [sic] and Kelly’s Fords, and march directly on Culpeper,” instructed Hooker. “For this you will divide your cavalry force as you think proper, to carry into execution the object in view, which is to disperse and destroy the Rebel force assembled in the vicinity of Culpeper, and to destroy his trains and supplies of all description to the utmost of your ability.” The army commander continued, “Shortly after crossing the two fords, the routes you will be likely to take intersect, and the major-general commanding suggests that you keep your infantry force together, as in that condition it will afford you a moving point of d’appui to rally on at all times, which no cavalry force can be able to shake.” He concluded, “It is believed that the enemy has no infantry. Should you find this to be the case, by keeping your troops well in hand, you will be able to head in any direction.” If the strike succeeded and the Confederates were routed, Hooker wanted Pleasonton to vigorously pursue the Southern cavalry and to use all available means to destroy Stuart’s corps once and for all.
If Pleasonton had correctly assessed the whereabouts of the Confederate cavalry, Hooker’s plan would carry the Northern saddle soldiers right at them. Nevertheless, orders were orders, and Hooker had been very specific in his instructions to Pleasonton. The cavalry chief set about planning his expedition.
Gregg’s division spent June 7 preparing for the coming excursion. “Haversacks were stored, cartridge-boxes filled, horses shod, the sick sent back, and all the usual preparations for active campaigning gone through with,” recalled a member of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry. “Then commenced the irksome and wearying delays incident to the moving of troops. Momentarily expecting the order to move, hour after hour passed, and still we were not yet off. Evening came and night passed, and reveille awoke us to another day’s expectancy.”
On June 8, Pleasonton ordered Duffié to march his division to Kelly’s Ford, where he would join Gregg’s command for the crossing. The Frenchman had to move from the far right, near Warrenton, down to Kelly’s Ford, an impractical move for the division that was supposed to lead the way on the left. “Slowly pursuing our way through the heat and clouds of dust raised by the march of a division of cavalry over parched and arid fields, we at length reached the vicinity of the river, and at nine p.m., bivouacked for the night about a mile from Kelly’s Ford,” continued the Pennsylvania horse soldier. Thus, the pieces fell into place for the great cavalry battle at Brandy Station. Nine thousand Union cavalrymen and three thousand infantrymen were prepared to pounce on the unsuspecting Confederates the next morning.
Pleasonton formulated an excellent plan for his foray across the river. Buford would command the right wing of the operation, including the 1st Division and Ames’s brigade of selected infantry regiments. In addition, several batteries of Federal horse artillery would also accompany the columns, adding firepower to the already potent Union force. Gregg would command the left wing, which included Russell’s infantry brigade, Gregg’s 2nd Division, and Duffié’s 3rd Division.
Under Pleasonton’s plan, Buford’s men would cross the Rappahannock at Beverly’s Ford and ride to Brandy Station, where they would rendezvous with Gregg’s 2nd Division. Gregg’s division would cross the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford. Duffié’s small division would also cross at Kelly’s Ford and would proceed to the small town of Stevensburg to secure the flank east of Culpeper. Buford and Gregg would then push for Culpeper, where they would fall on Stuart’s unsuspecting forces and destroy them. In case there was Confederate infantry in the area, the Federal infantry would support the attacks. Pleasonton had his men pack three days’ rations because he intended to chase the routed Confederates. Careful timing would be required to pull off the attack as planned.
The rolling terrain around Brandy Station featured mostly fields and woods. Its well-defined road network lent itself to rapid movement by large bodies of mounted troopers. The Beverly Ford Road, which crossed the Rappahannock two miles north of St. James Church, was a major artery for commerce. A long north–south ridge called Fleetwood Hill rose above the railroad station that gave the settlement its name. “Fleetwood Heights is a beautiful location,” observed an officer of the 6th Virginia Cavalry. “Being an elevated ridge…it commands the country and roads leading north and south from Brandy Station.” Stuart’s headquarters crowned this prominence overlooking the area around Brandy Station, the plumed cavalier’s personal guidon fluttering in the gentle breezes. One of Stuart’s staff officers described the area: “The country is open for miles—almost level without fences or ditches and the finest country for cavalry fighting I ever saw.”
