Catches the Devil at Brandy Station
By Pat Higgins
On June 9, 1863 the First Maine Cavalry participated in the Battle of Brandy Station, the first battle in the Gettysburg campaign. It was a quite notable battle for two other reasons. First, it was the largest cavalry battle ever fought on American soil with 17,000 mounted participants gloriously charging their foe with drawn sabers. Second, it was the time and place that proved that the Union cavalry could be a competent and effective force. Although Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart managed to hold the field, it was clear that his overwhelming (and dashing) superiority was waning under the growing confidence of the Union mounted forces.
Stuart was a debonair man who loved the ladies and all the entertainments of fine society. He played the part of a cavalier right down to the nodding plume of his hat, but the North soon discovered that he was a brazen and capable leader. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston described him as "Calm, firm, acute, active and enterprising". He led from in front, never from the rear. Early in the war, Stuart saw cavalry could be most effective if it was consolidated into a single fighting force instead of being parceled out in small groups (as in the Federal model) to various infantry forces. He called it being "frittered away". Stuart soon commanded a cavalry division of five brigades plus artillery which he used effectively to worry the Union forces and to gather information for Lee. Perhaps his most daring exploit was to ride completely around McClellan's army in June of 1862. This well publicized event greatly increased the notoriety of the Confederate cavalry and inflated the already huge ego of its general. Stuart was a vain glorious leader of a cocky fighting force best epitomized by the chorus of their personal battle song:
If you want to smell hell
If you want to have fun
If you want to catch the devil
Jine the cavalry
Verses were added for each glorious encounter and frequently poked fun at the enemy. By comparison, the Federal horsemen were a sluggish and hapless bunch; they didn't stand a chance against real cavalrymen.
The boys from the 1st Maine were starting out just a tad behind Stuart's dashing and cavalier force, most of whom had the advantage of being born into a society where horsemanship was a natural and a highly prized skill. When the Maine regiment formed up in Augusta in the fall of 1861, some of the boys had never ridden, and many of their horses had not been "rode on the back" either. The learning curve was long and painful. "There was," according to Edward Tobie, a recruit from Lewiston, "kicking and rearing, and running and jumping, and lying down and falling down, on the part of the horses, and swearing and yelling, and getting thrown and being kicked, and getting hurt and sore in various ways, by the men." It must have been comical to watch but painfully humiliating to endure.
Perhaps one of the most telling stories to point out just how foreign all this horse soldiering was to the Mainers is this one about Company K. George Prince, the company captain, was not just a cavalry captain, he was a sea captain first and foremost. Not only that, many of his men were sailors as well. Clearly, their skills and experience lay elsewhere. It became painfully obvious that they were 'sailors on horseback' when Governor Washburn reviewed the troops that winter in Augusta. Trooper Joe Gatchell found himself crowded out of line and was unable to make his horse return to its position. Mortified, Captain Prince forgot himself and called out in a quarterdeck voice, "Come up there! What in hell are you falling a stern for?" Quick to answer, Gatchell retorted, "Why, captain, I can't get the damned thing in stays!" To which Prince replied, "Well, give her more headway, then!"
It was a frustrating time, but by Spring, ready or not, the First Maine shipped out for Washington, DC. Unlike the Confederate cavalry, they were soon broken up into smaller forces and did not see service as a united regiment until their fourth battle, Second Bull Run, in August. In fact, the 1st Maine was so often fragmented for small duties that the men commonly remarked, "Whose kite are we going to be tail to next?" Between May 1862 and the following May, the First Maine Cavalry recorded eight battles on their battle flag but, until Brandy Station, they never participated in an all-out, sabers drawn cavalry charge. At Brandy Station, the First proved themselves to be shipshape and ready for action.
Lee Marches North:
In May 1863 General Robert E. Lee won what might possibly be his greatest victory, the Battle of Chancellorsville. General Joseph Hooker's Federal forces of 100,000 were out flanked by Stonewall Jackson with 28,000 in the Virginia Wilderness and held at bay by Lee with 15,000 near Fredericksburg. It was a humiliating disaster for the Union who lost 17,275. The South lost 12,821; one of whom was the incomparable Stonewall Jackson.
