In Virginia, 150 years ago, Robert E. Lee was maneuvering his Army of Northern Virginia in preparation for the invasion of the North that would culminate of Gettysburg. His infantry had broken contact with the Union forces on June 3rd and moved northwest, leaving skirmishers from A. P. Hill and the cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart to cover the movement. Stuart's 9,000 troopers were in high spirits. They had amazed onlookers on June 5th and 8th at Grand Reviews, complete with mock charges against artillery.
|General Pleasonton on horseback|
But Lee wanted his cavalry to do more than please spectators. He ordered them to move across the Rappahannock River and raid the Federal lines to screen his movements. Stuart was not the only one with orders to move on June 9th. Federal commander Joe Hooker ordered Alfred Pleasonton to take his 11,000 men across the river and foil any movements that Stuart might be planning.
Although both forces were scheduled to move in the morning of June 9th, the Federals began much earlier. At 4:30 am they rode across the river, surprising the few Confederate pickets. Two Federal columns soon set off toward what they assumed was Stuart's position. The surprised Confederate cavalry gathered quickly and began fighting back one of the columns. The Union troopers were surprised at the sudden resistance, as they had not expected to meet any Confederate in that area. The southerners had advanced closer to the river the day before so they could make a quick start on their raid.
The Confederates holding back the Union advance were soon surprised by seeing Federal cavalry in their rear. The other Federal column had found an unguarded road and were able to ride right towards Fleetwood Hill, Stuart's headquarters for the previous night. It was directly in the rear of the Confederate lines, held only by one cannon which had been left behind for lack of ammunition. In this crisis, Major Henry McClellan of Stuart's staff ordered the gun crew into action and sent word of the developments to Stuart. This solitary cannon brought the Federals to a halt and delayed them until Confederate reinforcements could be brought up to strengthen the hill.
The battle continued to rage back and forth through the day with charges and counter charges across the fields. After ten hours the Federals finally called off the fight. The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the war. Although Stuart had maintained his position, he had been surprised and greatly embarrassed. The Federals claimed victory because they fulfilled the letter of their orders, although they did not hold the field. In the larger scheme of things the battle was very important for the Federal cavalry. For the first time during the war they had stood up to the rebel troopers and fought them, horse to horse. Up to this point Stuart had literally rode circles around them. Now they had proved to themselves that they were nearly equal to the famed rebel cavalry. As Major McClellan said:
[Brandy Station] made the Federal cavalry. Up to that time confessedly inferior to the Southern horsemen, they gained on this day that confidence in themselves and in their commanders which enable them to contest so fiercely the subsequent battle-fields ...
This confidence would serve them very well in the coming campaign.