“A very severe hand-to-hand fight”: Buford holds the door open for Kilpatrick

Before picking up from yesterday’s post, let me thank Bud Hall and Jim Nolan for helping me to better understand the series of actions in this early phase of the Bristoe Campaign.

We left off on the morning of October 11 (that would be 150 years ago today), with Brigadier-General John Buford’s First Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac on the south bank of the Rapidan River at Morton’s Ford.  Meanwhile, with the Army of Northern Virginia’s main body making a wide flanking march to the west of Culpeper Court House, the infantry supporting Buford had withdrawn northwards.  But Buford didn’t get that word until early on October 11.

Buford’s course of action was the obvious – push aside the Confederates left guarding Morton’s Ford and fall back towards the Rappahannock.  However a bad ford and a pursuing Rebel force stood to disrupt Buford’s progress.  After repairing the ford, Colonel George Chapman’s brigade rushed across while Colonel Thomas Devin’s held a rear guard.  Two batteries of the horse artillery covered the crossing from the north side of the river.

Moving up to contest Buford’s re-crossing of the Rapidan, Major-General Fitzhugh Lee sent two brigades of cavalry towards the south side of the river, while personally crossing upstream at Raccoon Ford to strike the Federal force on the opposite bank.  Brigadier-General Lunsford Lomax, commanding one of the brigades on the south bank, closely pressed Devin’s troopers.

On the north bank, Wickham’s brigade, with Colonel Thomas Owen in temporary command, attempted to cut off Buford’s retreat. Owen focused on the Federal horse artillery which seemed unsupported at the time.  Lomax formed two regiments for a charge, and posting his other two regiments to protect the left flank.  But Champan, having run his brigade over the ford through heavy Confederate fire, now got in position to protect the cannons.  Fitz Lee countermanded Owen’s charge.  After a short standoff, Lomax threw his men into a series of charges against the Federals. Buford reported:

Colonel Chapman, with his brigade, had made his preparations to meet the force that had crossed at Raccoon, and a very warm reception he gave them. He found a superior force of cavalry formed and ready to charge. He speedily made his dispositions, and as soon as completed, down came this overwhelming force of cavalry upon him, not to stay, however, but to be hurled back dismayed, in confusion, and terribly punished.

Meanwhile, Devin managed to extract his brigade under heavy pressure from the Confederates on the south bank of the Rapidan.

Colonel Devin was sorely pressed, as his force on the enemy’s side decreased, but he, by frequent dashing and telling charges, and the two batteries by their fire from the north side, kept the enemy from closing on his rear. Colonel Devin’s command on this occasion was beautifully handled, fought too bravely, and consequently suffered quite severely.

Having accomplished this contested crossing, with a fight of around three hours, the Federals fell back to Stevensburg.  The Confederates followed with Fitz Lee’s cavalry division and two brigades of infantry.  Instead of distancing his command from the enemy, Buford turned to make a stand at Stevensburg to give supply wagons a chance to reach Kelly’s Ford.

Seeing a number of wagons passing along the road from Culpeper, through Stevensburg toward Kelly’s, I determined to make a stand until they were all safe. Here the division fought the enemy’s cavalry until its support came up with its long-range muskets. The division then withdrew, making an obstinate resistance at Stevensburg, until everything was safely across that nasty stream, Mountain Run, after which it leisurely retired to Brandy Station without a deal of molestation from the enemy, although closely followed by him.

In the Confederate version of the action at Stevensburg, Brigadier-General Lunsford Lomax recorded the Federals “attempted again to make a stand, but wre soon dispursed on the right by the well directed fire of Chew’s battery and the sharpshooters.”

Buford found the rear guard of the Fifth Corps at Brandy Station retiring.  Buford’s division occupied Fleetwood Hill overlooking Brandy Station and covering the direct route of retreat to the Rappahannock.  Major-General J.E.B. Stuart had desperately wanted to secure that hill as part of his pursuit of Brigadier-General Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division.  But a diversion by the 5th New York Cavalry (Brigadier-General Henry Davies brigade of Kilpatrick’s division) delayed Stuart’s efforts towards Fleetwood.  But for that delay, Buford might have met Stuart on Fleetwood Hill  – and with certainty replayed events seen earlier that year on June 9.

