- The High Price of Vanity
Confederate Brigadier General Wade Hampton was a grim warrior who favored using maximum force to resolve conflicts as quickly as possible. He was painfully aware of the high price in human life and misery at stake in the Civil War. Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart, a gregarious man who reveled in military pomp and pageantry, nonetheless showed increasing faith in Hampton. He dispatched him in late 1862 and early 1863 to lead several cavalry raids into Union-occupied territory. With troops from the Carolinas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama, Hampton acquired horses and supplies and disrupted Federal communications. These forays, and others led by Stuart, helped confirm the dominance of Confederate cavalry early in the war.
But Union forces slowly gained ground as the Federal government opened schools to train cavalry and obtained more horses. Gradually, a new, tougher breed of cavalry officer took charge, including Colonel Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. Still, improvements in the Union Army weren't immediately apparent, and Confederates continued to enjoy major successes.
In December 1862, Union forces launched a series of disastrous infantry attacks on entrenched Confederate positions at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Wave after wave of Federal soldiers, 13,000 men in all, marched forward to be killed, wounded or captured, while some 5,400 Confederates became casualties. The much higher toll on Union forces confirmed for Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet and others that fighting from defensive positions was often far preferable to taking the offensive. This led to a significant change in battle tactics. Before the Civil War, massed infantry attacks such as those orchestrated by France's Napoleon Bonaparte were commonly preferred. Now rifled-muskets could fire much farther, making it easier to fell attacking infantrymen before they could reach defensive barriers.
Cavalry tactics were also changing. Horsemen still gathered intelligence about enemy troop movements and raided and disrupted communications and supplies. Cavalry also continued to ride along the edges of massed infantry, slowing momentum of enemy attacks and serving as a screen to prevent opposing forces from penetrating close enough to detect the infantry's direction. What changed as the war unfolded was that often cavalry dismounted to fight like infantry. Because of the greater range of weapons in this era, dismounted soldiers, in protected positions, could more easily shoot enemy cavalrymen. Hampton for the Confederates and Kilpatrick for the Union both used this ploy of directing dismounted cavalry, and when they eventually met in battle at Monroe's Crossroads, dismounted cavalry affected the outcome.
In late April and the first days of May 1863, a huge Union Amy, 130,000 strong, commanded by Major General Joe Hooker, advanced toward General Robert E. Lee's army, which was about half as big. Both sides split their forces, leaving Lee in the Wilderness of northern Virginia, near the village of Chancellorsville, still facing formidable odds. Lee further divided his army in the face of Hooker's massive advance. With some 10,000 men, Lee held off Hooker, while Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson marched his corps of some 28,000 down hot wooded roads to the Union right and attacked about 5:30 p.m., May 2.
The surprised Federal forces were hurled back and almost destroyed in this flank attack. Only the lateness of the day, a stout defense by some Federal units, and the wounding of Jackson likely saved the Union Army. The crushing defeat sent Hooker scrambling back across the Rappahannock River to safety.
The battle involved some of the bloodiest fighting to date in the war. Confederates suffered 14,000 killed, wounded, and captured; the Union about 17,000. The wounding of Jackson, who later died, was devastating to Confederate fortunes in the remainder of the war. Jackson proved to be irreplaceable. He and Lee had been ideal collaborators, almost machinelike in precision. Nothing similar developed between Lee and any of his subordinates.
The Confederates rested a few weeks and prepared for another invasion of the North. Stuart used the lull to parade his cavalry, grown to nearly 10,000 men, before an adoring public, an exercise in pride he soon regretted. The cavalry camped in Virginia near the small railroad community of Brandy Station, several miles from the Rappahannock River. On the evening of June 4, Stuart hosted a glittering, candle-lit ball in the county courthouse. The next day, he and his staff, resplendent in new uniforms, paraded through Brandy Station on their way to a field set up for a grand review. The cavalry, divided into five brigades (one commanded by Hampton), formed a line some two miles long.
Stuart rode onto the field with a great flourish. Civilians from miles around watched from train cars on nearby tracks and carriages and wagons. A fellow soldier described Stuart: "He was superbly mounted and his side arms gleamed in the morning sun like burnished silver. A long black ostrich plume waved gracefully from a black slouch hat cocked up on one side, held with a golden clasp... .He is the prettiest and most graceful rider I ever saw."
Stuart and his staff walked their horses past the assembled brigades, inspecting the troops who sat on their mounts at attention. Stuart then rode to a steep knoll serving as a natural reviewing stand where, to the crowd's delight, he wheeled his horse around and sat ramrod straight as the cavalry paraded past. Later, each brigade demonstrated mock cavalry charges while artillery boomed in the background.
That night there was another dance, outside this time, lit by bonfires. The crackling flames and the women's long twirling skirts provided a fitting close to a day so filled with pageantry. The only shadow on the festivities was that Lee had been unable to attend, but when the general arrived June 8 many of the ceremonies were repeated and another ball was held. The Union Army and thoughts of war seemed distant indeed.
But Union soldiers were not far away after all, only just across the Rappahannock. They kept quiet and burned no fires, waiting patiently for dawn, June 9. That morning, Stuart awoke to the sound of gunfire and explosions of artillery. He had camped the night before on Fleetwood Hill, the highest ground available in the area, and the spot with the loveliest view of Brandy Station, the undulating countryside, and the sparkling river several miles away.
