by Andy Mateja

It began as a grand review of JEB Stuart’s vaunted cavalry brigades before the eyes of the top brass of the Army of Northern Virginia. The main guest of honor was Gen Robert E Lee, fresh off his spectacular victory over superior Union forces at Chancellorsville. Lee was about to commence has latest foray into Union territory and Stuart, extremely confident in the superiority of his cavalry over their Union counterparts, wants to proudly display his 10,000 man lightning force before his beloved leader.

The event was impressive to all who attended. However Lee had definite plans for Stuart’s cavalry the next day. They would be screening the advance movement of Longstreet’s I Corps and Ewell’s II Corps northward along the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley.

Union commander Gen Joseph Hooker learned of the Confederate cavalry grand review in the Culpepper area. Unlike his erroneous decision to detach his cavalry from the main army and lose their strategic value during the Chancellorsville campaign, Hooker wanted to make sure this time he used his cavalry to their fullest capacity. He also wanted to make sure Lee’s army was still camped near Fredericksburg and was surprised to find out that some of the camps had been vacated and that the Confederate cavalry was now concentrated near Brandy Station – six miles to the northwest.
Anticipating a cavalry raid by Stuart, Hooker seized the initiative and ordered his cavalry to undertake a raid of their own. He had recently ordered a reorganization of his cavalry which was about to prove to be a fortuitous decision. The Union cavalry would demonstrate once and for all that they were more than mere scouts, escorts and pickets.
In accordance with Lee’s plan to invade Pennsylvania and move the conflict from Virginia, Longstreet’s and Ewell’s corps had already begun their northward movement while AP Hill’s III Corps remained behind to hold Hooker’s attention. Stuart’s massive cavalry corps was to move on June 9th and screen Longstreet’s and Ewell’s advance. Stuart was to move his cavalry across Beverly Ford which coincidentally was the Union cavalry’s objective as well.
Hooker ordered his cavalry commander, Gen Alfred Pleasonton, to advance against Stuart’s cavalry….wrongly believing there was NO Confederate infantry nearby. The Union cavalry crossed the Rappahannock at both Beverly and Kelly’s Fords, with the goal of converging on Brandy Station with 11,000 men to confront Stuarts 10,000 cavalrymen.

The initial Union attack at Beverly’s Ford caught the small Confederate force guarding the crossing by surprise and exposed four horse artillery batteries to imminent capture. The battery commanders quickly manned the guns they could and, with the assistance of a couple of cavalry brigades immediately dispatched by JEB Stuart, were able to slow down the Union cavalry advance. Stuart dispatched a couple more brigades to protect Kelly’s Ford as well. John Buford, in command of the initial Union attack, was determined to reach his Brandy Station convergence objective. He spread his forces out and ordered an all-out charge against the Confederate cavalry and horse artillery positions. The attack was blunted, mostly due to the concentrated Confederate artillery fire on the determined Union cavaliers.

Buford now realizing a frontal assault would not work took most of his command and a several nearby infantry regiments northward to attempt a flanking maneuver. Gen Lee’s son “Rooney”, in command of one of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry brigades, anticipated Buford’s movement and developed a strong defensive position in front of Buford on Yew Ridge. Initially Buford’s attack had been effectively repulsed. Suddenly however, Rooney Lee’s forces began to retreat when he learned other Confederate brigades on his right were also rapidly withdrawing. JEB Stuart, finally realizing the Union cavalry was about to attack his headquarters position on Fleetwood Hill, pulled his brigades back and had them converge on the higher ground at the northern edge on Fleetwood Hill.
Buford in the meantime was finally able to connect with the other Union cavalry forces order to converge at Brandy Station, albeit hours later than anticipated. Unexpected Confederate cavalry forces had block the roads the Union forces were supposed to use for their convergence.

As the Union forces began their new attack on Fleetwood Hill, a “weak” spot in Stuart’s line was barely defended by his adjutant, Major HB McClellan with a lone cannon. McClellan personally brought up a force of Confederate cavalry from the other side of Fleetwood Hill to fill the “weak” spot and counter-charge the Union forces.
The cavalry fighting on Fleetwood Hill quickly escalated to four brigades, with deadly sabre slashes and thrusts amongst thousands on men on horseback. Hundreds went down with ghastly wounds and gashes in the largest cavalry fight ever waged in North America.

The next wave of Union attacks was flanked by newly arrived Confederate cavalry troopers from Wade Hampton’s brigade. These hard fighting South Carolinians effectively pushed the Union attackers back while incurring heavy losses. Despite being pushed off Fleetwood Hill by Stuart’s troopers, the Union cavalry did not follow their usual procedure of retreating after the battle. Stuart however wanted to defeat them once again and regrouped his forces on Fleetwood Hill while ordering his horse artillery to fire at the Union forces before he launched his counterattack.
After nearly fourteen hours of continuous fighting, Stuart’s counterattack struck the remaining Union forces after they had already started their slow withdrawal . The epic cavalry battle was finally over with both sides claimed victory – Southerners because they retained control of the field and Northerners because they stood up to the Confederate cavalry and did not retreat from the battlefield. Of the nearly 20,000 troops engaged in the fighting, Stuart lost 585 while Pleasonton lost 866.

The results of this battle probably had a greater effect on JEB Stuart. His cavalry was at their peak, both in manpower and material. Despite all this however, the Northern cavalry came close to scoring their FIRST victory over the Southern counterparts. This did not sit well with JEB Stuart who was keenly aware that this would no doubt impact his reputation within Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Even though, despite the fierce fighting, he accomplished his mission of screening the movement of Longstreet and Ewell’s infantry corps, Stuart felt he needed to offset this embarrassment with a bold and spectacular endeavor. He had performed two successful “rides” around the Union army in the past which brought him great accolades. He felt he needed another “spectacular ride” to restore morale with his troopers and redeem his reputation with the army and the Southern people. That opportunity was given to him less than two weeks later, with results far different from his previous excursions.

It would also have a marked effect on the monumental struggle about to take place in a little Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg …………

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