Cavalry Retiring by Successive Formations: Brandy Station, October 11, 1863

Yes, that is not a typo.  There was a battle at Brandy Station on October 11, 1863.  It was the third major action on Fleetwood Hill that year.  If you recall, I wrote about this particular action during the sesquicentennial.  At that time, I put focus on the actions by Brigadier-General John Buford’s First Cavalry Division… for many good reasons.  But I want to return to that day to discuss the activities of another Federal formation.

In his Cavalry Tactics, Alonzo Gray included a section discussing “Retiring by Successive Formations.” One of the citations used to illustrate such tactical maneuvers was from the official report of Brigadier-General Henry E. Davies, Jr. on the October 11 actions at Brandy Station.  Davies commanded First Brigade, Third Cavalry Division.  Davies’ brigade paired with the Second Brigade, under Brigadier-General George A. Custer, to constitute Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division. Davies’ brigade consisted of the 2nd and 5th New York Cavalry, 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and the 1st West Virginia Cavalry.  In addition, Davies had Battery E, 4th US Artillery, under Captain Samuel Elder, assigned in support.

Let me skip some of the normal background I’d offer in regard to the “big picture” relating to this action, hoping you click the link to the earlier blog post.  Instead let me look to Davies’ brigade, as reported, did on that day.  Morning of October 11 found the brigade near James City were it had maintained a picket line.  They’d screened the Army of the Potomac’s withdrawal towards Culpeper.  With those formations clearing Culpeper, it was time for Kilpatrick’s cavalry to follow.  Davies started that morning by splitting his command.  The 1st West Virginia marched north to Sperryville in order to cover approaches to Culpeper from the west.  The remainder of the command fell back back on the main road to Culpeper.

Davies’ main force reached the Court-House without incident.  But hearing the West Virginians had encountered Confederates, he dispatched the 5th New York in support.

These two regiments, commanded by Major [John] Hammond [5th New York], attacked the enemy and drove him back, then retired slowly toward Culpeper Court-House, bringing off in safety the infantry that had been left on the road.

I would pause to raise this question – what does “slowly retired” look like?  Roll that around for a bit, while we continue….

While waiting on the return of those two regiments, Davies sent a squadron of the 2nd New York back down the road towards James City to “reconnoiter the road.”  This force soon ran into a large body of Confederate cavalry and lost two officers.

First Sergeant Barker, of Company A, then took command of the squadron, and by a vigorous charge broke through the rebel lines, brought in the whole command with a loss of but 5 men. For his gallantry and good conduct on this occasion, Sergeant [Lewis] Barker merits the praise of his officers, and he has shown himself eminently deserving of promotion, for which he has been recommended by the commanding officer of his regiment.

With that skillful extraction, Barker was able to fall back to the protection of Davies’ main body and the artillery.  But clearly it was time for the Federals to resume their withdrawal, as Davies recorded:

After passing through Culpeper Court-House, under the direction of the general commanding division, I fell back toward Brandy Station, having the right of the road, the Second Brigade being on the left. My rear was brought up by the Second New York, with their skirmishers thrown to the rear, firing and then retiring, my right flank protected by the First Vermont Cavalry, Colonel [Edward] Sawyer, who had been temporarily attached to my command. The enemy followed me very closely, skirmishing heavily with my rear guard, which, however, held its ground well, and did not give back an inch except when ordered.

Sure, nobody gives ground in their official reports.  Right?  But the tactical situation deteriorated rapidly at that point.

On nearing Brandy Station we found the enemy had got between us and General Buford’s command, and the Second Brigade was advanced to the front to charge. As they went forward I placed a section of my battery in position and opened fire on the enemy, who fell back before the Second Brigade toward my right flank.

Let’s pause again for a moment and consider how Kilpatrick was attempting to fight his division at that point in the action. Kilpatrick’s report simply alluded to having Davies on the right and Custer on the left.  But what Davies’ account implies is that First Brigade, plus Elder’s guns, took up a supporting position while Second Brigade made the initial assault.  The point I’d make here is that Kilpatrick approached the initial situation with a “hold with one brigade and jab with the other” maneuver.

But beyond that, this was not exactly a clean cut “textbook” situation as things were falling apart all around the line and to the rear.  Davies pushed out the 1st Vermont to his right, with the 18th Pennsylvania in support, to make another charge.  Then the 2nd New York mounted a charge on Confederates pressing the Brigade’s rear.   And while those charges were ongoing, to the front, Buford’s command was coming to Kilpatrick’s assistance.  Davies, from his point of view, recorded:

All of these movements I am happy to say were most successful, and we repulsed the rebels at every point, and in another moment my battery, supported by the Fifth New York, had followed in the road cut out by the Second Brigade, and gained a position of comparative safety where it could be of assistance to me.

Again, pause to think about the movements.  The 5th New York and the artillery had maintained a base that allowed at least three separate charges by other regiments in the brigade.  Furthermore, if we give weight to Davies’ account, that base supported the Second Brigade’s attacks.  Though in my opinion, most of the credit for the breakout should go to Buford’s troopers.

In these such tactical actions, an open escape route is half the solution. The unit still has to extract itself.  With three regiments (including the attached Vermonters) recalling from charges, Davies had to use the West Virginia regiment to form another base behind which the others could rally.  Behind this second base, Davies worked to move his command to safety, “… a description of the engagement is hardly practicable, as it consisted of a series of gallant charges made wherever the enemy appeared, in a manner that proved both the individual gallantry and the thorough discipline of our troops.”

Extracted from encirclement, Davies’ troopers were still not free.  The action continued even after their escape:

My battery, under Captain Elder, was posted on my right flank and rear, and pouring shot and shell into the enemy’s ranks, contributed in a great degree to our success. At one time the enemy attempted to charge the battery in flank, but the support, a battalion of the Fifth New York, under Major White, charged gallantly to the rescue and drove them back with heavy loss. After this I received orders to retain my command behind the line of the Second Brigade and reform them; which was done, and I then held a position under cover of which the Second Brigade withdrew and again took up position near the river.

It was the later part of this passage that Gray cited in his section on “Retiring by Successive Formations.”   What we see in that passage is again Kilpatrick using his division in two elements – one forms a base while the other maneuvers.  Unlike the earlier maneuvers during the breakout, Kilpatrick’s command was withdrawing under pressure.  So instead of charging, they were withdrawing to the rear behind the safety of a line formed by the other brigade – leapfrog in reverse.

Returning to the morning operations, recall again my question of what “slowly retired” looked like.  I’d submit it would resemble the retirement of brigades, only at a smaller level with squadrons or whole regiments.  Indeed we see a pattern to the maneuvers of Davies’ command throughout the day.  There always seems to be a “base” providing support for a “maneuver” element.  Such was the case with the actions around Culpeper, later with the breakout, and at the end of the day beyond Fleetwood Hill.

Successive movements were a common fundamental for cavalry tactics.  Such were employed from the smallest formations to the largest.  In order to maneuver in formation, a force of cavalry needed some relatively secure space to “form” and prepare.  The base force provided such.  And likewise once the maneuver force reached an objective – be that in the attack or withdrawal – it could set as a base to allow the other portion to maneuver.

The use of successive movements appears in modern military tactics in the form of bounding maneuvers, also conducted from the smallest to the largest formations.

I submit that if Davies or Buford (though some might question Kilpatrick…) were around today, they’d easily recognize the intent of a mechanized infantry or armored cavalry force using “bounding overwatch.”

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 48, Part I, Serial 48, pages 385-6.)

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