The Northern horse soldiers did not have much faith in their new commander. “Stuart is in our front with a big force of cavalry,” observed a member of the 6th U.S. Cavalry on the night of June 8. “I only wish Stoneman was here. I have no confidence in Pleasonton.” Pleasonton’s plan assumed that the Confederate cavalry was concentrated at Culpeper, five miles from Brandy Station. A rude surprise awaited the Federals the next day, when they discovered that the Rebel cavalry lay just across the Rappahannock.
BUFORD’S ASSAULT AND THE DEATH OF “GRIMES” DAVIS
The entire Union Cavalry Corps marched on the afternoon of June 8, arriving at the Rappahannock fords about midnight.63 Buford’s men camped on the north side of the Rappahannock, just above Beverly’s Ford. High bluffs overlooking the river protected them from the prying eyes of the enemy on the other side. One of his troopers later recalled, “[W]e marched that night to within a mile or two of the fords, and awaited the approach of dawn.” The chaplain of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry recalled, “Late in the night we arrive behind the wood nearest the river, and bivouac for the night. No fires are allowed, and we make our supper on cold ham and hard tack, spread our saddle-blankets on the ground, and with saddles for pillows, prepare for a night’s rest. Our minds are full of the coming battle on the morrow, and various speculations are indulged in regard to our prospects of success.”
The Yankee horsemen fully understood that they would face combat the next day. “Our men are confident of success, and eager for the fray. A group of officers are eating their cold supper, perhaps the last they shall all take together. The morrow will soon break upon us, full of danger and death. Messages are committed to friends to be transmitted to distant loved ones, ‘in case anything should occur.’ And after solemn and earnest prayer we are all sleeping soundly.” Even though he served on Pleasonton’s staff, Captain Custer was nervous but excited. “I never was in better spirits than I am at this moment,” he proclaimed. In case “something happens to me,” he told his sister in a letter penned at about 2:00 a.m. that night, he had arranged for his chest and personal effects to be shipped to her in Monroe, Michigan. “If such an event occurs, I want my letters burned.”
At two o’clock in the morning, the Federal troopers awakened to hushed orders; the command “to horse” was whispered instead of blared by the division’s buglers. Buford’s troopers quietly mounted up and moved stealthily toward Beverly’s Ford, arriving at 4:30 a.m. That night, a thick fog had settled across the river, and a ghostly haze covered the approach of the Union troopers; shapes were difficult to discern across the river in the cool and pleasant dawn. Trooper Sidney Davis of the 6th U.S. recalled that “[t]he dull gray dawn gave a weird shadowy appearance to the landscape and those morning figures.” Captain Frederic C. Newhall of the 6th Pennsylvania, who served on Pleasonton’s staff, could see a cluster of officers standing by the riverbank through the ghostly fog. One among them, John Buford, acknowledged the passage of his command “with his usual smile. He rode a gray horse, at a slow walk…and smoked a pipe…[and] it was always reassuring to see him in the saddle when there was any chance of a fight.”
The water at Beverly’s Ford was three and a half feet deep, with narrow openings atop the steep riverbanks, meaning that the Union troopers had to cross the river in column of fours. “Grimes” Davis’s brigade led the way. One of Davis’s staff officers sat at the ford, and as each company commander passed by, he received the whispered order, “Draw sabers!” Davis’s horse soldiers waded the Rappahannock, his 8th New York in the lead, followed by the 8th Illinois and the 3rd Indiana. Once across the river, Buford ordered Davis to push any enemy vedettes back from the ford a mile or so. “We dashed rapidly across, the foremost squadrons receiving a sharp fire from the enemy’s rifle pits,” reported a member of the 8th New York.
A company of Jones’s 6th Virginia Cavalry picketed the area, and the sudden appearance of Davis’s soldiers surprised them. Unbeknownst to the Federals, Jones’s men had constructed a stout barricade of rails across the river and along the edge of a wood.74 “Captain Gibson, who was a brave and prudent officer, had already blockaded the road as best he could with the material at hand, and waited patiently to receive them,” recalled a Virginia horse soldier. “When at close range the captain gave the word and a sheet of fire flashed in their faces and the shower of lead poured into their ranks, emptied many saddles and caused the advance to recoil, but the head of the main body advancing rapidly to the support of their advance. Capt. Gibson was compelled to fall back, the Yankees pressing close on his rear.” Trooper Luther W. Hopkins of the 6th Virginia looked behind, called to the captain, and told Gibson that the pursuing Yankees were closing in on them; just as Hopkins spoke, two bullets hissed by his head. Gibson yelled to his men to move forward, and bending low on the necks of their horses, Hopkins and Gibson dashed away to safety.
