The Fights for Fleetwood Hill and Yew Ridge, June 9, 1863.
Colonel Black’s 1st South Carolina, charging at the same time as Young’s Georgians, slammed into the 2nd New York Cavalry, shattering its ranks and scattering its men across the fields. Lieutenant Colonel Henry E. Davies, the regimental commander, admitted that his regiment became disorganized when “by reason of an order improperly given, as is alleged, the head of the column was turned to the left, and proceeded some distance down the railroad.” The regiment had only advanced about one hundred yards when Black spotted it and angled his charge to inflict the most harm possible. “After the first charge, the command was broken up into detachments, which attacked the enemy in different directions,” wrote Davies. The 2nd New York scattered and headed for the protection of the railroad embankment, pursued by Black’s screeching South Carolinians, who “were cutting down the fugitives without mercy.” When another of Hampton’s regiments (probably the Jeff Davis Legion) threatened their flank, the terrified New Yorkers fled, much to the consternation of Kilpatrick. The 2nd New York was Kilpatrick’s old regiment, and “they were repulsed under the very eye of our chief, whose excitement was well-nigh uncontrollable.”
The 6th Virginia Cavalry of Jones’s brigade, which had opened the fighting that morning, charged headlong into five regiments of Yankee cavalry.55 Rallying his troopers, Kilpatrick shouted to the 1st Maine Cavalry, “Men of Maine! You must save the day! Follow me!” and personally led a charge by the Maine troopers. As the Maine men followed, they saw a magnificent sight. “The whole plain was one vast field of intense, earnest action. It was a scene to be witnessed but once in a lifetime, and one well worth the risks of battle to witness,” recalled one. “But the boys could not stop to enjoy this grand, moving panorama of war.”
“In one solid mass this splendid regiment circled first to the right, and then moving in a straight line at a run struck the rebel columns in flank. The shock was terrific! Down went the rebels before this wild rush of maddened horses, men, biting sabres, and whistling balls.” “A grander sight was seldom ever witnessed,” gushed a newspaper correspondent who watched the Maine men attack The charge of the 1st Maine saved the Federal guns near Fleetwood Hill from capture. Near Martin’s guns, Captain Thomas of Gregg’s staff tried to enlist help to protect the abandoned cannons. Thomas spotted Kilpatrick and galloped over to him, begging the colonel to rescue the guns. “To hell with them!” proclaimed “Little Kil.” “Let Gregg look out for his own guns.” Taken aback, Thomas repeated his request. “No! Damned if I will!” came the reply, as Kilpatrick spurred off. Thomas stood his lonely vigil, hoping to salvage Martin’s guns.
Some of the Maine men dismounted and opened fire with their carbines. Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Smith, in command of this contingent, soon found himself alone and almost cut off. “Seconds seemed like minutes,” recalled Smith years after the war. He gathered up some nearby men, wheeled them about, and ordered, “Forward!” Slashing his way back through the gauntlet of Southern cavalry, Smith led his troopers to safety. A year later, he was awarded a Medal of Honor and a promotion to brevet brigadier general for his valor at the July 1864 Battle of Samaria Church.
Kilpatrick squared off with a Confederate officer he had known and disliked at West Point. The Southerner spotted Kilpatrick coming, drew his pistol, took aim, and fired, missing the hard-charging “Little Kil.” He drew his saber, and the two officers fenced. “As they met the business commenced. Both men fought like tigers at bay,” recalled an observer. The Southerner “gave Kilpatrick a slight cut on the arm,” which, instead of disheartening him, only made Kilpatrick “more tigerish.” Receiving a vicious slash, the Confederate officer reeled in his saddle. Seeing an opportunity, Kilpatrick killed his injured foe with a slashing cut of his saber. The victorious colonel rejoined his brigade, proclaiming, “That rights a wrong. I have wanted to meet him ever since the war commenced.”
The Jeff Davis Legion of Hampton’s command attacked to the east of the railroad tracks, while the balance of Jones’s brigade charged to the west. They drove the Federals back, “and then, for an hour or more, there was a fierce struggle for the hill, which seemed to have been regarded as the key to the entire situation. This point was taken, and retaken once, and perhaps several times; each side would be in possession for a time, and plant its batteries there, when by a successful charge it would pass into the possession of the other side, and so it continued.”