While Stuart slept, Federal cavalrymen had stormed across the Rappahannock at several places and were fighting their way toward Fleetwood Hill. Stuart quickly rode northeast toward the Union horsemen and began coordinating intense fighting already in progress across a three-mile front. Hampton and other Confederates had, for the moment, stalled part of the Union advance. Kilpatrick was among the young Union cavalry officers in the battle.
The stand-off continued for several hours. Then came word, about noon, that other Union troops had crossed the river at another location and were now riding hard to positions behind Stuart and his embattled troops. Soon these Federals streamed up Fleetwood Hill. Not only had Stuart once again been taken by surprise, his entire force risked being severely punished if the Union soldiers held the high ground and managed to position artillery there.
Confederate cavalrymen charged, trying to retake the hill, and were repulsed. Their second try succeeded. But unlike many previous battles of the war, this time the Federal cavalry didn't buckle and scatter. They regrouped and attacked, taking back part of the hill. So fiercely and stubbornly did the Union soldiers fight that the situation became desperate for the Confederates. The Federals now threatened to recover the summit and the initiative. They were hauling a cannon toward the top of Fleetwood Hill when Hampton pivoted his soldiers around and sent them quickly toward the hill to stop them. Although the Confederates moved fast, they advanced in perfect order, almost as if still on parade. As he galloped forward, Hampton shouted orders, splitting his force, sending Cobb's Legion from Georgia head on toward the Union troops. Cavalry from North and South Carolina rode in support. Hampton swung around the base of the hill with other troopers, hoping to slam into the Union soldiers from the side.
With sabers raised, the Cobb Legion thundered up the hill at the same time that the Union forces charged. "The lines met on the hill," a witness remembered. "It was like what we read of in the days of chivalry, acres and acres of horsemen sparkling with sabers… flags above them, hurled against each other at full speed and meeting with a shock that made the earth tremble."
The Confederates swept to the top of the hill, while Union troops turned and rode in the opposite direction, running directly into the oncoming cavalry led by Hampton. A terrible fight ensued. "The whole plateau east of the hill and beyond the railroad was covered with Federal cavalry," described an artillery officer. "Hampton, diverging toward his left, passed the eastern terminus of the ridge, and crossing the railroad, struck the enemy. This charge was as gallantly made and gallantly met as any.... ever witnessed."
A thick cloud of dust and smoke obscured the combat for a time. Observers held their breaths and strained, trying to see what was happening. Minutes passed like hours. Finally, the haze partially lifted. Hampton's forces were still driving forward. The Union cavalry was in full retreat, heading for the cover of nearby trees. Hampton was about to surround the Union force, but as he raced forward a Confederate cannon atop Fleetwood Hill began firing by mistake at Hampton and his men. Hampton later wrote, "The capture of the whole force which had been driven from the hill would have been almost certain but that our own artillery...opened a heavy and well-directed fire at the head of my column. The delay rendered necessary to make this fire cease enabled the enemy to reach the woods."
Sporadic fighting continued for some time, but in the end Hampton's forces had helped save the day and prevented Stuart from suffering ignominious defeat. Still, their stunning surprise attack at Brandy Station showed that the Federal cavalry, commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Pleasanton, was indisputably equal in skill to the Confederates. The days of automatic victories for Stuart's cavalry were gone.
Confederates suffered 523 killed and wounded, while the Union lost 936 soldiers, almost half taken as prisoners. Among mortally wounded Confederates was Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hampton, Wade Hampton's brother.
Confederate Colonel Matthew C. Butler was also severely wounded while he directed soldiers holding off yet another Union cavalry advance several miles from Fleetwood Hill. Butler was sitting on horseback beside chief cavalry scout Captain Will Farley, also mounted, when a Union artillery piece fired, flinging a spinning cannon ball straight at the two officers. The projectile hit Butler first, tearing off his foot, then passed through his horse and Farley's before severing much of Farley's leg.
Officers rushed to attend Butler, who was gently placed on a blanket to be carried to the rear, out of the fighting. Butler, in great pain, protested. "I wish that you two gentlemen, as you have placed me in the hands of my own men, would go and take charge of Captain Farley."
The officers located Parley and helped him onto a makeshift stretcher where he calmly asked them to bring him his missing leg. Farley, clutching the limb to his chest as tenderly as a baby, said, "It is an old friend, gentlemen, and I do not wish to part from it." As medics started to carry Parley away, the officers shook hands with him and told him they hoped to see him soon. But Farley, realizing the end was near, responded candidly, "Goodbye, gentlemen, and forever. I know my condition, and we will not meet again. I thank you for your kindness. It is a pleasure to me that I have fallen into the hands of good Carolinians at my last moment."
Farley smiled and nodded to the officers as he was taken to the rear where he died a few hours later.
Stuart, who must have been shaken by the attack, was determined not to reveal any misgivings about his role in the near disaster. To demonstrate that he had held his ground, he resolved to reestablish his camp of the night before on Fleetwood Hill. But his bravado fell away atop the summit where dead horses and the bodies of slain soldiers lay everywhere. Blue bottle flies swarmed in thick clouds over pools of blood seeping into the soil. Stuart camped elsewhere.