150 Years Ago This Week: The Union cavalry comes of age

June 1863

As General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia marched west from Fredericksburg toward Culpeper Courthouse on Saturday, June 6, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Federals sought to determine where they were going.

At Brandy Station, a small village and rail stop on the Orange & Alexandria R.R. just north of Culpeper, some 8,000 sabers flashed in the sun as Maj. Gen. James E. B. Stuart reviewed his Confederate cavalry along the tracks; they displayed their colorful movements to assembled dignitaries and their ladies in carriages and in the railway cars on the rail line at what is now Inlet.

The next day, north of Vicksburg in Mississippi, Brig. Gen. John Walker and his Southern troops attacked a Union supply depot at Milliken’s Bend in an attempt to lift the Union siege of Vicksburg. The depot was defended by recently recruited and ill-trained black soldiers. Gen. Walker’s troops easily overran the Union position with desperate hand-to-hand combat. Union gunboats on the river arrived and drove off the Southerners.

On June 8, Gen. Lee arrived at Brandy Station, along with the First and Second Corps of the army. Gen. Stuart used the occasion to hold another review of his cavalry corps for the army and corps commanders at what is now Inlet. There was some light-hearted jocularity that day between the infantry and the cavalry on the review field.

In Washington, President Lincoln wrote to Maj. Gen. John A. Dix in Baltimore that all was going well at Vicksburg, and there was nothing new to report from Port Hudson. In Vicksburg, a resident wrote of the bombardment: “Twenty-four hours of each day these preachers of the Union made their touching remarks to the town. All night long their deadly hail of iron dropped through roofs and tore up the deserted and denuded streets. Some of our people are staying in their homes, but so many are living in hillside caves.”

On Tuesday, June 9, at Brandy Station, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton sent his Union cavalry across the Rappahannock River at Freeman’s Ford to learn of Gen. Lee’s intentions. The sudden appearance of Union troops surprised Gen. Stuart, who rallied his cavalry and met their attackers, arriving in three columns on the hilly battlefield at Fleetwood Hill.

For more than 12 hours, the tide of the battle between some 17,000 horse soldiers raged back and forth. By the end of the day, the Confederates held the field after Gen. Pleasanton called off the fight. In what was to be the largest cavalry engagement in American history, Union casualties numbered some 866 while a little more than 400 Confederate troopers were killed, wounded or missing.

For the first time, Confederate cavalry had met its match; Union horsemen proved that they were now equal to their adversaries, and that they were equal in stature with the infantry and artillery. Brandy Station marked the beginning of what was to become the Gettysburg military campaign.

President Lincoln wrote to Gen. Hooker: “I think Lee’s army and not Richmond is your true objective point. Fight him when opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him, and fret him.” Citizens in Maryland became alarmed at the possibility of another incursion into their state. In Ohio, former Congressman Clement Vallandigham (banished to the Confederacy and by the Confederates to Wilmington, N.C.) was nominated in absentia as governor of Ohio by the Peace Democrats (“Copperheads”).

In Richmond, Vice Pres. Alexander Stephens offered to Pres. Jefferson Davis to undertake a mission to Washington to “correct understanding and agreement between the two Governments.” Off Cape Hatteras, Lt. Charles Savez Read, commander of the CSS Clarence, captured the Union bark Tacony. He destroyed the Clarence, transferred his crew to the Tacony, and continued his raiding exploits against Union commerce into the North Atlantic.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.