150 years ago: “We have had a severe fight” at Brandy Station

On this day (June 9) in 1863, Federal troopers cross the Rappahannock looking for a fight.  And a fight they got!

By 7:40 a.m., cavalry chief Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton sent a report to Army of the Potomac headquarters:

The enemy is in strong cavalry force here. We have had a severe fight.  They were aware of our movement, and were prepared.

However, the notion the Confederates knew of Pleasonton’s advance does not match with the Rebel’s account of the action.  Indeed, the specter of “surprise” would hang over Major-General J.E.B. Stuart as if an insult.  General Robert E. Lee, however, characterized the Federal force as “a reconnaissance to determine our force and position” and not one intent on “dispersing and destroying” (as the actual Federal orders directed).  And Pleasonton, knowing his mission was blown from the start, chose his words carefully to construct a good excuse.

From early morning until late in the afternoon, cavalry, artillery, and even some infantry, fought across a wide battlefield – four miles across the northern edge, nine miles on the eastern side, 10 miles on the southern boundary, and seven miles on the west (I simplified this to a ten by ten box yesterday while speaking to the tour group).

The story of this action is just as vast.  The scant few paragraphs offered in general histories of the war does not do justice to the battle (nor would my 1000 word post do so).  Although an attractive subject, surprisingly there’s been few book length treatments of Brandy Station in the 150 years since the battle.  Of those available today, I would highly recommend that of my friend Eric Wittenberg – The Battle of Brandy Station: North America’s Largest Cavalry Battle.

Only by mid-day did Federal headquarters receive Pleasonton’s note.  In response from Army headquarters gave the order to quit while ahead:

Dispatch 7.40 received. If you cannot make head against the force in front of you, return and take your position on the north bank of the river, and defend it.  At this distance it is impossible for the general to understand all your circumstances. Exercise your best judgement, and the general will be satisfied.

By the time that order arrived in Pleasonton’s hands, the battle had already reached a stalemate.  Confederates held the critical ground on the south end of Fleetwood Hill, despite bloody attempts by the Federals to crash through.  With the Federal withdrawal, tactically the battle was a Confederate victory.  But at a higher level, the flow of battle foretold the Federal cavalry had finally arrived as a potent force equal to its Confederate counterparts on the battlefield.

Yesterday, our tour group found the field around Brandy Station far more “favorable” than Pleasonton’s troopers.  With Clark “Bud” Hall and Eric Wittenburg as guides, we traversed more of the battlefield than any other tour group has visited … EVER.  As I was heavily involved with the administration and logistical matters with the tour, I was not able to tweet much.  But my pal Scott Manning picked up the line of march… er… tweets.

Let me share some of my views of the battlefield we saw yesterday.  First, along Beverly’s Ford Road where some of the opening actions occurred as Confederate pickets delayed the vanguard of Brigadier-General John Buford’s advance.


From the overlook of Beverly’s Ford (the first time a tour group has stepped out to this vantage).


View from “Rooney Lee’s Knoll” towards Buford’s lines.


Here’s a panoramic view I took weeks earlier while “scouting” the tour route.


NOTE: this location is on private property.  This was another of the sites we visited that the general public has never toured before.

At St. James Church, we were graced with a demonstration by the Valley Light Horse.


Another site along the way, and another site which has not seen tour groups before, was the northern approaches to Fleetwood Hill.


This ground is preserved by Civil War Trust.  It also offers a vantage point to Fleetwood Hill, the target of the current preservation effort at Brandy Station. (more later).

Our last stop was at Rose Hill Game Preserve.  The house there, a witness to the battle, was the setting for photos taken in the winter of 1863-4 featuring Brigadier-General Judson Kilpatrick and staff.


We discussed the action at Stevensburg during the Battle of Brandy Station, while standing at yet another rarely toured site.

We counted 143 attendees at registration.  At least another 30 joined us along the way.  At one point, I counted nearly 200 passengers and drivers arriving at of the sites!  A stalwart crowd that showed up in front of a rain-filled forecast.  The day turned out far better.


Many thanks to those who helped and supported this effort.  And further thanks to all who attended!

In closing I want to focus on this photo taken during the tour:

IMG_0993 - A

On Friday Civil War Trust reported reaching the 42% mark on the funding objectives for the Fleetwood Hill purchase.  Just under sixty days remain on the deadline to close that purchase.

Let’s move forward and take that hill!

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

8 thoughts on “150 years ago: “We have had a severe fight” at Brandy Station

  1. I, for one, find General Stuart’s actions encouraged the Federal forces to attack the Confederate cavalry that day. Three times in two weeks, General Stuart elected to conduct Grand Reviews, the first on May 22nd, the second on June 5th, and the third, just yesterday, June 8th. Following a ball on June 4th at Culpeper Court House where Stuart, Von Borke, and other cavalry men danced into all hours of the night, Stuart held a Grand Review of nearly 10,000 men on the 5th, culminating with a mock battle. Many of his men were already greatly tired from long marches to the site. Stuart loved to show off to impress his commanding officers and, particularly, the ladies. Gen. Lee was unable to attend on the 5th and was on the 8th so Stuart did it once more. Gen.Lee, always sensitive to the wise use of men, horses, and supplies, insisted that Stuart limit the third Grand Review to a walk past.

    I, for one, am extremely upset as to these Grand Reviews. I own Auburn, the estate on which Stuart elected to conduct his reviews. What foot-tall corn he and his men didn’t destroy the first two reviews, they stomped into the ground on the third review. I have demanded retribution for this damage, but Stuart was not available to talk to yesterday. I did not hesitate to gain an audience with General Lee, who assured me that I would be paid by Richmond, though he could not guarantee when.

    Hon. John Minor Botts

  2. Craig, thanks for your leadership and that of the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable in general in organizing this tour, and to everyone involved in preserving the site of the largest cavalry battle in the Western Hemisphere. After seeing it through your eyes, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t time to give some serious consideration to promoting Brandy Station as a World Heritage Site. It wouldn’t be easy and it might not be feasible at all given the size and the number of landowners involved, but it could help focus attention on just how important this site is.

  3. Great post, Craig. Very well done.

    It was not only a pleasure to work with you on this tour, it was an honor to be asked to do so, and it was a privilege to be part of it. I’ve been to Brandy dozens of times, including any number of times with Bud, and I’ve never been to the overlook to Beverly’s Ford previously, nor have I ever been up to Rooney’s Knoll previously. Those things alone made the tour worthy of attending. But doing so on the occasion of the sesquicentennial made it all the more meaningful.

    You and the rest of the LCCWRT did a superb job with this–your logistics work was remarkable. We owe you a great debt of gratitude.

    1. I work for a service-disabled vet (1st Cav, Viet Nam) and I mentioned the anniversary to him. He said that the watchword of the troopers was Garryowen, which I remember as a song. Turns out it is a regimental march popular in cavalry units. Is this a thread connecting today’s troopers with those of the Civil War? Would this tune have been heard in Pleasanton or Stuart’s camps? Just asking …

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