By the beginning of June 1863 it was apparent that Lee was on the move. He planned a daring invasion of the north capitalizing on his recent victory while, at the same time, hoping to provide a blow that just might win the war. Lee divided his army into three forces and skillfully maneuvered them. A.P. Hill remained anchored at Fredericksburg to keep Hooker busy, while Longstreet and Ewell leapfrogged their corps up the Rappahannock towards the Shenandoah Valley. J.E.B. Stuart's 9,500 man cavalry was stationed in the Culpepper Courthouse - Brandy Station area to screen Lee's troop movements.
Hooker was desperate to know where Lee was and what his plans were. Quite possibly, Lee intended to go no further than an attack on Hooker's right flank, or perhaps he was attempting to position himself between the Army of the Potomac and Washington. However, Southern newspapers and Union intelligence strongly indicated an attack on the North. As June progressed, it became evident that Lee was making just such a foray. How and where were in question. As a counter, now that Lee was moving out of the way, Hooker proposed a run on Richmond but, after the Chancellorsville debacle, he had little credibility in Washington. The Army of the Potomac was ordered to chase Lee down.
Hooker had to stay between Lee and Washington. At the same time, he needed to deflect Lee's advance onto Northern soil. To do so, he required constant information about Lee's position and movements. He had no idea where the bulk of Lee's army was moving behind Stuart's screen. He sent out General Alfred Pleasonton's US Cavalry to reconnoiter. It was a movement in force that included not only Pleasonton's cavalry but also Buford and Gregg's divisions for a total of 8,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry. Buford was sent to cross the river at Beverly Ford, and Gregg went to Kelly's Ford. A third smaller force of 1200 led by Col. Alfred Duffie also crossed at Kelly's Ford. The interconnecting road system around Culpepper provided a perfect system for moving large numbers of troops rapidly down several avenues to the same locations. After crossing, the two larger forces were to meet up at Brandy Station where Buford would launch a frontal attack on the enemy and Gregg would charge the rebel rear - a classic pincher movement. Duffie was to proceed to Stevensburg and then rejoin Gregg before the attack. Federal intelligence indicated that their cavalry would contact Stuart somewhere close to Culpepper Courthouse. They had no idea that Stuart was camped so close to the fords.
June 8, 1863:
Stuart was too busy to pay much attention to Federal movements on the 8th. He was totally engrossed in a review of his troops by Robert E. Lee. It was the second such pageant he had organized in two weeks, and Stuart loved a show! The first review of the troops was held on May 22nd before train loads of imported and local dignitaries and pretty ladies. Chief of Staff Major Henry McClellan wrote of the performance, "8,000 cavalry passed under the eye of their commander... first at a walk and then at a charge ... It was a brilliant day, and the thirst for the 'pomp and circumstance' of war was fully satisfied." Artillery fired from a nearby hill almost lending an allusion of battle to the pageant. Stuart, in a new uniform with a black ostrich plume in his hat, was the personification of gallantry. The day ended in a grand ball and was only spoiled by the fact that General Lee was busy elsewhere and did not attend.
On the 8th of June, Stuart's troops held another grand review, this time in front of Robert E. Lee. This review was all business but very impressive none the less. Stuart lined his mounted troops up by squadrons behind a long straight furrow for Lee to ride by in review. Then the troops passed before Lee and Stuart at a walk and a full gallop before returning to their position at the furrow line. The whole took several hours from start to finish and was exhausting to both man and horse. In fact, the potentially distasterous waste of time and energy required to stage these reviews did not go unnoticed. Stuart took a licking from some of his officers and even from a Culpepper lady who disparaged Stuart's conduct in the press as "perfectly ridiculous, having repeated reviews for the benefit of his lady friends". No sooner was the review over than the men began packing up camp for an early departure on the 9th to guard the advance of the Army of Northern Virginia. Surely the whole force, officers and enlisted men, could have used a good night's sleep.
Meanwhile, Hooker issued orders to Pleasonton: "cross the Rappahannock at Beverly and Kelly's fords , and march directly on Culpepper. For this, you will divide your cavalry force as you think proper, to carry into execution the object in view, which is to disperse and destroy the rebel cavalry force assembled in the vicinity of Culpepper, and to destroy his trains and supplies of all description to the utmost of your ability." Pleasonton dispatched his troops to the fords and set the operation into action.