“I hitched my horse, and, wrapped in a blanket, lay down to sleep,” recalled an exhausted member of the 6th Virginia Cavalry. “But I was soon rudely awakened by the watchman, who shouted that the enemy was crossing the river. We all jumped up and mounted our horses.” Day was breaking, and the grayclad pickets scurried up from the banks of the river in every direction, firing their pistols to raise the alarm.
Many of the Confederates were either still asleep or cooking their breakfasts when Davis’s onslaught caught them. “The Company was surprised, yet contended for every foot of ground between them and the camp of Jones’s and W.H.F. Lee’s brigades, near St. James Church, with the battalion of horse artillery,” recalled a member of the 6th Virginia. “The 6th Regiment, which was out on the road, got off first; the 7th Regiment next, just as the Federals were getting up into our midst. Many of our men had not finished their breakfast and had to mount their horses bareback and rush into the fight.”
As Davis’s horsemen closed in on their camps, Confederate officers quickly turned out their commands and ordered them “to horse.” A New Yorker recounted, “We had not gone a quarter of a mile when suddenly a heavy fire was poured into our ranks by their skirmishers who filled the woods on each side of us. At the same time a strong force of cavalry appeared coming down the road in front of us, and a battery of artillery could be seen through an opening, ready to open fire as soon as we should advance a little further. It was rather a tight place, for it was almost impossible to form in line of battle under such circumstances.”80 One Regular observed, “There were lively times for a few minutes.”
Gibson’s company retired slowly, its retreat protected by ditches in the low ground on either side of the Beverly Ford Road, thereby preventing the Union troopers from flanking the men and limiting their attack to the 6th Virginia’s front. “The enemy came pouring up from the river, and we opened fire on them, checking them for the moment,” recalled Luther W. Hopkins of the 6th Virginia Cavalry. “Two of our men were killed, several wounded, and two horses killed.”
Gibson’s delaying action permitted Major Cabell E. Flournoy, the regimental commander, to scrape together a force of 150 men with which to blunt the Union onslaught. The sleepy Southern troopers sprang to horse after being awakened by the crack of gunfire coming from the vicinity of the ford. “There being no information or apprehension of an attack, our men had, carelessly, turned their horses out to graze.” Only forty horses were haltered and ready for action, so the camp soon became a beehive of activity. Flournoy led a hasty countercharge, many of his men dashing off without their coats or saddles.
The two forces collided in the road, and a brief but savage saber fight occurred, as sabers clanged and pistols echoed. “The fight was at close quarters, and for a short time was fierce and bloody,” recalled a member of the 6th Virginia. “It seemed as if the whole air was alive with rebel bullets,” recounted a member of the 8th Illinois. “The roar of the guns in the woods at that early hour in the morning was terrific,” concurred a Virginian. During this altercation, the 6th Virginia sustained approximately thirty casualties, or 20 percent of the total force engaged. Fluornoy yielded to the sheer weight of numbers.
However, Lieutenant Robert Owen Allen, Company D of the 6th Virginia, riding at the rear of Flournoy’s retreating column, spotted “Grimes” Davis, alone and approximately seventy-five yards ahead of the rest of his column. Seeing an opportunity, Allen dashed up to Davis, who was facing his men, urging them on. Davis’s last words were, “Stand firm, Eighth New York!” Even as he yelled this, Davis evidently sensed that he was in danger, for he turned on Allen with a swing of his saber. Allen ducked this blow by throwing himself on the side of his horse while at the same time firing his pistol. Davis was killed instantly. Sergeant John Stone of Company D of the 6th Virginia rode forward to Allen’s assistance. Enraged by the loss of their beloved commander, the Union troopers charged Stone and, mistaking him for Davis’s killer, attacked him ferociously. A savage saber blow split Stone’s skull “midway between eyes and chin,” killing him instantly as well.
