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By 1863, Union troopers were ready for hard fighting, from Brandy Station to the retreat from Gettysburg.

GENERAL JOE HOOKER does not get a lot of credit from historians, who most often associate him with the Union debacle at Chancellorsville. “Fighting Joe,” however, can be thanked for implementing reforms that assembled the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry regiments together into their own corps. Hooker’s predecessors, including George B. McClellan and Ambrose E. Burnside, had little use for the horsemen beyond their use as bodyguards, couriers and scouts. The neglect of the Union mounted arm can be traced back to the war’s first year, when Washington had no interest in recruiting more horsemen beyond the six existing Regular Army regiments at the time.

There were several reasons for this lack of enthusiasm. First, and most important, it was expensive. It cost nearly a half million dollars in 1861 money to procure the necessary horses and equipment for one regiment. Second, it was widely believed that it took two to three years to train a soldier properly to be an effective cavalryman, and hence to build an efficient mounted regiment. Third, it was felt that the six existing cavalry regiments were sufficient to deal with the Confederate cavalry. General Winfield Scott, commander of all Federal forces at the start of the war, refused more cavalry even though he had personally witnessed their contributions during offensive operations in the War of 1812, the Seminole War and the Mexican War.

Illinois Governor Richard Yates, like many other Northern governors, continually offered the services of cavalry recruits in addition to the infantrymen and artillerymen who volunteered for the cause. “I am again obliged, at the solicitation of General [Winfield] Scott, to decline acceptance of cavalry,” Secretary of War Simon Cameron wrote to Yates in May 1861. “[T]hey cannot be of service adequate to the expense incurred in accepting them.”

In stark contrast, the Confederacy was building a lean yet dangerous force of troopers that, from the start, continually handed the Federals a heavy dose of military indigestion. When the Confederacy began building its military machine, mounted militias and experienced horsemen mustered in (usually with their own horses) to raise cavalry companies, battalions and regiments that needed little drill and instruction before taking to the field.

By the fall of 1861, the Union realized that more volunteer cavalry were needed to counter the Confederate horsemen. But even then, many of these new Federal units were cavalry in name only; a large percentage were not issued horses during their first few months of training, drilling on foot and simply mimicking maneuvers on horseback. A number of these regiments were repeatedly told they were to be converted to infantry units instead, which caused much grumbling among men who had signed up to “Join the Cavalry!” By the early summer of 1862, though, dozens of volunteer cavalry units from every Northern state had been fully equipped and taken to the field. But the Federal horsemen were inexperienced and unsure in the saddle, regardless of their training and leadership by Regular cavalry officers. At the time, they were little match for Jeb Stuart’s Rebel cavalry forces.


SOON AFTER took command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, Maj. Gen. Hooker his changes to the army’s structure created a better-fed, better-organized army with improved morale. Hooker opted to brigade the cavalry regiments together into the new Cavalry Corps. Before that, most of the mounted regiments and companies had been scattered across the army, serving among infantry commands. The mettle of this reorganized mounted arm would soon be tested.

Following his smashing victory at Chancellorsville, Va., in early May, General Robert E. Lee massed most of his Army of Northern Virginia around Culpeper. With the blessing of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Lee determined to forge north toward Pennsylvania, threaten major Northern cities including Washington, and defeat the Union army piece by piece. His plan was risky and bold, but the Southern war machine needed to get the fighting out of Virginia. In the North—relatively untouched thus far in the war—Lee could feed his army on the bounty of the land and reequip his troops by capturing horses and materiel.

By June 5, two of Lee’s corps— those of Lt. Gens. James Longstreet and Richard S. Ewell—rested in and around Culpeper. Stuart’s troopers bivouacked nearly six miles to the north along the Rappahannock River, where they could watch the Federal army camped on the opposite side. While there, the troopers put their prowess and power on display in two massive reviews on June 5 and 8.

Before dawn on June 9, 1863, most of Stuart’s Confederate cavalry division was camped throughout the fields and woodlots near a nondescript stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad in Culpeper County called Brandy Station. The cavalrymen and their accompanying five veteran batteries of horse artillery, numbering together just over 10,000 men, were tired from all the pomp and circumstance of the reviews, and they were enjoying a short break before Lee began moving his army north toward Pennsylvania. Lee had ordered Stuart to cross the river on June 9 to push back Federal outposts and clear a path for the Confederate march to the north.