The First Maine, part of Judson Kilpatrick's brigade, Gregg’s division, set out for Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock. They could see great clouds of dust across the river thrown up by Lee’s army. The famous Virginia mud had turned into a different problem. The cavalry moved as quietly as possible; they felt that J.E.B. Stuart's celebrated rebel cavalry must be patrolling on the opposite bank. Fires were not allowed when the regiment halted near the ford. The Maine boys caught a few hours sleep while holding onto their horses bridles. Everyone expected a hot time the next day.
The Battle of Brandy Station:
At dawn Buford crossed at Beverly Ford and immediately ran into Confederate pickets. The sound of firing awoke Brig. General William "Grumble" Jones' brigade who rode into the fray half dressed and often bareback. Buford's advance was tripped up by Jones and and some artillery blocking the Brandy Station Road. Buford then tried to turn the Confederate left at Yew Hill in the face of heavy opposition. He was able to drive the Confederates back just beyond St. James Church. Then the Confederates began pulling their forces together in front of Fleetwood Hill and mounting a reasonable defense. Numerous, piece meal charges took place across the field. Despite the initial advantage of the element of total surprise, the Federal forces were in danger of loosing the battle. Bad timing! Buford hunkered down and waited for Gregg who should already have been attacking from the south.
Gregg was running late largely due to Duffie's ineptitude, failing to make the rendezvous on time. It was nearly 8 o'clock when Gregg's brigade made the short march to the ford with the First Maine bringing up the rear. A fog rising from the river masked troop movements. By the time the Maine boys took their turn, the sound of artillery could be heard upstream. The cavalry set off at a gallop in the direction of firing with the dust so thick that the blue of their uniforms was soon covered. Gregg was delayed a second time when he took a longer road to Brandy Station perhaps by mistake or perhaps in order to avoid rebel troops rushing to Kelly’s Ford. This cost him another hour. (Duffie continued on towards Stevensburg, deliberately away from the noise of battle, where he was held at bay by a mere two regiments of the enemy. His reputation never recovered, and he was soon removed from command.)
Upon Gregg's arrival to the south of the battlefield, the Southern forces began to withdraw from Buford's front to face this new force. Gregg's second brigade under Percy Wyndham attacked at Stuart's rear and almost took his headquarters on Fleetwood Hill. Stuart, still with a superior force, was just able to drive Wyndham back with three brigades in hot pursuit. Just then Gregg's second brigade under Kirkpatrick arrived sending in the Harris Light and the 10th New York to assist Wyndham's retreating forces. They were soon engaged in fierce hand to hand combat.
Finally arriving on the scene, the First Maine stopped briefly to tighten their saddle girths and ready their weapons before leaving the cover of woods. Upon remounting, the regiment immediately broke out into open ground and formed up by squadrons on the fly. General Judson Kilpatrick approached and had a short conversation with regimental commander Calvin S. Douty, a sheriff from Piscataquis County. Kilpatrick asked, "Colonel Douty, what can you do with your regiment?" Douty responded quickly, "I can drive the Rebels." And so, the First sailed into action.
A Scene of the Grandest Description
Few battle descriptions can match Edward Tobie's enthusiastic account of what happened next: "And now opened before them, and of which they were a part, a scene of the grandest description. They were nearly at the right of a large open field of undulating ground, with woods at their right. At the left, as far as the eye could reach, were to be seen bodies of Union cavalry advancing with quick movements toward the enemy's cavalry, who were also in plain sight, and apparently quite active. ... A little to the right of the front, near a house surrounded by extensive shrubbery (known as the Barber House where General Stuart had his headquarters) was a rebel battery, which turned its attention on this regiment as it emerged from the woods. The whole scene was one vast field of intense, earnest action. It was a scene to be witnessed but once in a lifetime, and one well worth the risk of battle to witness. But the boys could not stop to enjoy this grand moving panorama of war. On they went, amid a perfect tangle of sights and sounds, filled with such rare, whole-souled excitement as seldom falls to the lot of man to experience; and thoughts of danger were for a time furthest from their minds . Even the horses seemed to enter into the spirit of the occasion, and strained every nerve to do their full duty in the day's strange deeds, obeying the least motion of the rein or spur with unusual promptness, as if feeling the superiority of their riders in this terrible commotion."
(And now Tobie really gets into it, changing from past to present tense, the reader can almost witness the scene as the troop historian relives the charge.)
