Was the greatest cavalry battle on U.S. soil the beginning of the end for Jeb Stuart?
HE WAS A LIVING LEGEND. With his ostrich-plumed soft hat, red-lined cape, gold-tasseled sash and thigh-high gold-spurred cavalry boots, he was the most dazzling example of the Southern beau sabreur to serve in the Civil War. At a time when it was voguish for men to wear facial hair, his beard and mustaches were so profuse that, with his round, piercing eyes and bold nose, he resembled nothing so much as a bear peering from behind a shrub. Even his personal weapon was distinctive—a two-barreled nine-shot LeMat revolver that also fired a 16-gauge charge. Often described as the “Flower of Cavaliers,” he was in his own mind the embodiment of the knight-errant of the Middle Ages, and sometimes added after his signature the initials “K.G.S.”—Knight of the Golden Spur.
His name was James Ewell Brown Stuart, but he was known to all the South by the acronym J.E.B.
Although only 30, Jeb Stuart was no stranger to conflict. He had fought Indians in the West and carried the scar of a Cheyenne bullet on his chest. He had taken abolitionist John Brown by force from the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, and stood with his troops at Charles Town to watch the old man hang. Well aware of both his image and his reputation, he possessed a charming self-regard that endeared him to ladies. He was much given to the dramatic gesture. A superb horseman, he delighted in “riding around” the enemy at the head of his cavalry. He was famous for leading his men into Union-held territory where he would destroy supply lines, wreak havoc on their lines of communication and inflict general hell and surprise on the enemy. The men who followed him emulated his style of dress, his elegant swagger and his conviction—proven in battle time and again—that no Yankee horseman was a match for the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia.
It was an opinion shared by the entire population of the South. If there were one irrefutable truth from which the Army of Northern Virginia—and the Confederacy in general—could draw constant comfort, it was in the invincibility of its cavalry and its commanding officer, the dashing Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart. Rebel newspapers extolled him, minstrels wrote songs about him, parents told fantastic stories about him to their children.
Even the enemy admired him. Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick described him as the “greatest cavalry officer ever foaled in America,” while Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard recalled later in life that “J.E.B. Stuart was cut out for a cavalry leader. In perfect health… full of vigor and enterprise, with the usual ideas imbibed in Virginia concerning state supremacy, Christian in thought and temperate by habit, no man could ride faster, endure more hardships, make a livelier charge or be more hearty and cheerful while so engaged. A touch of vanity, which invited the smiles and applause of the fair maidens of Virginia, but added to the zest and ardor of Stuart’s parades and achievements.”
By late spring 1863, Stuart and his centaurs had demonstrated an easy superiority over Federal cavalry, thrashing them at nearly every turn, and they had no reason to assume that would ever change.
Then, on June 9—just a few weeks before the two armies met at a sleepy junction in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg—Union horsemen under the command of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton literally caught Stuart’s cavalry napping, and nothing would ever be the same. “At Brandy Station, we woke to the fact…that the Confederate cavalry was at last matched by the enemy,” Rebel 1st Lt. Theodore Stanford Garnett Jr. later averred, “and from that day on, the war wore a different aspect for both sides.”
Just the day before, a little south of Brandy Station—a small crossroads between Culpeper, Va., and the Rappahannock River—the ever flamboyant Stuart had staged a review of his 9,500- man force for Robert E. Lee. Stuart’s third such review in two weeks (Lee was unable to attend the first two) went on for hours, leaving his men and horses virtually exhausted. Stuart might have done well to postpone the review, since his orders were to move out early the next morning to guard the advance of Lee’s invading army.
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, suspected Lee was moving north. Lee’s smaller force had badly embarrassed Hooker at Chancellorsville a month before, and Lee was looking to capitalize on his victory with a triumph on Union soil that would drive President Lincoln to capitulation. For his part, Hooker was tasked with keeping his army between Lee and the nation’s capital. The possibility of a Rebel invasion of the Union capital, just across the Potomac from the Confederacy, had haunted Lincoln and his government since the beginning of hostilities. With Lee now moving north in force, their nightmare could become a reality.
Federal cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford discovered Rebel horsemen at Culpeper and, erroneously believing Stuart was alone and about to embark on a raid toward Washington, reported as much to Hooker. Fearful of Rebel cavalry disrupting his lines of communication with Washington, Hooker ordered Pleasonton, with 8,700 cavalry and 3,000 infantry, to “search out, disperse and destroy” the Rebel cavalry, not realizing Stuart was positioned to screen the Confederate army’s move from Fredericksburg toward the Shenandoah Valley. Pleasonton sent out two forces, one under Buford and the other under Brig. Gen. David Gregg, to form a double attack on Stuart’s cavalry.