The defeated Federals melted away, with some of Hampton’s troopers in hot pursuit. However, Stuart had ordered two of the South Carolinian’s regiments to remain on Fleetwood Hill, supporting the Southern artillery. Deprived of a portion of his command and frustrated by what he perceived as the cavalry chieftain’s meddling, Hampton ordered the recall sounded. “No notice of this disposition of half of my brigade by General Stuart had been given to me by that officer, and I found myself deprived of two of my regiments at the very moment they could have reaped the fruits of the victory they had so brilliantly won,” complained Hampton in his after-action report. “This division of my command left me too small a force to operate to advantage, and when the other regiments rejoined me, I received orders to assume a position to protect the hill.” He watched frustrated as Gregg’s battered division withdrew unmolested.
As the blueclad troopers withdrew, they left Lieutenant Wade Wilson’s section of horse artillery exposed about one hundred yards north of the railroad tracks, protected only by dismounted cavalrymen. These artillerists had had a long, hard day, deploying at eight different positions during the savage fighting for Fleetwood Hill. Kilpatrick ordered the gunners to limber up and retreat, but Colonel Lunsford Lomax’s 11th Virginia Cavalry came crashing down on them before they could.
These guns had aggravated Stuart all day, and finally fed up, Stuart had asked Lomax whether he could silence them. “I will do it or lose every man in the attempt,” replied Lomax, a West Pointer from a distinguished Virginia family. Stuart ordered him to do so, and Lomax, waving his sword, bellowed, “Men, we want those guns; follow me!” He and his Virginians charged down the Carolina Road “like a whirlwind.” Bearing down on the battery at an angle, Wilson shifted his guns, “in which the gunners lost their range, so that the volley of grape and canister was not so effective as it might otherwise have been.” Seeing the gray wave coming, Captain Thomas tipped his cap to his approaching adversaries and finally abandoned his vigil over Martin’s guns, leaving them to the victorious Southerners.
The Virginians then slammed into Wilson’s guns, fighting it out with the dismounted Federal troopers supporting the artillery, allowing Wilson’s gunners to slash their way to safety, bringing their guns off with them. Wilson stopped from time to time, firing an occasional shell to discourage pursuit. The Virginians were not interested in the guns—they were more interested in the dismounted cavalrymen scurrying for their horses. “Lomax and the men of the bloody Eleventh were among them, slashing left and right.” After dispersing Wilson’s little band of supports, Lomax veered for the railroad, crashing into three of Wyndham’s regiments. “I charged, and drove them from the station,” claimed Lomax in his report. Lomax sent a small detachment toward Culpeper, in case Federals were operating near there. Taking the rest of his regiment, he briefly pursued Gregg’s retreat along the Stevensburg Road, capturing thirty-four before finally breaking off and returning to Fleetwood Hill.
Major McClellan noted, “Thus ended the attack of Gregg’s division upon the Fleetwood Hill. Modern warfare cannot furnish an instance of a field more closely, more valiantly contested. General Gregg retired from the field defeated, but defiant and unwilling to acknowledge a defeat.” Instead, Gregg re-formed his command in the fields to the south of Brandy Station, where he had staged his initial attacks. He noted in his after-action report, “The contest was too unequal to be longer continued. The Second Division had not come up; there was no support at hand, and the enemy’s numbers were three times my own. I ordered the withdrawal of my brigades. In good order they left the field, the enemy choosing not to follow.”
THE DUEL ON YEW RIDGE
When Stuart sent Jones and Hampton to counter the threat from Gregg, only Rooney Lee’s brigade, still positioned behind the stone wall, remained in Buford’s front. Under orders from Pleasonton to hold his position, Buford did not move directly around Lee’s flank to Fleetwood Hill but rather initially remained in a defensive posture along a ridge on the Cunningham farm.
Buford then extended his lines in an effort to outflank Lee along the stone wall. Eventually, his dismounted troopers threatened to envelop Lee’s lines. The waist-high wall lay in a valley between two ridges, one of which served as Buford’s headquarters. The ground on either side of the wall was cleared and provided excellent fields of fire for both sides. Because at least a part of the low-lying area was swampy and filled with mud, it could not be approached while mounted. Confederate artillery firing from the ridge behind Lee’s main line covered the formidable defensive position.
