On this day, the largest cavalry battle of the war is fought at Brandy Station, Virginia.
After the Confederate victory in Chancellorsville, Virginia, in early May, Confederate General Robert E. Lee began to prepare for another invasion of the North by placing General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry at Brandy Station, just east of Culpeper, to screen the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia as it started toward the Blue Ridge mountains. Stuart used this time at Brandy Station to stage a grand parade in order to boost morale and show off his dashing troopers to local residents.
Unbeknownst to Stuart, his pompous display was observed by uninvited Union cavalry and infantry under the command of General Alfred Pleasonton, who lurked across the Rappahannock River. On June 9, Pleasonton struck the surprised Rebels in a two-pronged assault. After initially falling back, the Confederates eventually rallied, and the battle raged all day around St. James Church.
The battle’s key moment came when Union troops headed to seize Fleetwood Hill, an elevation from which the Yankees could shell the entire battlefield. Confederate Lieutenant John Carter struggled to mount a cannon on the hill and fired a single shot that stopped the Union troopers in their tracks. The Yankee officer leading the charge suspected the Confederates had a line of guns sitting just over the top of the hill, when in fact it was a single gun with barely enough powder for a single shot. Carter’s heroic act saved the day for Stuart. The move bought time for the Confederates, and they held the hill.
The battle continued until late afternoon, with many spectacular cavalry charges and saber fights in addition to hand-to-hand combat by dismounted cavalry. In the end, Stuart’s forces held the field. Although it was technically a Rebel victory, the battle demonstrated how far the Union cavalry had come since the beginning of the war. Stuart’s cavalry had been the master of their Union counterparts, but its invincibility was shattered on that muggy Virginia day.