In Buford, Pleasonton commanded one of the North’s best cavalry officers. Few general officers have deserved more credit from historians for initiative, courage and fine soldiering ability than John Buford—and few have received less. In his classic Army of the Potomac trilogy, Bruce Catton epitomized the view taken by most Civil War chroniclers, describing Buford simply as “a solid man who was hard to frighten and who was greatly admired by the men of his division.” He was, in fact, a good deal more. While each side had more than its share of glory-seekers, Buford got the job done without fanfare. Perhaps the best description of the man’s character comes from contemporary historian and Brevet Brig. Gen. Theophilus Rodenbough:
“Buford despised the false flourish and noisy parade of the charlatans of his service. He avoided too…the proper praise due his glorious actions, his bravery and dash, without ostentation or pride, his coolness and able management; and above all, the care of his men endeared him to all.”
He and Stuart were, in many ways, spectral opposites. Where Stuart was flamboyant, Buford was quiet, frugal in his actions and speech. Where Stuart could act on impulse, Buford considered his options carefully. Both men were inordinately brave, but Buford’s courage was understated, Stuart’s more theatrical.
There were, to be sure, a few vague similarities. Both had attended West Point. Buford had also served in the West and had fought in a number of engagements with the Indians. And Kentucky-born Buford was a Southerner. But though he was a member of a slave-owning family and was offered a Confederate commission by the governor of Kentucky, Buford cast his lot with the forces of Union. Bottom line, the two men were cut from vastly different cloth.
Pleasonton’s strategy for an attack on Stuart’s cavalry at Brandy Station did not go according to plan. Gregg was delayed in attaining his position; Buford was not, however, and elected not to wait for support from Gregg. In the predawn mist of June 9, Buford’s men thundered across Beverly’s Ford, driving stunned pickets before them, waking Stuart’s unsuspecting horsemen and sending many of them half-dressed to unsaddled horses in a wild attempt to stem the Yankee attack. They managed to stall Buford long enough for Stuart’s hastily positioned artillery to find them. Rather than see his force blown to pieces, Buford mounted a cavalry charge, sabers drawn, and overran—then was forced to withdraw from—the Rebel guns.
By 10:30 a.m., Gregg had finally arrived in the enemy’s rear and directed his artillery to fire on Fleetwood Hill, where a thoroughly flummoxed Stuart had made his headquarters. The battle ebbed and flowed for hours, with each side alternately gaining and losing advantage.
After more than 12 hours of bloody fighting, the Union cavalry finally withdrew at around 5 p.m., unchallenged by Stuart’s dazed and exhausted men. Although Pleasonton’s forces had failed to “disperse and destroy” the Rebel cavalry, they had, in fact, made history. For an entire day, Union cavalry had slugged it out with the famed Rebel horsemen and had given as good as they got.
The shock to Southern cavalry was palpable. Coming largely from a rural, agrarian culture, the Southerners had traditionally been the better horsemen; it was a skill inculcated from childhood. Nor was command of a cavalry mount in battle an easy discipline to master. It required the ability to aim and fire a revolver or to wield a heavy saber while keeping a seat and guiding a horse. Often the rider was forced to control his mount with his knees, especially when engaged in hand-to-hand combat. And even the best trained of animals could balk or bridle in the din and chaos of battle. Until now, no one on either side would have questioned the superiority of the Rebel cavalry.
But by 1863, the Yankee cavalrymen had caught up, and thanks both to intense training and time in the saddle, Buford’s were better than most. “Cavalry…requires the greatest length of time of all military arms to acquire efficiency,” Capt. Frederick Whittaker of the 6th U.S. Cavalry observed. “The first two years of the Civil War may be considered as years of education and formation.” At Brandy Station “the pupils finally beat their masters.”
Trying to make the best of a bad situation, Stuart claimed to have routed the Yankees. But Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws knew otherwise, as he wrote to his wife immediately after the battle: “The enemy were not driven back (as Stuart says), but retired at their own leisure.” James Longstreet— recalling in an 1891 letter to former Confederate Col. Thomas Munford that Stuart had tried to lay the blame elsewhere—called the battle “a surprise too well known as a surprise to stave it off on others, and little attention was given [Stuart’s] effort to do so….” Gen. Wade Hampton was somewhat more discreet, but just as critical, writing in 1878 to Stuart’s former adjutant, Maj. Henry B. McClellan, “Stuart managed the battle badly but I would not say so publicly.”
Morale soared among the Union cavalry units. “From this battle dates the efficiency of the Federal cavalry,” recalled Col. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. “For this was the day we came to kill the king and beard the lion in his own den.”
For their part, the Confederates gave due credit to their adversaries. Commented George Carey Eggleston of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, with a healthy dollop of sarcasm, “At long last, the enemy finally learned how to ride their horses.”
