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Brandy Station: The Largest American Civil War Cavalry Battle

Major Henry B. McClellan should have had a quiet afternoon. At dawn on June 9, 1863, Union cavalry had launched a surprise attack on Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown Stuart’s forces near Brandy Station, Virginia. Untroubled, the Confederate leader led his men out of camp to deal with the threat, assigning McClellan to remain at their headquarters on Fleetwood Hill.

As the recently appointed assistant adjutant general of Stuart’s force, McClellan expected to have little more to do than coordinate and relay reports from mounted couriers. All hope for anything like a routine day vanished when McClellan turned to see several thousand Federal horsemen bearing down on Fleetwood Hill.

The largest cavalry battle of the American Civil War took place at Brandy Station, Virginia, where J.E.B. Stuart's Confederates and Alfred Pleasonton's Federals clashed, swords flashing and pistols blazing.

Cavalry Duel at Brandy Station” by David A. Norris chronicles the fierce fighting that took place soon after. Pleasonton launched his surprise attack on Stuart’s cavalry, and after an all-day fight in which the initiative constantly shifted between the Union and Confederate army, the Federals eventually retired.

But who won the battle? At the time, most Confederates agreed with the article posted in the Richmond Examiner that the conflict at Brandy Station was “a victory over which few will exult.” But as far as the North was concerned, Brandy Station was a big cause to celebrate: for the first time, Union cavalrymen were able to hold their own against their Confederate counterparts. After you read about the full aftermath, you’ll be able to decide for yourself.

The largest cavalry battle of the American Civil War took place at Brandy Station, Virginia, where J.E.B. Stuart's Confederates and Alfred Pleasonton's Federals clashed, swords flashing and pistols blazing.

Of course, this is only one of many in-depth stories you’ll find in the Early Summer edition of Civil War Quarterly. Other features include:

“Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage
When struggling young writer Stephen Crane flipped open a copy of Century magazine in 1893, the entire course of American literature changed. The Civil War’s greatest novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was born.

“Brawl at Brawner’s Farm”
With Union and Confederate forces massing around a key railroad junction of Manassas, Stonewall Jackson’s II Corps confronted Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s Iron Brigade at the tiny hamlet of Groveton; it was a prelude of what was to come.

“4th U.S. Regulars at Gettysburg”
The proud Regulars in Company H, 4th U.S. Infantry, made a gallant stand in the blood-soaked wheatfield on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

“The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862”
Outraged by corrupt Indian agents and slow-arriving subsidies, Sioux warriors in Minnesota went on a bloody rampage in the summer of 1862, spreading panic throughout the North already at war.

“Crossroads of Destiny”
In the forbidding countryside of Virginia’s Wilderness, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee stumbled blindly toward their first wartime encounter. Each intended to do what he did best—attack.

“East Tennessee Slideshow”
Following the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside squared off against Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet in East Tennesssee over the strategic city of Knoxville.

“Invasion at Sabine Pass”
A clutch of Confederate Irishmen faced thousands of Federals in the battle for Texas.

“Lincoln vs. Frémont”
Determined to hold on to the crucial border states of Kentucky and Missouri, Abraham Lincoln clashed publicly with Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, the famous “Pathfinder,” over Freemont’s hasty emancipation proclamation in Missouri.

“Death of a Beau Ideal”
Brigadier General Robert McCook was the beau ideal of his predominantly German regiment. His murky death at the hands of Southern guerrillas sparked angry reprisals by his comrades.

What do you think of the outcome at Brandy Station? Was it as the Confederates claimed? Let us know what you think about this and other features in this issue of Civil War Quarterly in our comments section.


  1. Donald Link

    When taken into consideration the relative positions of the two armies in terms of resources and strategic positions just a month later, the Examiner was quite correct. Many more “victories” like Brandy Station for the south and the war would have been over sooner than it eventually was.

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