"A railroad cut breaks the formation somewhat, and for a moment checks the advance; but that is soon crossed and the regiment soon re-forms with no loss of time, and is again on the charge. Nearly in front is the Harris Light Cavalry, charging upon the battery, while swooping down upon them is a rebel force, coming across the field from the woods in a diagonal direction. For a moment the result is in doubt, and then the Harris Light breaks, and the men scatter and flee. The force that drove them keeps on its way, now coming directly for the First Maine. The First Maine falters not, but keeps on its course. A shell from the battery on the right comes screaming with a harsh voice along the line, apparently directly over the heads of the men, and seemingly so near as to make it impossible, almost, for the left of the regiment to escape its effects, and bursts a quarter of a mile away. Some of the men cannot help dodging a bit as it goes by, and others try to laugh at them, but make poor work of it, as they thoroughly appreciate the feeling which prompts such an movement. This is followed by another and another in quick succession. On they go. And see! the rebel force that a moment before has driven the Harris Light now breaks and is in full retreat, and the charge has turned to a chase. Now goes up a cheer and a yell that must startle the very stones, as the excited boys ride over them. One defiant rebel, scorning to run from the "cowardly Yankees", remains firm at his position as the regiment reaches him, turning neither to right nor to left, breaking through the ranks of two companies in their headlong speed, and nearly escaping recognition and capture in the excitement. At one time two rebel troopers are riding along in the ranks of the First Maine, as cooly as though they belonged there; and no one who sees them thinks of capturing them. On goes the regiment, driving the enemy from the battery, and passing by the lonely and now quiet guns that a moment before were so loudly talking. On they go, faster and faster, if that were possible, over fences and ditches, driving the enemy a mile or more. Oh, it was grand! and many a man who was in that charge has at times fancied that if he were allowed to choose, he would say, "Let me bid the world good-by amid the supreme excitement of a grand, exultant, successful cavalry charge like this!"
The First cut the enemy forces in two, captured two pieces of artillery, a rebel staff officer, a battle flag, and Stuart's private papers and wound up on the far side of Stuart's Barbour House headquarters (Stuart was elsewhere) on top of Fleetwood Hill. Grand, exultant and successful it might have been, but it soon became apparent that the First had gone a bit too far. They were actually behind enemy lines with the enemy filling in the breech between them and safety. The enemy artillerymen had merely stepped off into the trees as the First Maine charged through. The galloping Mainers thought, if they thought about it at all, that the rest of their brigade would move in behind them to man the captured position. They apparently had no idea that they were alone out in front of the Union lines. Now the Confederates were back at their guns and turning them on the Maine troops. In addition, enemy cavalry was converging on Fleetwood.
The forces ensnared behind Barbour House soon rallied to the command of Lt. Col. Charles H. Smith (as Douty ended up elsewhere on the field during the charge). As Smith described it twenty years later, "At the time we halted we were all broken to pieces, but our men came to us from both flanks and the rear very fast so we were able to reform quite a force." He remembered seeing a Maine sergeant break from the trees to his right carrying a Rebel battle flag with "a body of rebs" in hot pursuit. This sergeant was probably Corp. Ansel Drew of Company A who escaped when the rebels were brought up short by the presence of so many Federal cavalrymen. The flag belonged to one of Hampton's Legion.
Smith's choice soon became whether to charge back through the guns or go around them. The troops charged directly at the guns just as if they were going to retake them. At the last moment just as the guns were about to fire Smith turned his men to the right evading the shot and making good their escape. Tobie was quick to point out the importance in battle for soldiers to stay with their command. Those that stuck with Smith rode off the field with relatively few casualties. Those that were separated from the group were forced to fight their way out individually or in small groups and held a higher risk of death or capture. According to Tobie, "Some escaped by taking a series of Putnam leaps down the terraces in front of Stuart's headquarters". Truly, the trip out was as dramatic as the ride into battle!
How are you, Uncle Johnny?