The loss of Davis hit the Union troopers hard. “The success was dearly bought, for among the noble and brave ones who fell was Colonel B.F. Davis, 8th N.Y. Cav. He died in the front giving examples of heroism and courage to all who were to follow,” lamented Buford. “He was a thorough soldier, free from politics and intrigue, a patriot in its true sense, an ornament to his country and a bright star in his profession.” Wesley Merritt, who had a long and nearly unparalleled career in the U.S. Army, wrote years later that Davis “was dearly beloved throughout the [Reserve Brigade], and many a veteran of the First, Second, and Fifth drew his chin more grimly to his breast and with clenched teeth awaited the shock of battle, anxious to avenge the death of this hero.”
The 8th New York lost its way in the woods and pulled back to regroup. “The 8th New York Cav. crossed ahead and went about a mile when the rebels charged them. They broke and ran like a flock of sheep, and we, being close in their rear, now found ourselves among the rebels, who thought they were just doing it, and true enough, they were,” observed a member of the 8th Illinois Cavalry. “But it was played out when they met us.…the frightened New Yorkers came rushing on and we were obliged to draw our sabres and threaten to split their heads, to bring them back to their senses.”
The 8th Illinois, next in the Union column, held off the Confederate counterattack, permitting the rest of the column to regroup and prepare to resume the charge. Command of the brigade devolved on Major William S. McClure, commanding the 3rd Indiana. “When the sad news of Davis’s fall reached me, I crossed and pushed to the front to examine the country and to find out how matters stood. I then threw the 1st Division on the left of the road leading to Brandy Station with its left extending toward the R[ail] Road.” Buford brought up Ames’s infantry brigade and posted the Reserve Brigade on the right, all connecting from right to left.
The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry of the Reserve Brigade was coming up as a rough litter bearing a wounded officer came down the Beverly Ford Road. “Who is that, boys?” inquired Chaplain Samuel L. Gracey.
“Colonel Davis, sir,” came the response.
“Is it possible! Noble fellow! Is he wounded badly?”
“A Minie ball through his head, sir.”
Gracey paused a moment to pray for Davis. “He is insensible, his hair matted and clotted with blood,” recalled the chaplain. “God have mercy on the brave, noble, patriot-soldier, the hero of Harpers Ferry!”
At the same time, the 7th Virginia Cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Marshall, arrived and joined the 6th Virginia’s counterattack. Confederate troopers surrounded and nearly captured three full companies of the 8th Illinois. “To the right a large party of the enemy tried to force our cavalry back,” recalled an Illinois trooper, “and actually got possession of the road in our rear, but the part of the Eighth Illinois regiment not engaged in the fight here had an opportunity to display their courage, and the conflict was severe, but the enemy were forced to yield the ground, after a bloody encounter.” In the end, the Rebels gave way after buying precious time for the rest of the grayclad horsemen to react.
Captain Alpheus Clark, commander of the 8th Illinois, engaged Flournoy in a pistol duel that ended when Fluornoy wounded Clark in the hand. This seemingly inconsequential wound proved fatal when Clark contracted lead poisoning and died. Captain George Forsyth, the next ranking officer, was also wounded during this fighting. The regiment’s next senior captain, Elon J. Farnsworth, took command of the 8th Illinois and led it for the rest of the day, earning praise from both Buford and Pleasonton. The corps commander marked the talented and ambitious young man for advancement.
Captain George A. Custer came across the river with Davis’s horsemen and charged with them. Although at least one of Custer’s biographers claims that Custer assumed command of Davis’s brigade and rallied it after Davis fell, those claims are unfounded. However, the dashing young man did earn Pleasonton’s praise for his courage. He was knocked from his saddle when his horse could not clear a stone wall. Later that day, he delivered the captured headquarters flag of the 12th Virginia Cavalry to Hooker’s headquarters. When he wrote his report of the battle, Pleasonton stated that Custer was “conspicuous for gallantry throughout the fight.”
After making his way back to report Davis’s death, Custer spent the rest of the day at the Cavalry Corps commander’s side. “The time was coming and very near at hand,” noted one of Custer’s many biographers, “though he knew it not, for him to win his star, and emerge from the inconspicuous position of a staff officer to one in which he could command public attention.” And so it was.
Although the surprise of the original Union assaults nearly bagged four batteries of Confederate horse artillery, quick thinking by Captain James F. Hart of the Washington (South Carolina) Artillery saved them. Buford dispatched the 3rd Indiana to rescue the New Yorkers, and the Hoosiers drove the Confederates back. McClure’s men then joined the running battle. The fully roused Confederate cavalry and horse artillery pressed McClure’s troopers hard as they attempted to form lines of battle.