For the Federals, the situation reached a critical state.  To the west of Brandy Station, the Third Cavalry Division, under Kilpatrick, was acting as a rear guard for the entire Army’s retrograde.  And Confederate columns appeared ready to cut off Kilpatrick’s retreat.  Fitz Lee’s division, having dropped the pursuit of Buford, now attempted to join with the rest of Stuart’s cavalry to accomplish just that.  With no orders and nothing to guide his actions, Buford made a quick assessment of the situation.  His division would hold the door open to allow Kilpatrick’s to retreat.

Fitz Lee’s division formed on the north side of Mountain Run to contest Kilpatrick’s lead brigade – that of Brigadier-General George A. Custer.  Custer later reported:

The heavy masses of the rebel cavalry could be seen covering the heights in front of my advance …, a heavy column was enveloping each flank, and my advance confronted by more than double my own number. The perils of my situation can be estimated. Lieutenant Pennington at once placed his battery in position and opened a brisk fire, which was responded to by the guns of the enemy. The major-general commanding the Cavalry Corps at this moment, rode to the advance. To him I proposed with my command to cut through the force in my front, and thus open a way for the entire command to the river. My proposition was approved, and I received orders to take my available force and push forward.

While the 6th and 7th Michigan held off the Confederates pursuing up from Culpeper Court House, Custer massed the 1st and 5th Michigan Cavalry to attack.  “After ordering them to draw their sabers, I informed them that we were surrounded, and all we had to do was open the way with our sabers.”  The regiments surged forward with the sounds of the band playing “Yankee Doodle.”  The attack shook the Confederate lines, but did not complete the breakout.

At the same time Custer’s troopers were crashing into the line, Buford was forming up to aid his fellow cavalrymen with a charge of his own.  In his report, Buford summarized the attack, rather briefly:

The Third Division soon made a connection with my right. As soon as this was accomplished, the Sixth New York charged, followed closely by the Ninth New York, and soon regained the advantage that the enemy supposed he had. It was a very severe hand-to-hand fight, Devin’s troops using the saber.

Others would recall the resulting melee counting a dozen charges in the span of twenty minutes.  Writing after the war, Henry McClellan recalled:

They fought bravely, and even desperately.  Several times dismounted men, while eagerly pressing forward, were surrounded by the enemy’s cavalry, and either fought their way out with their carbines or were rescued by charges of their mounted comrades. Five times each did the 5th, 6th, and 15th Virginia Cavalry make distinct sabre charges, in one of which Colonel Harrison, of the 6th Virginia, was wounded.  Despite all his efforts, the enemy was steadily pushed back to his position upon Fleetwood, in which he was so strong that Stuart declined to attack.

Custer and Buford had, without planning or coordination, established a path for Kilpatrick’s division to retreat.  The remainder of Buford’s division covered the withdrawal from Fleetwood, then became the rear guard.  By 8 p.m., the last of Buford’s division, and the last of the Army of the Potomac, was across the Rappahannock.

Buford’s men had conducted three river crossings in two days, all of which were contested (and that’s not counting Mountain Run and other streams crossed).  They’d fought a wide ranging series of actions and made countless charges to hold off their pursuers.  They deserved a rest…

But they would not get that rest.  October 12 came with another set of orders and another mission for Buford’s division.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 29, Part I, Serial 48, pages 348-9, 390, and 465; Henry B. McClellan, The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J. E. B. Stuart, Commander of the Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1885, pages 382-3.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on ““A very severe hand-to-hand fight”: Buford holds the door open for Kilpatrick

  1. Great post on this much overlooked part of a much overlooked campaign. The fall fighting of 1863 at Brandy is great drama

  2. Outstanding and wonderfully accurate overview, Craig.. A compelling narratives, in fact, that provide a “you were the rte,” feeling.

    And once again, we see how Fleetwood Hill proves central to the drama–as in so many other battles during the war.

    This action would of course represents the last time Brandy Station and Fleetwood Hill would be contested, and of all the battles that occurred previously in these environs, the Bristoe Station Campaign cavalry battles were certainly among the fiercest.. And thanks for reminding us all of that fact.

    George Custer also appreciates it.

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