1863: “We Dashed At Them With Drawn Sabres”

Thursday Morning, June 11/63
Old Camp under the Oaks near Catletts Stations, Va.

On Monday the 8th we marched from here at 3 P.M. and halted near the ford for the night – no fires – and all kept perfectly quiet. At 3 in the morning we were again in the saddle and our Regiment, as the head of the Regular Brigade, crossed the river, when fighting immediately began. The rebels feel back slowly, until they gained a good position, when they made a stand. …A number of shots hissed close by us, and a minute after, Harry’s magnificent horse “Medor” fell, shot through the flank. About fifteen minutes later we were ordered to advance on the woods from which the enemy were annoying us with sharp shooters…

We passed through the woods, being heavily shelled on our left by the enemy’s batteries. When we came through to the open, we found a whole brigade of Stuart’s Cavalry drawn up to receive us. We dashed at them, squadron front with drawn sabres, and as we few along – our men yelling like demons – grape and cannister 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 Major Morris’ horse fell badly with him, and broke away from him when he got up, thus 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.

I found we were rapidly getting hemmed in, so I, as rapidly as possible, gathered together the remnant of our Regiment and dashed out of the woods, only to find that hundreds of gray devils occupied both sides of the open; – and because we had not been supported, we were completely surrounded. Then came a race for life…

Major Henry C. Whelan, 6th PA Cav; excerpts from a letter to his sister; June 11, 1863

Battle of Brandy Station

Sketch of a cavalry charge at the Battle of Brandy Station

On June 9, 1863, the largest cavalry battle ever fought in North America occurred around Fleetwood Heights and Brandy Station. Union cavalry surprised Confederate horsemen early in the morning, after the blue-clad troopers made a quiet march to get to their positions.

The battle marks a crucial turning point in the war and Civil War history of cavalry. In this pitched battle, Union cavalrymen held their own against the previous (nearly) undefeated Confederate cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by J.E.B. Stuart. Following up on their initially battlefield success at Kelly’s Ford (March 17, 1863), Union troops proved they were now ready to match and beat their foes on the battlefield, skirmish lines, and campaign roads. It had taken some time, but Union cavalrymen were now a force to be reckoned with, and with better equipment and provided horses, they would outlast their Confederate counterparts.

Technically speaking, the Battle of Brandy Station ended in a draw. The Confederates scored a tactical victory by managing to hold or reclaim some of the lost ground, but the Union claimed the strategic and moral victory, boosting their confidence going into the next campaign (Gettysburg Campaign).

Cavalry Fights

I think we have these glorious ideas of cavalry fights and charges. However, Major Whelan’s letter gives us a glimpse into the real chaos, dangers, and violence of a cavalry-to-cavalry battle. (I didn’t put in some of the more violent and gory descriptions in his letter, attempting to keep the blog PG or PG13).

One thing that stands out to me in the excerpts is the feeling of confusion and extreme chaos. Decisions were being made quickly and the chain of command fell as officers were killed, injured, or can’t keep up with the unit because of equestrian casualties. And then there’s the Confederates: waiting, shooting, and ready to swing sabers when the Union men get close.

Some of the most violent casualty descriptions I’ve read from the Civil War are in aftermath of cavalry fights. There might have been that second of grandeur that artists love to depict, but mostly cavalry fights were brutal conflicts with double chaos and double casualties – man and beast.

A Virginian Cavalryman (Artwork by Jim Lancia, no copyright infringement intended)

Historical Musings

Horse casualties. In a cavalry unit if your horse went down, you’re stuck. Maybe literally stuck. First, a cavalryman wouldn’t be able to keep up with a fast moving unit (remember Whelan’s descriptions of jumping ditches); second, he might have been pinned on the ground if his ~1,000 lb beast fell on him. Dismounted cavalrymen were vulnerable and if they were officers, the unit could end up without a commander.

So what happened to a Civil War cavalryman if his horse died as a casualty of war? Union troopers’ horses were issued by the army, so he’d just get a new horse – one that may or may not have had much training. For a Confederate cavalryman, losing a horse was even more serious; he provided his own horse and would have to get a new one from home or a raid to continue service in a mounted unit.

Horses are an often forgotten casualty of war. They were the cornerstone of the cavalry, but they were not invincible to the shot and shell of the battlefield.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Want more information about Civil War Horses? Check-out the series The Generals’ Horses in our archives.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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