THE SIXTH PENNSYLVANIA CAVALRY AT THE BATTLE OF BRANDY STATION, JUNE 9, 1863

 

On May 26, 1863, the regiment traded in their lances for Sharps carbines and were assigned to the Reserve Brigade, a command consisting of the U. S. Army’s Regular cavalry regiments.  The Reserve Brigade was part of the First Cavalry Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Buford.  In early June, the vigilant Union cavalry discovered a large concentration of Confederate cavalry in the area around the town of Culpeper, Virginia, near an obscure stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad called Brandy Station.  Nearly 9,000 Confederate horse soldiers gathered there in preparation for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s planned invasion of Pennsylvania.

While there, the Confederates enjoyed several rollicking days of reviews and dress balls, blissfully unaware of the close proximity of the Federal cavalry.  Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, under orders from Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, to disperse the concentration of enemy horsemen, instructed his mounted force to make a reconnaissance in force toward Culpeper on June 9.  Pleasonton’s plan was sound—Buford, commanding the right wing of the Cavalry Corps, would take his division, several batteries of horse artillery, and a brigade of infantry, cross the Rappahannock River at Beverly Ford, and approach the Confederates from the north.  Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg, commanding the left wing, would take his Second Division and Col. Alfred Duffie’s Third Division, cross the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, advance through the town of Stevensburg, and merge with Buford’s troopers at Culpeper.  The plan was sound, but for one thing—it was based on faulty intelligence.  It assumed that the Confederates were about five miles from the river, when they were actually just across the Rappahannock, picketing Beverly Ford in force.

When Buford’s column splashed across the river at 4:00 a.m. on June 9, 1863, it immediately ran into a Confederate picket post.  The roused grayclad horse soldiers resisted Buford’s advance long enough for several batteries of horse artillery to escape and deploy a mile or so from the river at St. James Church.  There, the Lancers rode into destiny.

Unsure of the strength of the enemy’s position, atop a ridgeline, Buford ordered the Lancers to charge into the teeth of the Confederate artillery, and its men engaged in a vicious sabre fight amid the enemy guns.  Flashing across an 800-yard field under heavy fire, the charging Lancers were a handsome sight.  Maj. Robert Morris, Jr., the regimental commander, was captured during this charge when his horse fell while trying to leap over a ditch.  Maj. Henry C. Whelan, who took command of the regiment when Morris went down, left a stirring account of this charge:

We dashed at them, squadron front with drawn sabres, and as we flew along—our men yelling like demons—grape and canister were poured into our left flank and a storm of rifle bullets on our front.  We had to leap three wide deep ditches, and many of our horses and men piled up in a writhing mass in those ditches and were ridden over.  It was here that Maj. Morris’s horse fell badly with him, and broke away from him when he got up, this leaving him dismounted and bruised by the fall.  I didn’t know that Morris was not with us, and we dashed on, driving the Rebels into and through the woods, our men fighting with the sabre alone, whilst they used principally pistols.  Our brave fellows cut them out of the saddle and fought like tigers, until I discovered they were on both flanks, pouring a cross fire of carbines and pistols on us, and then tried to rally my men and make them return the fire with their carbines.[1]   

 

            The blueclad and grayclad troopers merged into a wild melee among the guns.  Gunner George M. Neese of Capt. Roger P. Chew’s battery of Confederate horse artillery recalled:

…the warlike scene was fascinatingly grand beyond description, and such as can be produced and acted only by an actual and real combat.  Hundreds of glittering sabres instantly leaped from their scabbards, gleamed and flashed in the morning sun, then clashed with metallic ring, searching for human blood, while hundreds of little puffs of white smoke gracefully rose through the balmy June air from discharging firearms all over the field in front of our batteries…the artillerymen stood in silent awe gazing on the struggling mass in our immediate front.[2]

 

Another survivor remembered “a mingled mass fighting and struggling with pistol and sabre like maddened savages.”[3]

            [include map of Brandy Station here]

            The Lancers made another savage mounted charge later in the battle.  Buford ordered Maj. Whelan, now commanding the regiment, to launch a headlong charge against a strong enemy position anchored along a low stone wall that provided a natural breastwork.  Supported by Capt. George Cram’s 6th U. S. Cavalry, the Pennsylvanians thundered toward the 10th Virginia Cavalry through a storm of small arms and artillery fire.  Whelan, whose horse was shot out from under him, later described the charge as “decidedly the hottest place I was ever in.  A man could not show his head or a finger without a hundred rifle shots whistling about…The air was almost solid with lead.”[4]  Maj. Whelan’s beloved horse, appropriate named “Lancer”, was shot out from under him during this charge.  Spearheaded by the Lancers, the Federals pressed forward until they were met by a counter-charge by the 9th Virginia Cavalry.

            The 9th Virginia, with sabres drawn, crashed into the charging Pennsylvanians, and broke “them into confusion and forcing them back, not along the line of their retreat by directly on the stone fence through which there was but a narrow opening; and dealing them some heavy blows during the necessary delay in forcing their way through it.  They were followed by men of the Ninth at a gallop through the field beyond the fence to the edge of the woods, where a Federal battery was in position.  A good many of the prisoners which the Federals had taken were released by this charge.”[5]

            The Lancers suffered the highest casualties of any Union unit at Brandy Station.  The performance of the Sixth Pennsylvania that day so impressed John Buford that he reported to Cavalry Corps commander Pleasonton, “These men did splendidly yesterday.”  Henceforth, Buford referred to the Lancers as “my Seventh Regulars.”[6]  In fact, many of the Confederates already considered the Lancers a Regular unit—trooper George W. Watson of the 12th Virginia Cavalry later remembered them as “the Seventh Pennsylvania Regulars.”[7]  The Lancers made history that day.



[1] Henry C. Whelan to Charles C. Cadwalader, June 11, 1863, Cadwalader Family Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[2] George M. Neese, Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery (New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1911), p. 171.

[3] Clark B. Hall, “Buford at Brandy Station”, Civil War (July-August 1990), p. 16.

[4] Whelan to Cadwalader, June 11, 1863.

[5] George W. Beale, A Lieutenant of Cavalry in Lee’s Army (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1918), p. 96.

[6] Frederick C. Newhall, “Presentation Address”, Dedication of the Monument of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry on the Battlefield of Gettysburg, October 14, 1889 (Philadelphia: privately published, 1890), pp. 12-13.

[7] Brian Stuart Kesterson, ed., The Last Survivor: The Memoirs of George William Watson (Washington, WV: Night Hawk Press, 1993), pp. 20-22.