“Our camp…was in the edge of a woods, and this morning at daylight, just as we were rounding up the last sweet snooze for the night, bullets fresh from Yankee sharpshooters came from the depths of the woods and zipped across our blanket beds, and then such a getting up of horse artillerymen I never saw before,” recalled Sergeant George M. Neese of Captain Roger P. Chew’s fine battery of horse artillery. “Blankets were fluttering and being rolled up in double-quick time in every direction, and in less than twenty minutes we were ready to man our guns, and all our effects safely on the way to the rear. Before I got out of bed I saw a twig clipped from a bush by a Yankee bullet not more than two feet above my head.”98 Another Southern gunner recalled, “We were aroused about daylight from our dreams of home, wives and sweethearts by the firing of our pickets a few hundred yards from us and the whizzing of musket balls all around us. The enemy had made a sudden dash across the ford and were driving our pickets back into our camp, where they were met by our cavalry and our battalion and checked for the time.”
Seeing the Union onslaught, Hart unlimbered one of his guns, drawn by hand, on the Beverly Ford Road to cover the retreat of the Confederate troopers and the other horse artillery batteries. This action slowed the Yankee approach long enough for “Grumble” Jones to deploy his entire brigade in line of battle to protect the guns from the Union attack.
The rattling of gunfire awoke Jones, and he dashed off at the head of his troops without either his coat or his boots. Once safely out of range of the stalled Yankees, Stuart’s batteries unlimbered again east of St. James Church, approximately a mile and a half from Beverly’s Ford, defending a ridge that they held for much of the morning’s fight. These Confederate batteries kept up a steady fire, helping to repulse repeated Union attacks on the St. James Church position. One of the Confederate gunners noted, “It was a close call and brilliant dash on the part of the enemy.”
The 8th Illinois charged into the 6th and 7th Virginia, driving them back. As one Confederate trooper succinctly put it, “Quicker than some of us came we went.” Colonel Thomas C. Devin’s 2nd Brigade was close behind the 8th Illinois, coming up to join the action. “As Colonel Devin approached the skirmish line, he at once became the target for the Rebel sharpshooters and, the way the minie balls were whizzing around him, it was the next thing to a miracle that he was not killed,” recalled a member of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry. “One of the skirmishers hailed him and said, ‘Colonel, this is no place for you.’ He replied by saying, ‘Those fellows across the ravine could not hit an elephant if they would try.’” Moments later, the Confederate sharpshooters shot Devin’s horse, which was smaller than an elephant.
Seeing the approaching Union troopers and recognizing the extreme danger facing his lone brigade, “Grumble” Jones committed the last of his reserves to the fight. “The men, worn out by the military foppery and display of the previous day’s review, were yet under their blankets,” recalled Captain Frank Myers of the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, which later became known as White’s Comanches. In an effort to secure his flanks and rear, Jones sent the 11th and 12th Virginia regiments, along with the Comanches, to join the battle line centered at St. James Church. Jones ordered the 35th to charge the approaching Yankees before the Comanches could even form line of battle as the blueclad horsemen repulsed the charge of the 12th Virginia. A member of the 12th Virginia described the charging Yankees “as thick as angry bees from a hive.”
The 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry slammed into the lead elements of the Federal charge near the Mary Emily Gee house, staggering them. After a brief mêleé, the Virginians drove the Union troopers back into the woods, where they received reinforcements. Rallying, the Union troopers again charged and this time shoved the 35th back into the woods from which it had come. In the meantime, the 12th Virginia was also heavily engaged. One member of Company H of the 12th Virginia exclaimed, “It was then warm work, hand to hand, shooting and cutting each other in desperate fury, all mixed through one another, killing, wounding, and taking prisoners promiscuously.” This stalemate lasted a while, with each charge being met by a countercharge. Another member of the 12th Virginia recalled, “For hours this seesawing was kept up. Finally, after we had driven them the fourth or fifth time to their rallying point [the nearby woods], they showed no disposition to charge again, and we fell back to the hill.”