Meanwhile Union Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry Corps, 8,000 men bolstered by 3,500 infantry and 34 cannons, were on the move toward two crossings of the Rappahannock. Hooker had correctly deduced that the concentration of Lee’s men around Culpeper meant a northern raid was in the offing and wanted Pleasonton to take his soldiers across the river and break the jaw of Stuart’s division.

Pleasonton carved his forces into two “wings” to attack Stuart. The Right Wing consisted of the 1st Cavalry Division, artillery, and a brigade of infantry (6,300 total men) under Brig. Gen. John Buford. It was to cross at Beverly Ford. Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s Left Wing, made up of the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Divisions, artillery and another brigade of infantrymen, had been ordered to cross simultaneously at Kelly’s Ford.

As planned, Buford’s column quietly crossed at Beverly Ford about 4:30 a.m. and surprised a small Confederate picket force positioned there. The pickets rode hell-bent to the encampment to their southwest with the alarm, awakening the sleeping troopers of Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones’ Brigade. The 2,000 men of his brigade jumped up from their blankets to go into action, leaving so hurriedly that many were dressed in just their underwear. A number of the horsemen hopped on their mounts and galloped bareback toward the river.

Along the Beverly Ford Road, Jones’ men collided with Buford’s 1st Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis, which had led the Federals across the river. A pistol shot killed Davis, and Buford’s thrust was temporarily stalled. The Confederate artillerymen swung their cannons into position near St. James Church to the southwest and fired on Buford’s men as Jones’ horsemen, in addition to troopers of Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Brigade, rode in support of the cannoneers. The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry of Buford’s Reserve Brigade stormed the Confederate line on horseback but was quickly repulsed, suffering the greatest number of casualties that any regiment of either side would suffer that day— nearly 35 percent of its strength.

With no sign of David Gregg’s troops, Buford tried to outflank the Confederate left but was given a warm reception by the Southern cavalry of Brig. Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s Brigade. Although facing heavy losses, Buford’s outnumbered men began breaking Lee’s line—but then were astonished as they watched most of the Confederates start to retreat. The Federals were unaware that Gregg, now about two hours late because part of his force had gotten lost in the dark, had just arrived to the south, and the Southerners had been ordered to pull back to cover both fronts.

Most of the fighting now centered on and around a prominent rise known as Fleetwood Hill, where Stuart had made his headquarters, as Buford’s forces attacked from the northeast and Gregg’s men attacked from the south. Charges and countercharges swept over the slopes until Stuart’s veterans finally cleared the hill of bluecoats after nearly 14 solid hours of fighting. Pleasonton’s mission to “disperse and destroy” Stuart’s forces was in tatters, so he ordered the Federal cavalry to withdraw back across the river around sunset. Brandy Station—or “The Battle of Fleetwood,” as the Confederates preferred to call it—the largest cavalry brawl the Western Hemisphere had witnessed before or since, was mercifully over.


BOTH SIDES victory, but regardless who “won” the battle, the fighting later claimed indisputably delayed Robert E. Lee’s advance northward by one full day. Just as important, the ability of the Federal cavalry to fight its counterparts spur-to-spur earned the Union horsemen a grudging measure of new respect. “Up to this time, confessedly inferior to the Southern horsemen,” later wrote Stuart’s adjutant, Major Henry B. McClellan, “[the Federals] gained on this day that confidence in themselves and their commanders which enabled them to contest so fiercely the subsequent battlefields of June, July and October.”

Cavalry performance in the ensuing weeks of the Gettysburg Campaign backs up McClellan’s observation. Whereas the Union cavalry had borne little of the burden of war in the East until June 1863, thereafter they were a force to be reckoned with. At Brandy Station, Pleasonton’s cavalrymen suffered nearly 10 percent losses, while Stuart’s ranks were reduced about 6 percent. It was the first time Stuart’s entire force had been taken by surprise and matched so equally by the Federal cavalry, causing the tongue-cluckers among the Southern newspapers (and even some of his own men) to wonder if perhaps the crimson-caped and ostrich-plumed Beau Sabreur was slipping a bit.