In the course of the engagement at Brandy Station, the First Maine losses were recorded as one killed, two wounded, 7 wounded and taken prisoner plus twenty-eight others taken prisoner. Tobie is full of stories of heroism under fire and horsemen taken prisoner only to escape and return to their comrades. Private Peter Como of Co. K stood in his stirrups and shot down a rebel who was taking aim at Lt. Col. Boothby, all of this at a full gallop and at a distance of 100 yards! Captain Tucker of Co. B was captured, disarmed and dismounted before being sent to the rear under a three man guard of Confederates. One of the guards was careless with his sword, and Tucker "grasped the weapon by the hilt, wrenched it from the man, by a sudden thrust rendered him hors de combat, and then by a powerful backstroke disposed of the guard on his right". The third guard was, presumably, happy to become Tucker's prisoner.
The Mainers themselves captured seventy six prisoners. Lt. Taylor of Co.M towed a dismounted prisoner in on the end of his horse's tail. Apparently the man wasn't moving fast enough; Taylor had him grab onto the tail for a little help. A Co.M private tricked and captured his man by holding an empty pistol to the rebel’s head. Perhaps the best story was later related by Chaplain Merrill as his own version of David and Goliath. An unnamed "little fellow" from Co. I rode up on a huge but dismounted rebel. The big man grabbed the Mainer’s foot and flipped him out of the saddle. Apparently, the Confederate thought the little guy would then be easy prey, but when the horse moved out of the way, he was looking down the Maine man's pistol. He was lucky; the Mainer wasn't much of a shot. The bullet grazed his scalp and laid him out bleeding on the ground. The little Mainer then put the revolver to the rebel's head and said, "How are you, Uncle Johnny? Will you surrender now?" Believe it or not, but it still makes a good story.
Men were not the only casualties of battle. The toll in horseflesh was huge. Sergt. Joel Wilson of Co. F thought his horse had been hit by a bullet during the charge although it did not seem to falter. On the run, he looked over each side of his mount for blood and didn’t see any. Feeling he was mistaken, he carried on. Later, when the regiment returned to the Rappahannock, it refused to drink with the other horses. After fording the river the horse lay down. Wilson removed the saddle and blanket and discovered that a bullet had passed through the horse coming out in the area of the saddle girth. The horse had run on for two hours and finally died when the battle was over.
"The First Maine saved not only the brigade but the whole division." -Kilpatrick
When Pleasonton ordered the withdrawal of his troops back across the Rappahannock, Stuart may have retained the field, but he did not win the battle. His cavalry was left in disarray with serious loss of men and horses. His precious reputation was severely besmirched because he fell victim to surprise attacks first by Buford and then Gregg. It should, however, be noted that his troops reacted quickly to the surprise and fought long and hard despite fatigue from the previous day’s review. Stuart took a painful drubbing in the press from which, it can be said, that he never recovered. Brandy Station began a negative perception of Stuart in the South that would be broadened in the coming month by his actions at Gettysburg and his failure to provide Lee with proper support and intelligence. No one can remain king of the mountain forever.
Likewise, no force can remain forever on the bottom. Pleasonton was not driven from field but withdrew feeling that he had accomplished his objectives of reconnaissance and infliction of heavy damage. The real victory was in the performance of the Federal cavalry. The Battle of Brandy Station was a turning point for mounted Union forces. Before Brandy Station, Stuart's cavalry was in control; afterwards the northern cavalry considered themselves to be a match for the Confederates. They had won their spurs. From this point on, they became a force with which to be reckoned.
Immediately after the battle in dispatches and the press, the First Maine Cavalry received heady praise for saving the day. Kilpatrick called their charge "one of the best charges that ever was made" and he said, "The First Maine saved not only the brigade but also the whole division." The First Maine Cavalry had tasted victory and went on to serve gloriously until the end of the war. Their reputation was distinguished. A London correspondent wrote "Much of the Federal cavalry was wretchedly made up, but there was a Maine regiment of longarmed swordsmen whose equals I have never seen."
Calvert, Mary Renier. The First Maine Calvary. Monmouth, ME: Monmouth Press, 1997.
Downey, Fairfax. Clash of Cavalry: The Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863. New York: David McKay Company, 1959.
The National Park Service. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Militay Park: Brandy Station, June 9, 1863. <http://www.nps.gov/frsp/brandy.htm>.
Starr, Stephen Z. Starr. The Union Cavalry in the Civil War: Volume 1. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Tobie, Edward P. History of the First MaineCavalry, 1861-1865. Boston: Press of Emery & Hughes, 1887.
Wittenberg, Eric. Military History Online - Battle of Brandy Station. <http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/civilwar/brandystation/>.
c2001 Pat Higgins