In the meantime, as the foes traded saber licks, the Reserve Brigade, commanded by Major Charles J. Whiting, a stodgy old Regular, crossed the Rappahannock and rode toward the sound of the firing. Advancing, the Regulars met little resistance for the first mile of their approach. Near an old farmhouse, Trooper Sidney Davis of the 6th U.S. and his companions spotted something: “[P]artially covered by an army blanket, lying prone on his back, was the dead body of one of our officers, from whose death wound the warm blood of life still dripped over his dark blue uniform.” The sight of “Grimes” Davis’s corpse chilled the Regulars, causing many of them to pray for safety in the coming battle.
At 7:40 a.m., surprised by the stout resistance of the Confederates, Pleasonton decided to ride to the front. He took a few minutes to scrawl a dispatch to Washington before heading for the ford. “The enemy is in strong cavalry force here,” he wrote. “We have had a severe fight. They were aware of our movement, and were prepared.” Things did not bode well for the success of Pleasonton’s ambitious expedition.
THE FIGHT FOR THE GUNS AT ST. JAMES CHURCH
Buford did not know the size or strength of the force guarding the Confederate guns at St. James Church, but he deployed the guns of Lieutenant Samuel S. Elder’s battery of horse artillery. Buford sent a messenger to Major Robert Morris Jr., the commander of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. “General Buford sends his compliments to Major Morris,” panted the courier, “and directs him to clear the woods in his front.” The Lancers stared across a field nearly half a mile wide, intersected by four ditches. The ground rose steadily to the woods, and on the ridge sat a small house that became the Confederate headquarters, as well as the site of the Southern artillery. The 6th Pennsylvania made a “dash of conspicuous gallantry” across the wide meadow, directly into the teeth of sixteen pieces of Confederate horse artillery at St. James Church. Indeed, the performance of the 6th Pennsylvania that day so impressed John Buford that he henceforth called them “my Seventh Regulars.”
The 6th Pennsylvania “charged the enemy home, riding almost up to the mouths of his cannon,” nearly capturing two of the Confederate guns. “The Sixth fell upon these with great gallantry,” reported a Northern correspondent who witnessed their valiant dash, “and regardless of the chances of flank attacks from the other battalions, drove them, fighting hand to hand, through the brigade in reserve, and then wheeling about, passed round the battalion on the right and resumed position for another charge.”
“We dashed at them, squadron front with drawn sabres, and as we flew along—our men yelling like demons—grape and cannister were poured into our left flank and a storm of rifle bullets on our front,” recalled Major Henry C. Whelan of the 6th Pennsylvania. “We had to leap three wide deep ditches, and many of our horses and men piled up in a writhing mass in those ditches and were ridden over. It was here that Major Morris’s horse fell badly with him, and broke away from him when he got up, thus leaving him dismounted and bruised by the fall. I didn’t know that Morris was not with us, and we dashed on, driving the Rebels into and through the woods, our men fighting with the sabre alone, whilst they used principally pistols. Our brave fellows cut them out of the saddle and fought like tigers, until I discovered they were on both flanks, pouring a cross fire of carbines and pistols on us, and then tried to rally my men and make them return the fire with their carbines.”
When the Lancers charged, Captain Ulric Dahlgren joined them. On June 7, Hooker had sent Dahlgren to carry his orders for the raid to Pleasonton. The ambitious captain remained with the Cavalry Corps to observe and report on the actions of the horse soldiers. The aggressive youth was unable to resist pitching into the fray. He rode alongside Major Morris and reported, “Just as we were jumping a ditch, some canister came along, and I saw his horse fall over him, but could not tell whether he was killed or not, for at the same instant my horse was shot in three places.” The wounded horse fell, throwing Dahlgren. “Just then the column turned to go back—finding that the enemy had surrounded us. I saw the rear passing me, and about to leave me behind, so I gave my horse a tremendous kick and got him on his legs again. Finding he could still move, I mounted and made after the rest—just escaping being taken. I got a heavy blow over the arm from the back of a saber, which bruised me somewhat, and nearly unhorsed me,” recounted Dahlgren. The young man rallied the Lancers and led them to safety. The wounded horse had to be put down.
