Friday, August 11, 2023

A Cavalry Fight Like No Other

Once, when I lived in Southern California, I saw an add in the paper calling for volunteers to join the 1st Maine Cavalry. Soon I enlisted and was riding in battle reenactments. In 1861, the U.S. army had a grand total of 5 mounted regiments. You had 2 regiments of dragoons, which were equipped to fight both mounted and dismounted. You had a regiment of mounted rifles, which was basically mounted infantry. And you had 2 regiments of light cavalry that were designed to be fast-moving and to perform various duties other than fighting. With the start of the Civil War, those units were merged into one fighting unit whose mission now was basically threefold: scouting, screening, and reconnaissance. However, by 1863, as repeating carbines came into play, that mission evolved into a mounted strike force, similar to a modern armored operation. 

In June of 1863, the cavalry of both sides clashed in what has become known as the largest cavalry engagement of the war and probably of the western hemisphere. This weekend, while doing a 10 mile race in Culpeper, VA, I hope to visit the sight of this famous battle at a little whistle stop called Brandy Station. By this time in the war, the Army of the Potomac's cavalry had been recognized into a single cavalry corps led by General Alfred Pleasonton. Union officers, suspicious of a sudden buildup of Confederate horsemen in the vicinity of Culpeper, assumed that J.E.B. Stuart was about to launch another one of his trademark raids. When the blue and gray troopers clashed at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863 (June 9 is my birthday, by the way), there were a total of 18,500 horsemen involved. Pleasonton's goal of dispersing or destroying the enemy cavalry failed, but the 14-hour battle proved to have a great positive impact on the morale of the Northern cavalry. For the first time in the war, Union cavalry had matched the Confederate cavalry in both skill and determination. Less than two months later, both sides would clash again at Gettysburg. 

The American Battlefield Trust (yes, I'm a supporter) has done a great job of preserving the Brandy Station battlefield. I'm eager to see places like Beverley's Ford, Yew Ridge, St. James Church, and Fleetwood Hill. Stories of valor, hardship, and sacrifice have always appealed to me. I am neither a military nor an academic historian, but the more I read and travel, the more fascinated I become. I consider myself blessed to have easy access to so many historic sites of both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.