“The most important hand-to-hand contest” of the war on Fleetwood Hill: Shock action of cavalry at Brandy Station

In previous installments about cavalry tactics, we’ve looked at the use of the saber and revolver.  Observers such as Alonzo Gray specifically cited these weapons for use in “shock action”.  We might say that shock attacks, delivered with either the saber or, less often in Gray’s assessment, revolver, were the most important offensive component to the mounted arm.  One might use the carbine to skirmish or develop an enemy position.  But it was with saber and/or revolver in hand that the cavalry would deliver its weight against an enemy battle line.

As we’ve seen, the revolver had some advantages in close combat, but the saber remained the preferred weapon from the American perspective.  Discussing the shock action, Gray wrote:

It will be noticed that the saber was the only weapon used for shock action except when the ground was unfavorable, such as a close or wooded country.  Under such conditions the revolver was substituted for the saber.  To secure favorable and decisive results a cavalry commander must make a quick decision and quickly take the initiative.  A timid cavalry leader will usually fail where a bold one will succeed.  In many cases a bold and sudden attack will result in small losses, and boldness will take the place of numbers.

We can apply this sage wisdom to a large number of battlefields from the Civil War.  Of those many battles to consider, Gray offered numerous examples from the fields of Culpeper County… of which no small number occurred on Fleetwood Hill.

Gray returned to Major Henry B. McClellan and The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart (page 277) for one vignette, specifically an account from Captain James F. Hart, commanding Hart’s South Carolina Battery:

The battery I commanded moved abreast of Hampton’s column in its gallop toward this new foe; and as we came near Fleetwood Hill, its summit, as also the whole plateau east of the hill and beyond the railroad, was covered with Federal cavalry. Hampton, diverging towards his left, passed the eastern terminus of the ridge, and, crossing the railroad, struck the enemy in column just beyond it.  This charge was as gallantly made and gallantly met as any the writer ever witnessed during nearly four years of active service on the outposts. Taking into estimation the number of men that crossed sabres in this single charge (being nearly a brigade on each side), it was by far the most important hand-to-hand contest between the cavalry of the two armies.  As the blue and gray riders mixed in the smoke and dust of that eventful charge, minutes seemed to elapse before its effect was determined.  At last the intermixed and disorganized mass began to recede, and we saw that the field was won to the Confederates.

An excellent quote selection by McClellan and later by Gray to illustrate the nature of the fighting.  For those who are not familiar with the flow of battle at Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, the charge Hart described was part of the action to drive Brigadier-General David M. Gregg’s division off Fleetwood Hill.  Such was the crescendo of combat for the day.  And what we see here, in terms of shock action by cavalry, is a textbook case.  The charge hit the Federals on the hill and drove them off by close, hand-to-hand action.

McClellan prefaced his presentation of Hart’s words with some clarification, “I transcribe the following from Major J.F. Hart’s narrative, premising only that the charge which he so graphically describes was made… by the 1st North Carolina Cavalry, supported by the Jeff Davis Legion….”  However, that is not to say those two formations from Brigadier-General Wade Hampton’s brigade were the only ones involved with that “gallantly made” charge.  Gray also cites the report of Colonel Pierce M.B. Young, commanding Cobb’s Legion, also part of Hampton’s Brigade:

About 12 a.m. I received information through one of General Stuart’s aides, that his headquarters were in great danger of being captured by a large body of the enemy, which had gotten in the rear. I immediately moved up in the direction of General Stuart’s headquarters, when General Hampton ordered me to move forward at a gallop, and engage the enemy to his front and right. After moving about a mile at almost a full run, I began to ascend the hill upon which were General Stuart’s headquarters. The general sent me the second aide, saying that his headquarters were in possession of the enemy, and desired that I should clear the hill.

About this time a regiment of the enemy, which was supporting one of their batteries near General Stuart’s headquarters, swept down the hill, charging my front. I immediately ordered the charge in close columns of squadrons, and I swept the hill clear of the enemy, he being scattered and entirely routed. I do claim that this was the turning point of the day in this portion of the field, for in less than a minute’s time the battery would have been upon the hill, and I leave it to those whose province it is to judge to say what would have been the result had the battery gained its destination. We killed and captured 60 of the enemy, utterly routing him, with but little loss to ourselves. Among the captured were several commissioned officers, including the lieutenant-colonel.

Examining the nature of shock action of cavalry, we see another account describing the same charge.  Gray did note that Young’s account implied the use of Poinsett’s 1841 drill – close column of squadrons in the charge.

Of course, there is a Federal side to this also.  And they were likewise delivering their shock action to the Confederates on Fleetwood Hill.  Gregg reported:

The country about Brandy Station is open, and on the south side extensive level fields, particularly suitable for a cavalry engagement. Coming thus upon the enemy, and having at hand only the Third Division (total strength 2,400), I either had to decline the fight in the face of the enemy or throw upon him at once the entire division. Not doubting but that the Second Division was near, and delay not being admissible, I directed the commanders of my advance brigade to charge the enemy, formed in columns about Brandy House. The whole brigade charged with drawn sabers, fell upon the masses of the enemy, and, after a brief but severe contest, drove them back, killing and wounding many and taking a large number of prisoners. Other columns of the enemy coming up, charged this brigade before it could reform, and it was driven back. Seeing this, I ordered the First Brigade to charge the enemy upon the right. This brigade came forward gallantly through the open fields, dashed upon the enemy, drove him away, and occupied the hill. Now that my entire division was engaged, the fight was everywhere most fierce. Fresh columns of the enemy arriving upon the ground received the vigorous charges of my regiments, and, under the heavy blows of our sabers, were in every instance driven back.

We see from reading accounts from both sides of the line that on June 9, 1863 Fleetwood Hill witnessed some of the most important “shock action” charges of the war.  That’s not my hyperbole.  It is derived from the words of the men who were there, mind you.  Indeed, we should study the action on Fleetwood Hill with this importance in mind.

And how best to study that action?  From the very ground it was fought across.


And you and I can walk that ground and consider the actions… thanks to the successful acquisition of Fleetwood Hill by Civil War Trust and partners in 2013.  In fact, on next Monday, October 26, the Trust officially “cuts the ribbon” on Fleetwood Hill and will show off the new interpretive trail over that most historic topographic prominence.

(Citations from Alonzo Gray, Cavalry Tactics, as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Cavalry Association, 1910, pages 34-35;  Henry B. McClellan, The Life and Campaigns of Major General JEB Stuart, Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1885, pages 276-7; OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part I, Serial 43, page 950; and Part II, Serial 44, page 732.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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