A newspaper correspondent reported, “Captain Dahlgren, of General Hooker’s staff, a model of cool and dauntless bravery, charged with the regiment, and his horse was shot in two places.” Pleasonton informed Hooker that Dahlgren had “been baptized in fire” and that the young man was a “capital aid.” Dahlgren found another mount after the battle and rode back to Hooker’s headquarters to report on the day’s activities. He had had a very long and trying day and was flushed with exuberance. Impressed, Hooker marked Dahlgren for advancement. Assigned to Cavalry Corps headquarters in the days following Brandy Station, the courageous captain performed magnificently in the coming weeks.
As the Lancers reached the Confederate artillery, it opened up, raking the Union line. “Never rode troopers more gallantly than those steady Regulars, as under a fire of shell and shrapnel, and finally of canister, they dashed up to the very muzzles,” recalled Captain Hart, “then through and beyond our guns, passing between Hampton’s left and Jones’s right.” A member of the 6th Pennsylvania recalled, “What an awful fire! So close that we are almost in the smoke of the battery. Many of our saddles are emptied, and the horses, freed from the restraint of their riders, dash wildly away; and at the same moment, hundreds of carbines fend their charges of death into our never-wavering ranks.” He continued, “Our color sergeant reels, and falls from his horse; another sergeant catches the colors before they reach the ground; and on through the storm of death our weakened lines advance until they meet the enemy, and hand to hand the conflict rages. Though we are outnumbered two to one, we break their ranks, and pursue them into the woods. Now the enemy on our right begin to close upon us: our commander has fallen. Major Whelan assuming command, attempts to withdraw us from our terrible position. But how are we to retreat? The enemy have completely surrounded us—all is lost!”
Spotting the predicament facing the 6th Pennsylvania, four squadrons of the 6th U.S. charged in support of the gallant Lancers. Lieutenants Louis H. Carpenter and Andrew Stoll led their squadrons out of the woods. Carpenter called for the charge, and away they went. As they charged, Carpenter watched the Lancers break and scatter. “As we went along at headlong speed, cheering and shouting it seemed to me, that the air was perfectly filled with bullets and pieces of shell, shells burst over us, under us, and alongside,” recounted Carpenter. The Regulars crossed a wide ditch and continued on. The Virginians retreated to the cover of the woods, where they opened a heavy carbine fire.
The Regulars arrived just as the Confederates were about to fall on the bloodied Pennsylvanians. Horse soldiers of both sides merged into a wild mêleé among the guns. “The warlike scene was fascinatingly grand beyond description, and such as can be produced and acted only by an actual and real combat,” recalled Confederate gunner Neese. “Hundreds of glittering sabres instantly leaped from their scabbards, gleamed and flashed in the morning sun, then clashed with metallic ring, searching for human blood, while hundreds of little puffs of white smoke gracefully rose through the balmy June air from discharging firearms all over the field in front of our batteries.…[T]he artillerymen stood in silent awe gazing on the struggling mass in our immediate front.” Another survivor remembered “a mingled mass fighting and struggling with pistol and saber like maddened savages.” The lines of battle ebbed and flowed like the waves of the ocean, prompting an officer of the 12th Virginia Cavalry to write, “These charges and countercharges continued until noon, without any decisive advantage to either side, but with considerable loss to both, in men and horses.”
The men of Carpenter’s and Stoll’s squadrons laid down a heavy fire with their pistols and carbines for several minutes until their position became untenable and the Regulars retired. “As we turned, a rebel made a dash close to me; I cut at him twice and missed him,” recounted Lieutenant Carpenter. “[A]s he passed he threw his saber at me. One of my men almost thrust his carbine against the breast of the rebel and shot him dead.” The Lancers and the Regulars retreated across the same fields toward the main Union line. They withstood heavy Confederate artillery fire, sometimes from a range as short as fifty yards. Both the Lancers and the Regulars demonstrated superb leadership at the company and squadron levels. Their officers did a fine job of regaining control of their scattered commands, which resulted in the combat units remaining effective.
The air whistling with the sounds of shrapnel and Minié balls, the beleaguered Federal horse soldiers clung to the necks of their horses as they dashed across the fields toward friendly lines in the woods. As the 6th U.S. attempted to re-form in the woods, “the timber on the left was so dense that, but for the coolness of the officers and men, the formation of squadron would have been an impossibility.” “The Rebel Battery then advanced and opened on my position and for two hours rained a storm of shot, shell, grape, and canister through the woods,” recalled Colonel Devin.