A successful attack by Buford would have placed him in the rear of Stuart’s position, poised to roll up the Confederate flank from the side and rear. Some of Rooney Lee’s sharpshooters took positions behind the stone wall and peppered away at Ames’s infantry brigade, which had moved up to support Buford’s planned attack. Visibly annoyed, Buford approached a group of officers of the 3rd Wisconsin of Ames’s brigade and asked of Captain George W. Stevenson, “Do you see those people down there? They’ve got to be driven out.” One of the Wisconsin officers responded that the enemy’s force greatly outnumbered their own. Buford responded, “Well, I didn’t order you, mind: but, if you think you can flank them, go in, and drive them off.”
Impressed with Buford’s calm demeanor and manner of command, the Wisconsin officers ordered several companies of their infantry to advance. Screened from Lee’s view by woods and the nature of the terrain, the infantrymen sidled around the Virginian’s flank until they reached a position from which they could enfilade the Confederate position. When in position, the flankers unleashed a killing fire on Lee’s exposed flank. The foot soldiers then retreated to Buford’s original position.
Emboldened by the success of the infantry, Buford ordered Major Henry C. Whelan, now commanding the 6th Pennsylvania, to launch a mounted charge against the Confederate position. Supported by Captain Wesley Merritt’s 2nd U.S., the Pennsylvanians thundered toward the 10th Virginia through a storm of small arms and artillery fire. Major Whelan, whose horse was shot out from under him, later described the charge as “decidedly the hottest place I was ever in. A man could not show his head or a finger without a hundred rifle shots whistling about.…The air [was] almost solid with lead.” Spearheaded by the Pennsylvanians, the Federals dashed forward until a vicious countercharge by the 9th Virginia slammed into them.
With sabers drawn, the 9th Virginia crashed into the charging Pennsylvanians, sending the Lancers “into confusion and forcing them back, not along the line of their retreat, but directly on the stone fence through which there was but a narrow opening; and dealing them some heavy blows during the necessary delay in forcing their way through it. They were followed by men of the Ninth at a gallop through the field beyond the fence to the edge of the woods, where a Federal battery was in position. A good many of the prisoners which the Federals had taken were released by this charge.”
Elements of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, which were supporting the attacking Lancers, saw an opportunity. The Regulars spotted a large battle flag atop the ridge and headed for it, Lieutenants Isaac M. Ward and Christian Balder leading their squadrons forward. Major Charles J. Whiting of the 5th U.S. Cavalry described them “twice charging the enemy and each time driving him with severe loss from his position to a hill beyond and holding him in check against heavy odds till withdrawn, with serious loss, by the brigade commander.” Trooper Sidney M. Davis of the 6th U.S. watched as Ward positioned his squadron almost at the rear of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. As the Virginians swept past his position, Ward charged the Southern flank, his men cheering wildly as they went. “It was a curious scene,” remembered Davis, “this small body so boldly attacking a large force that was at this moment driving from their front quite a strong regiment [the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry], but the movement was successful. The Confederates halted a moment, gave a startled look backward, and then their regiment broke up and fled by a detour westward to the rear.” Although Lieutenant Ward was mortally wounded, his impetuous charge rescued the beleaguered Pennsylvanians. Later, a Virginian said, “From the noise you men made, we thought it was a whole brigade coming out of those woods.”
Lieutenants Stoll and Carpenter had been ordered to hold the woods to the 6th U.S.’s right. As Ward’s men and the Lancers began withdrawing, the Rebels pursued. The two squadrons of Regulars remained mounted, while the charging Confederates were dismounted. “If I had had command of the squadron, I would have dismounted the men, and fought the enemy equally,” reported Carpenter, “but Stoll thought otherwise.” Instead, the mounted Regulars waited in the scorching sun. Stoll was badly wounded, and Carpenter took responsibility for withdrawing his beleaguered saddle soldiers.
