The great “Partisan Ranger,” Col. John S. Mosby, certainly knew his fair share about fighting on horseback.
So his conclusion that the Battle of Brandy Station, fought June 9, 1863, was “the fiercest mounted combat of the war—in fact, of any war,” must receive weighty consideration.
A staff officer to Jeb Stuart concurred, adding, “Brandy Station was the most terrible cavalry fight of the war” and the “greatest ever fought on the American continent.”
Succinctly, here is the historical context for the action known as the Battle of Brandy Station:
In mid-May 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee boldly decided to alter the strategic status quo existing between the two contending armies and undertook plans to invade the north.
In preparation for his army’s secret withdrawal from the Fredericksburg heights, Lee ordered his cavalry division over the Rapidan River into Culpeper County to screen and protect the impending shift of his army westward—and then north, to Pennsylvania.
Federal cavalry, just across the Rappahannock River, discovered the presence of Southern cavalry in Culpeper and concluded (erroneously) the Rebel horsemen were about to set off on a sweeping raid toward Washington, D.C.
Alerted to this dire threat, Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered his cavalry corps to “disperse and destroy” the enemy cavalry believed to be located at Culpeper Court House. So, on the early morning of June 9, 1863, Federal cavalry aggressively attacked Jeb Stuart in eastern Culpeper County.
At the end of the long day on June 9, Union cavalry withdrew across the Rappahannock. About 20,000 troops had been engaged in this all-day battle, the largest cavalry action of the war, and near 1500 casualties resulted from this momentous clash of cavalry.
It is indisputable that Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the war, but we also concur with another distinction posited by a battle participant. Summoned in 1888 to offer dedicatory comments for the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Monument at Gettysburg, Col. Frederick Newhall asserted the following:
“From my point of view, the field at Gettysburg is far wider than that which is enclosed in the beautiful landscape about us … The larger field of Gettysburg … is the great territory lying between the battleground and the fords of the Rappahannock in Virginia.”
Newhall continued, “And while Gettysburg is generally thought of as a struggle which began on the 1st and ended on the 3rd day of July, 1863, the fact will someday be fully recognized that it had its beginning many miles from here … It was at Beverly Ford then that Gettysburg was inaugurated.”
(Beverly’s Ford was, of course, the principal wartime access route from the north to the Brandy Station battlefield.)
Capt. John Esten Cooke of Jeb Stuart’s staff also set the scene as it existed on the banks of the upper Rappahannock in early June 1863: “A great drama was about to begin to end in the really conclusive struggle of the war, and at this moment came the sudden clash and war in Culpeper, precluding the thunder at Cemetery Hill [Gettysburg].”
Continuing to trumpet the theme of Brandy Station’s extraordinary military significance, Union Brig. Gen. David Gregg wrote, “there was fought in Culpeper a cavalry battle the influence of which was so great and far reaching that it must always hold a first place in the annals of the cavalry ... a day of such fighting as would have gladdened the heart of the wildest dragoon that ever gave cut or thrust.”
And where to this day, avowed another blue trooper, “the moldering bones of many a cavalry hero attests full well how that field was fought ...” That last is an absolute fact.
The surgeon of the 8th Illinois Cavalry claimed that in “all parts of the field the severity of the fight is without precedent in cavalry warfare.”
Witnessing the two senior officers of his regiment killed on Fleetwood Hill, the new commander of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry bore witness in his official report to “the most spirited and hardest fought cavalry battle ever known in this country.”
Hundreds of combatants on both sides in their reports, letters, diaries and memoirs pitched in on that theme exhausting the gamut of superlatives in designating this engagement as the “heaviest;” “toughest;” “grandest;” “severest;” “bloodiest;” “most famous;” “glorious,” and “ most desperate cavalry battle of history.”
Leading newspapers resounded kindred plaudits in front page, above the fold format, with The New York Times of June 11 trumpeting the “Great Cavalry Fight,” while the Richmond Sentinel of June 12 described “the severest and most extensive cavalry fight of the war.”
Years following the war, other writers similarly characterized the battle. Stonewall Jackson’s biographer, an English professional soldier, who when declaring, “The horseman of the American war is the model of the efficient cavalryman,” also attested, “there is no finer instance ... of a well-contested cavalry battle than that near Brandy Station, June 9, 1863.”
Aside from its epochal dimensions as the largest cavalry warfare fought in the Western Hemisphere and affixed dead center in a year of consequential events, the Battle of Brandy Station also heralded emerging strategic implications for the application of mounted warfare in the Civil War.
On the plains and amongst the green hillsides of the Rappahannock watershed, Union cavalrymen fought it out in harness with their old foe on a fair field, forever grappling the initiative and distinction heretofore considered the exclusive domain of Stuart’s vaunted legions.
Redemption stood at hand in the third summer of the war for the blue-clad troopers, “clerks and tailors on horseback, no longer.”
In the passage of just one day in a four-year war, Federal troopers not only corrected a cavalry imbalance hitherto existing between two armies, but in this Culpeper County rite de passage, they also validated their military worth by certifying that blue mounted forces—flaunting a newfound operational mobility—would hereafter offer offensive support to the eastern war effort.
And it all happened at Brandy Station, the inaugural action of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Today, the American Battlefield Trust owns hundreds of acres of the Brandy Station battlefield. Concerted efforts are underway to create a Cedar Mountain and Brandy Station battlefield state park that will honor, commemorate, and interpret our country’s greatest cavalry battlefield.