Brandy Station, on 150th Anniversary Tour, Packs a Punch
Virginia’s Culpeper County has a lot of great history, but there’s one big chunk of it that draws visitors like bees to honey.
That’s the Battle of Brandy Station, which opened the Gettysburg Campaign, the best-known piece of the American Civil War. Fought on June 10, 1863, it was the largest cavalry battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. And it was front-page news; witness this two-page spread in the Harper’s Weekly of July 4, 1863, by battlefield artist Alfred R. Waud.
The lithograph the New York engravers created from Waud’s field sketch shows five companies of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry that Union Gen. John Buford–who later saved the Army of the Potomac’s bacon on the first day at Gettysburg–to charge the Confederate horse artillery at St. James Church. The Pennsylvanians dashed at the guns; lost their commander, Maj. Robert Morris Jr., to enemy fire midway across the broad field; but reached the barrels of the cannon before being forced back.
Most of the Yankees slain during that fierce combat were later buried where they fell by the Confederates, as Gen. J.E.B. Stuart noted.
That one fact, repeated in spots again and again across this sprawling battlefield, made it a particularly haunting place to roam this past weekend–the 150th anniversary of its incredible fighting.
After a couple of hours, we wound up at the vantage point near the site of St. James Church that Waud depicted. Troopers of the Valley Light Horse, a crack Confederate re-enactment unit, demonstrated cavalry tactics–including this drawn-saber charge. The horses’ thundering hooves and the pell-mell pace of the attack made one’s mind reel, imagining what the full-scale fight must have been like.
Earlier, the 8-hour tour–which drew some 170 people from all over–had begun in earnest on the rise that Hall calls Buford’s Knoll. There, the Southern-born Yankee cavalryman directed dismounted attacks against a steam-bottom stone wall held by troopers of Brig. Gen. William H. F. “Rooney” Lee, second son of Army of Northern Virginia commander Robert E. Lee. That morning, Buford and his men fought alone for nearly six hours, taking heavy losses.
“The sheer intensity of this vicious explosion stunned the cavaliers on both sides,” one blogger writes.
Hall and Wittenberg set the scene, orienting their guests to the southeastern portion of the battlefield. From the knoll, although postwar tree growth obscures part of the view, one can still see for miles.
And when Hall described how this land nearly became, first, a California developer’s massive subdivision, and then, the bleacher area and concession stand for a Formula One racetrack, those events of the 1980s and 1990s held your attention. Nearly 10 years of combat in the halls of government, the courts and the press eventually sent the out-of-state developers packing. “Now, you own it,” Hall stressesd, looking around at his audience. “Come back–and bring your family–for a picnic here.”
Equally riveting was Hall’s telling of how, one day, Hollywood star Sam Elliott got in character to play Buford in the movie “Gettysburg” by visiting the knoll on “John Buford’s great battlefield” with the historian and soaking up the feel of the place and an extraordinary moment in American history.
As the group snaked on foot and by car caravan across the battlefield, one began to sense the enormity of Brandy Station’s nearly pristine, historic landscape. It is the size of the Gettysburg battlefield, and has that feeling of scale and gravitas, but without its heavy-handed monumentation. Here, given a few quiet moments for reflection, the history feels like it happened almost yesterday.
For Lee, Brandy Station was a hold-your-breath moment.
Two-thirds of his army was camped in and around Culpeper, ready to start marching north. If Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker figured that out, Lee’s carefully crafted plan to take the war to the enemy would be stillborn.
But Hooker didn’t realize what was in front of him until Lee was long gone.
Moving across this sweeping terrain, the sesquicentennial tour’s car caravan stretched well more than a mile long, yet it didn’t overwhelm the place. The land has the scale, and sometimes the grandeur, of the countryside closer to the Blue Ridge around Sperryville–minus the mountains.
It was the sort of a day that yielded various favorite sights and moments for each participant. But after a quick picnic lunch near the site of St. James Church, it was hard to beat the sights and sounds provided by the precise maneuvers–mounted and unmounted–of the Valley Light Horse re-enactors.
Though pressed for time, these men helped everyone get a much better grip on the life and mission of a trooper–and how cavalry tactics changed–especially for the Northerners–over the course of the war.
Brandy Station, notably, is where J.E.B. Stuart’s legendary knights of the saddle met their match for the first time. Their leader was caught by surprise, and his men scrambled–some in their night clothes–to fend off the bluecoats who splashed across the Rappahannock River, intent on bagging Stuart at Culpeper Courthouse.
It helped Stuart enormously that Union intelligence was off by miles. Gen. Joseph Hooker thought Stuart was miles from the river, not within sight of the Yankees’ predawn push across the river.
“Both sides suffered significant casualties in a battle that had lasted 13 long hours,” historian Wittenberg writes. “The Yankee troopers had given as well as they had gotten, and if the Confederates needed proof that the tide had turned, Brandy Station amply provided the evidence.”
The tour’s pinnacle came at the base of Fleetwood Hill, for which Confederates named the fight (the Battle of Fleetwood to Southerners, the Battle of Brandy Station to Northerners). Beside Herring Run, a stream where field surgeons treated the wounded, Hall welcomed the group to another spot never seen on a public tour. In the distance, he pointed out the southern end of Fleetwood’s two-and-a-half-mile-long ridge, and the big modern house that sits atop the site where Stuart pitched his tent fly.
Fleetwood, the battlefield’s strategic heart, is the missing piece of the acreage that preservationists–local, state and national–have woven together over the years. Now, the Civil War Trust is furiously raising money to buy the hilltop over which the fighting raged back and forth.
The nonprofit group has only until Aug. 7 to secure enough donations to close the deal, Hall explained. Right on the spot, people–including J.E.B. Stuart IV–quietly dug in their wallets to help that happen.
In the end, the Confederates held onto their ground. The battle delayed Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North by a day. And some historians argue that his near defeat at Brandy Station so shamed Stuart that he went out of his way to get in front of Lee’s infantry, accidentally denying Lee the screening and intelligence he needed once the army reached Gettysburg.
“The battle would eventually involve some 20,000 cavalrymen, 3,000 infantrymen, and several hundred horse artillerymen, centered on Stuart’s headquarters on Fleetwood Hill,” cavalry historian J.D. Pettruzzi writes of Brandy Station:. “Mounted cavalry charges during the 14 solid hours of bloodletting left veteran artillerymen watching with their mouths agape. One of Buford’s troopers called the day ‘a race for life.’ ”
Our day on the battlefield ended far more pleasantly, thanks to the hospitality of Dr. John Covington and his kin. They welcomed the stalwart survivors of the day’s tour to Rose Hill, an unaltered antebellum home near Stevensburg that’s been in their family for generations.
Now a game reserve for hunters, the estate served as the headquarters of Union general Hugh Judson Kilpatrick‘s 3rd Cavalry Division. Five regiments of Kilpatrick’s Yankees camped on its grounds over the winter of 1863-64.
Rose Hill, Rooney Lee’s Knoll, St. James Church, Buford’s Knoll: Each spot has an amazing Civil War story–or three. And they’re just a few of the places on Culpeper’s Brandy Station battlefield, miraculously unchanged from the days of Stuart, Lee and Buford, where people can get better acquainted with the past–which, as William Faulkner noted–isn’t so distant after all.