“I managed in this way, by stopping every minute and fighting the rebels, in getting my men safely out of the wood. The ground sloped downward for 30 or 40 yards and then raised again, just beyond to a little knoll,” he continued. “I saw at once that the rebels would have every chance of murdering us, as we crossed this low ground, exposed completely to their fire from behind trees.” Carpenter ordered his men to pour in a rapid fire for a few minutes, and then he had them wheel to the right and to gallop at full speed. They obeyed. “The minute we commenced to retreat, the rebels arose in multitudes, as if by magic, and poured in a dreadful fire. The next minute however I had gained the knoll with my squadron, and just behind it, I ordered them to stop, and give it to the rebels. We were completely protected by the ground.” The Regulars raked the Confederates from the protection of the woods, and Carpenter saw a number of them drop, while the remainder retreated “in great haste.” Carpenter’s horse was wounded on the inside of the foreleg, and the lieutenant lost his hat in the chaos; he borrowed new headgear from an unfortunate Confederate. Captain George C. Cram, who commanded the 6th U.S. that day, commended Carpenter for the skillful way he brought Stoll’s beleaguered squadron to safety.
The Confederates’ success was short-lived. No sooner had they driven the 6th Pennsylvania from the hill than the 2nd U.S. counterattacked. The 2nd U.S. had spent much of the day supporting one of the Federal batteries and eagerly joined the fray. “At last an order—which we all had hoped and all but asked for, and which General Buford told me he was anxious to give, but had not the authority, but which no doubt he carried—finally came,” recalled Merritt. “We were ordered to advance and deal on their ground with the batteries and sharpshooters which had wrought such havoc among our men and horses.” In addition, Buford ordered Lieutenant Albert O. Vincent’s battery of horse artillery to unlimber within four hundred yards of the enemy and open fire in conjunction with the Regulars’ attack.
Following the route of the 6th Pennsylvania’s attack and supported by the fire of Vincent’s battery, the 2nd U.S. pitched into the flank of the 9th Virginia, driving it back. “Out flew the sabres, and most handsomely they were used,” observed Buford. “We rode pell-mell, with sabers in hand at the astonished enemy,” recalled Merritt. “The next moment [the Rebel line] had broken and was flying, while horsemen of the 2nd mingling with the enemy, dealt saber blows and pistol shots on every side. There was little halting to make prisoners, as friend and foe, mixed inextricably together, rode on in this terrible carnage, each apparently for the same destination.” With Merritt leading the way, the determined charge of the 2nd U.S. carried up the slope of Yew Ridge, over the plateau, and across the crest.
Captain Joseph O’Keeffe, one of Buford’s staff officers, rashly joined the charge, riding “boot to boot” with Merritt. Merritt and O’Keeffe became separated when the Confederates broke and the sabers began to fly. Sometime during the mêleé, O’Keeffe was unhorsed, badly wounded in the leg, and captured. Major Whiting, the commander of the Reserve Brigade, later noted, “I have to regret the loss of Captain O’Keeffe, who requested to act with me during the day, and after affording most valuable service could not resist the temptation of charging with the Second United States Cavalry and was wounded and taken prisoner.” At that moment, Buford had no time to mourn the loss of his aide—there was more work to do.
Merritt’s charge, “in its impetuosity, carried everything before it. It bore up the hill, across the plateau, and to the crest on the other side.” The savage attack of the Regulars drove back more than twice their number. “There were discovered in the valley below, fresh regiments of horse moving quietly towards the scene of our combat anxious to strike us while we were in confusion,” noted Merritt.86 Colonel Richard L.T. Beale, the commander of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, feared a rout until a courier from Stuart reined in, saying, “The General sends his thanks to Colonel Beale and the men of the Ninth for their gallantry in holding the hill, and if you will hold it five minutes longer he will send reinforcements.” Stuart delivered on his promise moments later.
Rooney Lee launched a vicious counterattack, pushing forward his own skirmishers in an attempt to flank Buford’s position and sever his lines of communication and retreat across Beverly’s Ford. “About 4 o’clock in the afternoon Lee put himself at the head of my regiment which was at the foot of a hill out in the open field, standing in column of fours, and gave the order to charge up the hill, he riding at the head of the regiment,” recalled William L. Royall of the 9th Virginia. “I was very near to the head of the column and could see all that took place. When we got to the summit of the hill, there, some two hundred yards away, stood a long line of blue-coated cavalry. Lee did not hesitate an instant but dashed at the center of this line with his column of fours. The Yankees were of course cut in two at once, but each of their flanks closed in on our column, and then a most terrible affray with sabers and pistols took place. We got the best of it, and we had soon killed, wounded, or captured almost all of them. They had a good many more men over beyond the hill, but the thing was over before the others could come to their assistance.”