Robert E. Lee’s northward movement finally got under way late on June 10 as Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s infantry corps began marching for the Shenandoah Valley, soon to be followed by the corps of Lt. Gens. James Longstreet and Ambrose P. Hill. It was Stuart’s job to throw out a screen to protect the mountain gaps and passes, to blind the Federals about Confederate movements. It was the Federal cavalry’s job to break that screen.

Sheltered by the Blue Ridge Mountains and Stuart’s protection, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia tramped north in the Valley during mid-June. Pleasonton’s inability to bring Hooker solid information about Lee’s intentions frustrated Fighting Joe. To see what the Rebels were doing, Pleasonton ordered David Gregg to march his 2nd Cavalry Division on June 17 westward from Manassas Junction to Aldie, Va., a crucial road hub linked to major gaps in the Blue Ridge. Two Virginia cavalry regiments under Colonel Thomas T. Munford, which were picketing and foraging that day around Aldie, were driven out by Gregg’s lead brigade, commanded by the impetuous Brig. Gen. H. Judson Kilpatrick, but the Federals were in turn routed when the rest of Munford’s brigade counterattacked. One of Kilpatrick’s regiments, the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, suffered 50 percent casualties. Reinforced, the Federals held their ground until sunset, but not before Gregg’s troopers sustained nearly 20 percent total casualties. The Federal incursion at Aldie set up a series of bloody cavalry rumbles that would take place at this and nearby road junctions, and would continue to sap the strength of the blue and gray horsemen.

Two days later, on June 19, Stuart was holding high ground west of Middleburg, Va., called Mount Defiance. Both Gregg and John Buford set out to move against Stuart and knock him off his perch. The day was hot—100 degrees—but carbine and artillery lead was about to prove hotter. Gregg would attack head-on while Buford worked to flank Stuart’s position from the north. After driving Confederate pickets from Middleburg, Gregg sent the bulk of his forces at the hill. Following charges and countercharges reminiscent of the Fleetwood Hill fight, Stuart was finally driven westward when Buford made his appearance. But Gregg lost nearly 100 more men, and Stuart about half that many. Although Stuart had been repulsed, he managed to keep the Federals out of the Valley. By June 20, Stuart had all five of his brigades in the Loudoun Valley. He would have preferred not to fight the next day—a Sunday—but the Federal cavalry was about to force his hand.

Alfred Pleasonton was determined to deliver one more heavy blow to Stuart on the 21st. Just after daybreak, Federal horse artillery began firing their missiles at Stuart’s defense a couple miles west of Middleburg. Kilpatrick’s men then attacked, and Stuart’s troops fell back while fighting a classic delaying action. Following several brutal hours, the Confederates arrived at Upperville, Va., and Gregg and Buford attacked on two fronts. Two more hours of charges and countercharges left the farm fields strewn with corpses of men and horses, and Stuart was forced to withdraw to Ashby’s Gap. The Battle of Upperville, which cost each side well over 200 casualties, was Stuart’s first undeniable drubbing on the field of battle during the war. He summed up that day in a note to his wife Flora, confessing, “[The Federals] tried very hard to kill me.”

But frustration still reigned at Hooker’s headquarters. Despite gaining some ground on Stuart over the past several days, Pleasonton and the rest of the Union brass had no idea that the Confederate cavalry brigade of Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins had already entered Pennsylvania to clear the way for Ewell’s Corps. As they scouted and foraged north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Jenkins’ troopers clashed with Federal cavalry and mounted militia in a series of unexpected skirmishes. At places like Monterey Pass and Cashtown Pass in late June, however, the blood spilled was but a trickle compared to the floodgates that were about to be opened in and around the nearby crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pa.

