Review In Brief: The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863

by Brett Schulte on June 1, 2006 · 0 comments

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Unit Histories and Other Non-Campaign Studies of the War in the East

The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863. Eric J. Wittenberg. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc. (September 2003).
432 pp. 15 maps.

The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863 by fellow blogger Eric Wittenberg is really only my second foray into a cavalry-specific book. The first was Sherman’s Horsemen: Union Cavalry Operations in the Atlanta Campaign by David Evans. I thoroughly enjoyed that book, and since Eric is known as a cavalry expert with a knack for interesting storytelling, I looked forward to reading this one. The purpose of the book is to show how the cavalry units in the Army of the Potomac went from timid individual companies and regiments acting essentially as a large courier force to the cohesive, powerful, aggressive unit that was the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Eric points to the formation of the Cavalry Corps by Major General Joseph Hooker in February 1863. George Stoneman was appointed the commander of the AotP’s horsemen. Stoneman drilled the men relentlessly that winter and spring, and Wittenberg believes that this laid the foundations for the success to come. The effects of Stoneman’s training “came to full fruition in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864,when the Union Cavalry, by then the largest, best mounted, and best equipped force of horse soldiers the world had ever seen, played a decisive role in an entire campaign.”

Wittenberg moves on to describe the affair at Hartwood Church on February 24, 1863, where Fitz Lee’s Confederate Cavalry Brigade punched a hole in the Union cavalry screen on the Army of the Potomac’s right flank. Lee gave better than he got, and was only stopped when a small force of Yankee horsemen bluffed him into believing they were much larger in size. Union division commander William Woods Averell, a pre-war friend of Fitz Lee’s, was furious. Lee had left him a taunting note telling him to send over some coffee. Averell intended to do just that.

On St. Patrick’s Day 1863, Averell took his division across Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River. He planned to push for the town of Culpeper, scouting the area and doing as much damage as possible, but mainly intending to destroy the brigade of his erstwhile friend. Fitz Lee’s Brigade was again his opponent, and a cavalry battle featuring mounted charges and many melees broke out. Despite outnumbering Lee by a three to one margin, Averell failed to scatter the Rebels across the countryside and retreated back across Kelly’s Ford at the end of the day. Wittenberg says that there were a few reasons for this. First, Averell was content to allow Fitz Lee to come to him, rather than the other way around, once he was on the Rebel side of the Rappahannock. Second, Averell specifically told his unit commanders not to charge unless given specific orders. This sapped leaders of any individual initiative they had, a quality that the Union cavalry needed MORE of, not less. Despite the standstill, the morale of the Union Cavalry soared after Kelly’s Ford. The men felt that they could hold their own against, and even get the best of their Confederate counterparts going forward.

The next major operation of the Cavalry Corps was to make a large scale raid around Lee’s left as Hooker fought the Battle of Chancellorsville. George Stoneman led the raid, which destroyed numerous bridges and supplies, and whose various parts came very near to Richmond in some cases. Stoneman divided his command at Thompson’s Crossroads, a town on the south Anna River far to the southwest of Lee’s position near Chancellorsville. Stoneman intended for these various pieces to be like a shell bursting, the parts doing more as individual pieces than the whole could do on its own. Despite all of this, Hooker blamed Stoneman for his defeat at Chancellorsville and had him replaced by Alfred Pleasonton, a man prone to exaggeration to move ahead in stature. In addition, Averell was removed from his command and later led a cavalry division in the Shenandoah Valley area. The author disputes these removals, saying that Stoneman and Averell were convenient scapegoats for Hooker. Wittenberg says these men contributed a great deal to the future success of the Cavalry Corps, and that they need to be recognized for these achievements.

Wittenberg covers the massive cavalry clash at Brandy Station to close out the book. On June 9, 1863, Pleasonton crossed the Rappahannock River to try to find Lee’s infantrymen of the Army of Northern Virginia, then suspected to be moving north in the wake of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Pleasonton immediately found most of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry just across the River near Brandy Station, much to the surprise of both sides. What followed was the largest cavalry battle ever fought on the North American continent. The Right Wing under John Buford crossed at Beverly Ford and attacked the Confederate Brigades of Hampton, Jones, and Rooney Lee. As Buford kept Stuart occupied in front of Fleetwood Hill, the Federal Left Wing under Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg crossed at Kelly’s Ford after some delays. They managed to completely bypass Bev Robertson’s Confederate brigade guarding Stuart’s right, and attacked the Rebel right rear on Fleetwood Hill. Stuart, shocked by this development, sent parts of several brigades galloping madly over the hill to combat the Union advance. The fighting continued all day, with neither side able to gain headway. Lee, anxious to mask the presence of his infantry, chose not to send reinforcements from Hood’s Division until late in the day. The infantry only reached the field as the Union force was retiring back across the Rappahannock. That Lee would decide to actually use the infantry says much about how far the Union Cavalry had come since February.

Not to be lost is the author’s discussion of various men who were up and comers in the Cavalry Corps. Men such as John Buford, Ulric Dahlgren, Elon J. Farnsworth, David Gregg, George Armstrong Custer, and others played a large role in the increasing aggressiveness of the Union’s mounted arm. The ability to promote these men over inferior commanders created conditions where incompetent commanders were weeded out, and solid leaders took their place.

I’m happy to report that all I’ve heard about Eric’s writing style is true. This was an interesting story, and the narrative was fast-paced, interesting, and easy to understand throughout the 340-odd pages of text. A good deal of that understanding is made possible by the large number of maps, clearly marked with towns and terrain features, that appear in the book. Eric has repeatedly mentioned on his blog that he believes maps are an important part of any campaign or battle study, and this book doesn’t disappointment in that regard. Five appendices detail the Orders of Battle at regimental level for the various engagements discussed throughout the book, though unit strengths are not listed. This particular volume contains notes at the end of each chapter, an arrangement I find much easier to use than the end notes at the back of the book. I paused at the end of each chapter to read the notes, something I do not always do, and I found that it served as a way to consolidate in my mind what had happened in a given chapter. A short glossary appears on page 359, covering various terms some readers may be unfamiliar with. The bibliography, which runs from page 360 to page 380, contains a large number of primary sources. The author has also discussed in his blog that he takes no secondary source for granted. Instead, he prefers to do his own research of the primary materials and come to his own conclusions, even if they differ significantly from commonly held beliefs about a person or campaign. And lastly, the index closes out the book. In a somewhat humorous blog entry, Eric discussed his utter loathing of preparing an index. I do not remember if this was one of the books which he was responsible for indexing, but this index looks solid. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Civil War cavalry, the war in the east, or the Chancellorsville Campaign in particular. Readers do not need to be seasoned veterans of campaign studies, as the author provides background and sets the stage, and the numerous maps keep the uninformed on the path to understanding these events and the growth of the Union Cavalry during the winter and spring of 1863.


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