A charge by the 2nd North Carolina and the 10th Virginia reached the hill and shoved the Regulars back toward the Union starting point. In a letter to the Richmond Daily Dispatch written the day after the battle, an unidentified member of Company F of the 10th Virginia noted, “The 2d U.S. Cavalry, supported by other cavalry, came up when the 10th Va. Cav…were about to charge them. This regiment charged them gallantly, driving them back precipitately, killing many, chopping many over the head, and taking some prisoners.…I think it was the hardest cavalry fight of the war.”
As the Regulars retreated, Captain Merritt and his aide, Lieutenant James Quirk, found themselves alone among the Confederates. Merritt, who believed that his entire regiment was still alongside him, carried only his saber and his courage. A nearby group of Confederate officers spotted
him, and one yelled, “Kill the damned Yankee!” Riding over to the group of officers, Merritt boldly approached the apparent leader of the group, brought his saber to a point, and declared, “Colonel, you are my prisoner!” The officer was not a colonel, but rather Rooney Lee. Lee proclaimed, “The hell I am!” and swung his saber at Merritt’s head. Merritt parried the blow, but the thrust of Lee’s saber pierced Merritt’s hat and a kerchief that he had tied around his head as a sweatband, nicking Merritt’s scalp.
Faced with such immediate peril, Merritt and his aide hastily retreated when other Confederate officers opened fire with their revolvers. With pistol shots and demands for his surrender still ringing in his ears, Merritt safely reached his own lines, where “a kindly Hibernian gave me the hat off his own head.” In the course of the fight on Yew Ridge, Rooney Lee suffered a severe leg wound. Deprived of their senior officers, the Confederates did not press their hard-won advantage and retired to their lines along Fleetwood Hill.
When Buford prepared his report of the battle, he wrote that his men “gained the crest overlooking Brandy Station” but that they could not hold it. He further noted, “The enemy, although vastly superior in numbers was fought hand to hand and was not allowed to gain an inch of ground once occupied. During this fighting, Lt. [Albert O.] Vincent poured his shot into them with terrible execution.” Vincent later reported that he maintained his fire for half an hour and that his battery expended approximately four hundred rounds over the course of the day’s fighting. Obviously, such heavy fire from a range of only four hundred yards took a toll on the Confederates.
Fitz Lee’s brigade, commanded in Fitz’s absence by Colonel Thomas T. Munford, arrived on Yew Ridge as the fighting was winding down. Munford’s men were picketing along the Hazel River. Stuart’s orders to Munford were vague, meaning that the colonel and his troops advanced slowly and cautiously. Munford arrived at Welford’s Ford around 4:00 p.m. and shook out a skirmish line. He could see the battle raging on Yew Ridge and realized that a very large Federal force lay in front of him. While Captain James Breathed’s battery opened on the Union flank, Munford realized that “the enemy’s right flank being protected by infantry, artillery, and twice our number of sharpshooters, made it impracticable at any time to engage them in a hand-to-hand fight.”95 Munford held his position on the flank, engaging in desultory skirmishing until Buford finally broke off the engagement and began withdrawing. Munford’s troopers might have made a difference if they had arrived sooner. Rosser, who despised Munford, could not resist sniping at his old rival in a postwar speech. “On the other flank the unfortunate absence of our gallant and wide-awake Fitz Lee from his brigade (he being absent sick), left his splendid regiments and Breathed’s battery in less able hands, which, in consequence of a confusion of orders, did not reach the battlefield until very late in the day.”
Had Buford and Gregg coordinated their efforts and linked forces, they may very well have driven the Confederates from Fleetwood Hill and Yew Ridge. Also, the addition of Duffié’s command to the fray probably would have tipped the balance. However, the Frenchman and his division had their own adventures that day and did not arrive on the field until the end of the day’s fighting.