On the morning of June 25, Stuart set out on what would become his most controversial action of the war: his independent ride north into Pennsylvania to later hook up with Lee’s army. He took just over half his cavalry force, but soon found roadblocks in his way. On June 27, near Fairfax Court House, Va., a bold attack by just 100 troopers of the 11th New York Cavalry interrupted his rest there. Two days later at Westminster, Md., an equally audacious assault by 108 men of the 1st Delaware Cavalry on Stuart’s marching column delayed his progress another half day.

On June 30, Stuart’s force made it into the Keystone State, but at that point he was attacked by Judson Kilpatrick—now commanding a cavalry division—at Hanover, halting the Southern cavalry leader for another entire day. Out of touch with the Confederate army for nearly a week, Stuart had no idea that the Battle of Gettysburg would break the next day, July 1, as he slipped away from Kilpatrick and headed for Carlisle, Pa., to search for Ewell’s Corps. Robert E. Lee’s scouts finally located Stuart late on the night of July 1 at Carlisle and ordered him to proceed toward Gettysburg.


STUART’S EXHAUSTED arrived near Gettysburg late on the afternoon of July 2, but riders they would get barely a blink’s worth of respite. On July 3, as Pickett’s Charge raged, Stuart battled with Gregg’s division and the Michigan Cavalry Brigade of golden-locked George Armstrong Custer at what would become known as East Cavalry Field. Each side tallied nearly 300 more casualties before the day was over and Stuart was repulsed from the John Rummel Farm.

As the sun dropped over the butchered armies of Robert E. Lee and the new Federal commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade, the Southern commander decided to retreat to the safety of the Old Dominion.

Just as he had been tasked with screening the Rebels’ march north, Stuart now had to protect their retreat. The Army of Northern Virginia began marching south along two routes late on July 4, taking along thousands of miserable wounded. Kilpatrick attacked one column late that night in the mountains above Fairfield, Pa., inflicting several hundred casualties among the Confederate cavalry and the army’s wounded. Kilpatrick’s and Buford’s divisions clashed with the Southern troopers several more times as Stuart managed to successfully choke off access to the road networks leading to the Army of Northern Virginia’s defensive position near Williamsport, Md., along the Potomac River.

The Potomac was swelled by torrential rains during the week following Gettysburg, and Lee was unable to get his force across until the early morning hours of July 14. By that time, both armies’ cavalry had lost many hundreds more in casualties, in particular at the July 10 Battle of Funkstown, Md., a fight involving mostly cavalry forces that was nearly as large as the Battle of Brandy Station the month before.

Aside from the intense fighting during the July 1-3 Battle of Gettysburg, the four dozen other identifiable engagements that took place during the five weeks of the campaign were fought mostly by the cavalry arms. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry division of five brigades had totaled slightly more than 9,700 present for duty on June 9. By July 14, his division could muster only 5,900 troopers, a loss of 39 percent of his pre-campaign strength.

On the Federal side, John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division was the only one constantly engaged from Brandy Station through July 14. That division fielded 4,580 effectives on June 9, but by July 14 only 3,575 men remained in the saddle—a reduction of nearly 22 percent. David Gregg’s division did most of its fighting in and near the Shenandoah Valley during mid- to late-June, losing more than 1,000 troopers even before the Gettysburg battle.

Judson Kilpatrick’s 3rd Cavalry Division’s first engagement came against Stuart’s cavalry on June 30 at Hanover, Pa., where he had approximately 4,000 trigger-pullers on his rosters. Following the division’s final skirmish with Confederate rearguard forces at Falling Waters, Md., on July 14, he had 3,100 men left, for a casualty rate of nearly 23 percent. Of the three Federal cavalry divisions, Kilpatrick (by a slim margin) lost the most men during the campaign, and he lost them all in just the final two weeks—thereby earning his famous sobriquet “Kill-Cavalry.”

A number of artillery units (including horse artillery) suffered considerable losses over those bloody five weeks, many in excess of 30 percent of their strength. A comparison, then, of the men who fell due to wounds or death or were taken prisoner among all the branches of service proves that they all contributed equally to the ponderous butcher’s bill of the Campaign and Battle of Gettysburg.


J.D. Petruzzi, with cartographer Steven Stanley, is the author of the forthcoming book The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses, a comprehensive examination of losses in the Gettysburg Campaign.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.