Union Colonel Benjamin
“Grimes” Davis was shot
near here.

Part 1

The Battle of Brandy Station — the largest cavalry battle ever fought on the North American continent — took place on June 9, 1863. Of the 20,000 soldiers involved, about 17,000 were mounted. Brandy Station is also the first battle of the Civil War’s most famous campaign – Gettysburg.

Can you imgaine 17,000 horses and riders in one place? I can’t, but I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the day on Saturday riding the vast Civil War battlefield, thanks to a special event sponsored by the Mosby Heritage Area Association and narrated by Brandy Station expert Clark “Bud” Hall. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

I took a good many pictures during the ride, but I was so excited about the day and was so surprised when it was over, that I didn’t realize until the drive home that I had never taken a picture of my wonderful horse, Brooks. He was a retired California police horse, and a real pleasure to ride.

The Battle of Brandy Station

The Confederates had planned for June 9, 1863, to be a day of maneuver rather than battle. Two of their three infantry corps were near Culpeper (about six miles from Brandy Station), ready to start the move to Pennsylvania. Major General J.E.B. Stuart was at Brandy Station to screen this movement with his 9,5000-man cavalry division.

The Federals knew that Confederate cavalry was around Culpeper, but its intelligence had not gathered information of the sizeable infantry force that was there. Knowing the reputation of Stuart, Union commander Major General Joseph Hooker interpreted his presence around Culpeper to indicate a probable raid of the Union army’s supply lines. He ordered his Cavalry Corps commander, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, to “break up Stuart’s raid in its incipiency.”

The Confederates, on the other hand, were completely oblivious to the Federal presence. They had held a grand review for General Robert E. Lee just two miles from Brandy Station on June 8, having no intelligence of the 8,000 Federal cavalryman and 3,000 infantryman closing in on them.

Pausing near the site where
the pickets were surprised.

About 4:30 a.m. on June 9th, Brigadier General John Buford’s column of 5,500 soldiers splashed across the fog-shrouded Rappahannock River surprising the Confederate pickets at Beverly’s Ford. Nearby Southern horsemen from Brigadier General William “Grumble” Jones’ brigade, awakened by the sound of gunfire, rode into the fray partially dressed and often riding bareback. They struck Buford’s leading brigade, commanded by Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis, near a bend in the Beverly’s Ford Road and temporarily checked its progress. Davis was killed in the fight.

Davis’ brigade had been stopped just short of where the Confederate Horse Artillery was camped and was vulnerable to capture. Cannoneers swung one or two guns into position and fired down the road at Buford’s men, enabling the other pieces to escape and establish the foundation for the subsequent Confederate line. The artillery unlimbered at the Gee House and at St. James Church — structures located on two knolls on either side of the Beverly’s Ford Road.

Heavy and savage
fighting took place
in these woods.

One of the eeriest parts of the ride for me was riding through the woodlot between the St. James Plateau and the Cunningham farm. This was the scene of some of the most savage fighting, and you could just feel it. There was only the slightest hint of a trail, and as you can see to the left, we had to ride single file. There were limbs to step over, boggy spots and rocky areas. It was also fairly dense, so it was much darker within the canopy of the trees, which made it appear even more gloomy.

According to our guide “Bud” Hall, who is a founder of the Brandy Station Foundation, it has been a long and hard fight to save this battlefield. It was first purchased by a developer who wanted to build a business park there. When that was defeated, it was purchased by another developer determined to build a Formula 1 racetrack on those beautiful rolling hills.

In fact, here is a photo (left) of the site where both the racetrack and the business park were planned. Called Buford’s Knoll for the commanding officer, it looks down toward a stonewall where Confederate troops were firing upon Union cavalry charging down the hill.

Thanks to the efforts of the Brandy Station Foundation and the Civil War Trust, the land is now preserved for future generations.

For those wondering how the battle ended, J.E.B. Stuart was able to retain the field after 14 hours of fighting, but the Union cavalry gained confidence, essentially eliminating the overwhelming superiority the Confederate cavalry had enjoyed. Union losses numbered 866 and Confederate casualties were reported at 575. About 1,500 horses were killed.

As if a day of horseback riding on historic ground was not enough, the event included lunch at Farley, a plantation house built in the 1790s. Part 2 of this blog post will cover that part of the day, which was equally as fantastic as the ride.

Jessica James

 

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