Buford ordered Elder’s battery to open on the Confederate artillery. Firing from a range of 1,500 yards, Elder found that the terrain protected the Confederate batteries and that his efforts at counterbattery fire were futile. Instead, Elder opened on the Confederate cavalry, occupying the Confederate battery by sending an occasional shot arching toward the Confederate gunners. The weight of the Yankee cavalry charges soon drove off the Southern guns, and Elder moved forward to better support the attacking cavalrymen. Elder later wrote, “In my frequent changes of position, [I] was never alone, nor did my support flinch, although compelled to sit in their saddles under the most severe artillery fire.”
Buford had wanted the 2nd U.S. Cavalry to support the charges of the 6th Pennsylvania and 6th U.S. However, the 2nd U.S., under Merritt’s command, received different orders from the Reserve Brigade commander, Major Whiting, and did not join the charge. While the valiant charges of the Lancers and the 6th U.S. relieved the pressure on Buford’s left, which had been pressed by Jones’s counterattack, they exposed the Kentuckian’s right flank. Seeing an opportunity, Jones pressed Buford’s right. Shifting the 17th Pennsylvania and 6th New York of Devin’s brigade, as well as a section of Captain William M. Graham’s battery of horse artillery, forward to relieve the pressure, Buford drove the Confederates from his right flank. He anchored his right flank along a tributary of the Rappahannock called the Hazel River and the left flank along the Rappahannock, spread across the Cunningham farm. He now occupied a solid and defensible position.
Recognizing that he was about to be overrun and hoping that Stuart would arrive with reinforcements, Jones sent the 35th Battalion and the 11th Virginia charging into the midst of the Federal attackers. McClure’s bluecoats faltered in the face of the determined charge and fell back through the woods onto the oncoming columns of Devin’s 2nd Brigade. McClure’s troopers eventually retired all the way to the Rappahannock before regrouping. The charge of the 35th Battalion also drove Devin’s supporting troopers one hundred yards back into the woods.
Devin’s brigade then rallied and formed a dismounted line of battle in the woods. Charging the Virginians on foot, Devin’s men drove the gray cavalry back toward St. James Church. The fight in the woods around St. James Church was severe and hand-to-hand in many places. One of Devin’s staff officers, Lieutenant Henry E. Dana of the 8th Illinois, engaged two Rebel troopers in a hand-to-hand fight. “After discharging the contents of their pistols they used them as clubs. The lieutenant finally threw his at one of his antagonists, striking him in the face and inflicting a severe wound; then, warding off the other’s blow with his arm, escaped with no further injury than a lame arm and a face well powder-burned.” The Comanches of the 35th Battalion captured and sent more than twenty-five Union officers and enlisted to the rear. The fight proved much tougher than any of the Union officers could have anticipated, and Buford was surprised to learn that Brigadier General Wade Hampton’s command had come onto the field.
Hearing the crash of gunfire while savoring his morning coffee, Jeb Stuart hurried off to the sound of the firing. Along the way, he dodged the panicked teamsters of the Confederate wagon trains hurrying away from the fighting: “The wagon trains came first and went thundering to the rear mid clouds of dust—then came the cavalry regiments at a trot with here and there a battery of artillery—all hurrying to the front with the greatest possible speed.” Stuart galloped toward St. James Church to assume personal command of the fight.
As Stuart and his aide, Major Heros von Borcke, approached St. James Church, they encountered Confederate stragglers from Jones’s brigade, who shouted, “The Yankees are in our rear! Everything back there is lost!” While Stuart tried to bring order to the fight at St. James Church, Rooney Lee’s brigade also rushed to the sounds of the guns from its camp at a nearby estate called Welford. Jones’s hard-pressed command received crucial reinforcements at a critical moment.
Seeing the fierce combat whirling around Major Robert F. Beckham’s guns, Stuart took charge of the fight and ordered Hampton’s men into the line of battle, at the Gee house on the right of Jones, facing north. To flush the Federal cavalry from the woods, Hampton dismounted some of his horse soldiers and sent them forward as skirmishers. Before long, several hundred of Hampton’s command were fighting against Devin’s dismounted troopers. Hampton tried to outflank Devin’s position, shifting steadily to the New Yorker’s left. Thus stymied, Devin remained locked in position along the Union right, anchoring the flank, for much of the afternoon.