James Ewell Brown, or Jeb Stuart was, along with Nathan Bedford Forrest the most renowned Cavalry Commander of the American Civil War. He was brave, audacious, flamboyant, and with his long flowing beard, red-lined grey cape, slouch hat with ostrich feather attached, and love of cologne he knew how to cut a dash and get himself noticed; but there was nothing superficial about his reputation as a formidable Cavalryman that was built on solid foundations in campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, in Maryland, and in the Battles of the Peninsula where as
the eyes and ears of General Robert E Lee’s all conquering Army of Northern Virginia he had humiliated his opponents in the Army of the Potomac time and time again.
He was the man upon whom Lee had become dependent for intelligence gathering and knowledge of the enemies dispositions and was an integral part of the Army’s unparalleled success against superior odds and it seemed to his opponents that he was invincible but all this was to change at the little known junction of Brandy Station in Virginia on 9 June, 1863.
Following General Robert E Lee’s crushing victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, his army had been foraging for food and provisions in preparation for his planned invasion of the North, a campaign intended to relieve the pressure on General John C Pemberton’s forces besieged at Vicksburg on the Mississippi.
Stuart’s role would as usual be to gather intelligence, screen Lee’s army from attack and harass the enemy.
But with the Union Army still licking its wounds following Chancellorsville there was little fighting to be done so Stuart first requested a full-review of his troops. He believed that his men deserved some recognition and it would certainly do little harm to his reputation as the dashing cavalier.
The Review was granted and took place on 5 June, a grand and impressive spectacle which included a full battle simulation but alas General Lee had not been there to witness it and so Stuart demanded it be done again. Lee reluctantly agreed and three days later on 8 June there was a repeat performance but this time it would just be a simple march pass with battle flags flying and salutes taken but even so many Officers and those among the rank-and-file thought perhaps the mercurial Stuart was getting a little above himself – that he was perhaps taking his eye off the ball. Events of the following day were to confirm many of them in their view.
Exhausted from their parade ground antics Stuart was ordered to bivouac his men at Brandy Station, a quiet backwater not expected to be a place of conflict but his presence in the area had come to the attention of the Union Commander “Fighting” Joe Hooker, who just a month earlier had lost his nerve at Chancellorsville with almost catastrophic results for the Union cause. Fearing yet another of Stuart’s increasingly demoralising attacks upon his supply lines he ordered the Union Cavalry under General Alfred E Pleasonton to engage ad disperse them, if he could.
It was an order given more out of hope than expectation as up to this point the Union Cavalry had been defeated and humiliated so many times by Stuart and other Confederate Cavalry Commanders such as John Hunt Morgan, John Stapleton Mosby, and Nathan Bedford Forrest that they were thought little better than a joke.
Jeb Stuart’s force numbered around 9,500 men split into five Brigades commanded by Wade Hampton, William Jones, Beverly Robertson, and Robert E Lee’s son, Rooney. The final Brigade was normally led by Lee’s other son, Fitzhugh, but he had been struck down with rheumatism and his command had had been given to Thomas T Munford.
General Pleasonton, who had more than 11,000 men at his disposal including artillery and a Brigade of infantry split between Brigadier-Generals John Buford and David McMurtrie Gregg, planned a two-pronged assault on Stuart’s position with Buford attacking from the north and Gregg from the south catching the Confederates not only unawares but in a pincer movement that would see them surrounded, overwhelmed, and destroyed.
Despite believing, wrongly, that he had superiority in numbers that would prove decisive Pleasonton remained cautious, the recent past was not easily forgotten and he was making this attack under duress – a sense of uncertainty prevailed in the Union camp.
At 04.30 in a swirling mist, unusual for that time of year, Buford moved his troopers across the Rappahannock River easily avoiding the Confederate pickets and attacked the encampment of William Jones who was taken completely by surprise.
Cavalrymen in battle would often dismount and fight as infantry but there had been no time to organise any defence and in the confusion his men many only partially dressed mounted their horses and simply charged at the enemy with sabres drawn firing their pistols as they rode.
Despite the ferocity of the Confederate response Jones barely prevented Benjamin F Davis’s 6th Pennsylvanian from capturing Stuart’s six batteries of artillery which were hastily withdrawn before being redeployed to fire upon the enemy. Davis was killed in the attack which continued to be bravely pressed home by Major Robert Morris until finally after a great many casualties they were forced to withdraw.
Buford, despite having the element of surprise on his side had been unable to dislodge the Confederates and it seemed yet again that Union cavalry had been bested in combat despite the odds being in their favour when amid frantic activity they began to withdraw, General Gregg’s men had arrived on the field and to everyone’s astonishment the great cavalier Jeb Stuart, had been humbugged for the second time.
Gregg attacking from the East up Fleetwood Hill had Stuart who appeared on the verge of a catastrophic defeat almost surrounded and only a fierce counter-attack by Rooney Lee’s Brigade stalled Gregg’s advance but even so the situation remained perilous. Lee had also been seriously wounded and taken from the field many feared for his life.
The situation remained desperate when Pleasonton, seeing Gregg’s stalled advance as a setback and lacking the confidence to press home his advantage decided to withdraw his troops back across the Rappahannock.
After many hours of intense fighting, of attack and counter-attack, much of it on horseback and hand-to-hand, the Battle of Brandy Station was over. It was the greatest single cavalry engagement of the war during which the Union Cavalry suffered 907 casualties, the Confederates 523.
Jeb Stuart was quick to declare it a decisive victory for he and his men. After all, he had held the field, inflicted twice as many casualties, and the Union Cavalry had failed to discover General Lee’s Army encamped just a few miles away at Culpepper. In all of these assertions he was correct but it was not perceived that way.
The simple fact was that he had been taken totally unawares, not once but twice, and in allowing his force to be surrounded and come to within a hairsbreadth of destruction made his boasts of victory seem not just hollow but almost deluded. He was heavily criticised in the Southern press and there were murmurings within the army that his ego was out of control and that this was affecting his competence.
Some among his fellow Officers said they had long seen it coming and further failings particularly at the Battle of Gettysburg appeared to emphasise the point but he always maintained the confidence of General Lee and when Jeb Stuart died just under a year later on 12 May, 1864, from wounds inflicted at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Lee remarked that he could barely keep from weeping at the mention of his name.
Though General Pleasonton was also heavily criticised for seeming to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory the Battle of Brandy Station had shown for the first time that Union Cavalry could compete with their Southern counterparts on the field of battle – the aura of Southern invincibility in the saddle had been dispelled forever.