In the aftermath of their defeat at Chancellorsville (2-5 May 1863), the defeated Union armies had taken up a strong position on the north bank of the Rappahannock, facing Lee’s army at Fredericksburg. While they sat and watched the Confederate camps, Lee convinced President Davis to let him attempt a second invasion of the north. Leaving one corps in the camps at Fredericksburg, on 3 June 1863 Lee’s army began to move on the campaign that would lead to Gettysburg.
As part of that movement, on 8 June J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, 10,000 strong, were camped around Brandy Station, twenty five miles west of Fredericksburg, preparing to cross the Rappahannock. Thinking themselves at a safe distance from any Union forces, Stuart’s men were spread out and relaxed.
Unluckily for both sides, General Hooker (still in command of the Army of the Potomac) was convinced that Lee’s main force was at Fredericksburg, and had decided to send a large cavalry force on a raid to discover Lee’s intentions. This raid was to cross the Rappahannock 25 miles west of Fredericksburg, and attack Stuart’s camps, thought to be at Culpeper. The raiding force, under General Pleasonton, contained 8,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry, although it would be the cavalry that did most of the fighting during the battle.
On 9 June Pleasonton’s cavalry crossed the Rappahannock and surprised Stuart’s men. The battle that developed was the largest cavalry battle of the war, and was one of the few occasions when the cavalry fought from horseback, with the sabre charge dominant. After their initial surprise, Stuart’s men rallied, but it was the approach of some Confederate infantry that forced Pleasonton to withdraw. By the end of the battle, superior Confederate numbers had started to tell. The Federals suffered nearly twice as many losses as the Confederates (907 against 500). They had not gained any significant intelligence about Lee’s movements. It was only when the vanguard of the Confederate army reached the Shenandoah Valley that the North realised what Lee was doing.
Brandy Station was significant for two reasons. In the long term it demonstrated that the Union cavalry was catching up with their Confederate opponents in ability and daring. More immediately it played an indirect role in the Gettysburg campaign. Stuart’s pride was wounded by criticisms of his cavalry after the battle. This played a part in his desire to perform something dramatic during the Gettysburg campaign. The action he chose was another ride around the rear of the Union army, starting on 25 June and lasting a week, and taking him away from Lee’s side during a crucial period in the campaign. Stuart did not rejoin Lee until the fighting had started at Gettysburg.