Jeb Stuart’s own staff officers were brutally frank about the impact of the battle on both their resources and fighting spirit. “The fact is that up to the 9th of June, 1863, the Confederate Cavalry did have its own way,” McClellan later wrote. “But after that time we held our ground only by hard fighting.”
Stuart’s engineering officer, Capt. William W. Blackford, addressed a more immediate concern: “From that time forward, the difficulty of getting remounts acted disastrously upon the strength of our cavalry arm, not only in diminishing the numbers but in impairing the spirit of the men. We had no reserve strength to summon forth.” He could just as well have extended his comments to include the men as well as the horses. While the North seemed to possess a seemingly endless supply of men to replace fallen cavaliers, many Rebel saddles remained empty.
Perhaps the most prescient comment came from Brig. Gen. Charles H. Smith, leader of the 1st Maine Cavalry at Brandy Station, who wrote in 1885, “A higher value attaches to Brandy Station…than has ever been sounded in praises…The rebel cavalry had been in the ascendancy…but Brandy Station broke its spirit. It lost its prestige there and never regained it afterwards….It was the beginning of the end of the war.”
If any Rebels convinced themselves that Buford’s performance at Brandy Station was merely a fluke, or that his cavalry had simply been lucky, they had only to wait three weeks for further proof of the man’s ability. It was John Buford who first spied the numerically superior Rebel army marching in force toward Gettysburg and who immediately assumed the high ground with the 3,000 men of his First Cavalry Division.
Buford had studied cavalry theory and tactics while serving in the West, and had adopted the then-radical concept that cavalry could be better served by fighting as mounted infantry. Using his two unsupported brigades as mounted infantry, Buford dismounted his men and stationed them along a ridge just a few miles from town, squarely in the path of the oncoming Rebels. One man in four stood to the rear holding the horses for the others, effectively leaving him only 2,200 men—stationed at wide intervals—to hold the high ground. The line was anything but formal with Buford’s men taking cover as best they could, aiming their carbines from behind trees, bushes, fence posts. Buford strategically placed his six cannon for maximum effect. The only defenders between Gettysburg and the Army of Northern Virginia, he and his dismounted cavalry held the enemy for hours—long enough to allow Federal forces time to organize a viable plan of battle. Historians have argued convincingly that Buford’s actions on that first day at Gettysburg saved the battle, and possibly the war, for the Union.
Brandy Station is on record as the single largest cavalry battle ever fought on the North American continent. Without question, it dealt a blow to Stuart’s ego and reputation. He was a fine horseman and an inspirational leader, but he could also be arrogant, rash, headstrong and dismissive of the enemy’s strengths—traits he could afford only so long as he continued to outperform the Yankee cavalry. Once the balance shifted and the Union’s mounted forces leveled the field, Stuart’s flaws became more apparent.
Even the admiring Southern press was harsh after Brandy Station. “Stuart is so conceited he has gotten careless,” the Savannah Republican opined, while the Richmond Examiner noted, “The surprise was a surprise to all, including our cavalry’s showy commander.” It had been Stuart’s primary responsibility to screen the Rebel army from detection by the enemy. But he and his troopers, played out as they were, had failed entirely to detect the movements of the Union cavalry in their vicinity.
Nor was this the last time Stuart would be embarrassed by Union cavalry. Late in the Battle of Gettysburg—after a “ride-around” raid that separated Stuart from headquarters and left Lee in enemy territory without intelligence of the Yankees’ movements—Stuart attempted to flank the Union forces, only to be foiled by dashing 23-year-old Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
Neither Buford nor Stuart survived the war. Buford died of typhoid in December 1863, his long-overdue presidential promotion to the rank of major general presented to him on his deathbed.
It was not the kind of death a true warrior like Buford would have chosen; that death was reserved for Jeb Stuart.
Mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern in May 1864, Stuart nonetheless had sufficient time to distribute his horses and personal effects among his men; to send his gold spurs to Mary Custis Lee, wife of his beloved general; and to deliver quotable last words:
“I am resigned; God’s will be done.”
Historians have long debated the impact of Stuart’s death on the Confederate war efforts. There is no question that morale among the Southern cavalry—and the Rebel Army in general—suffered terribly at the loss of their gallant cavalier. And if Maj. Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville had indeed deprived Lee of his “right arm,” Stuart’s demise took Lee’s proverbial eyes and ears. Lee, who had looked upon the young general much as a son, reportedly said Stuart had never given him bad intelligence, and that he could not keep from weeping at the mention of his name. By the time of Stuart’s death, however, the war had less than a year to run—and it was becoming increasingly evident to whom the victory would go. Historical “what-ifs,” while a tempting indulgence, accomplish nothing; but it is fair to say that had Stuart lived, his energy and skill might have contributed to prolonging the conflict but most certainly would not have altered the outcome.
Writer and historian Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader and a contributor to Military History and Wild West.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.