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June 9, 1863: Warhorses battle at Brandy Station

Jun. 9, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Union units mustered on the foggy north bank of the Rappahannock River just before sunrise, the breathy whinnies of horses barely heard over the splash and spill of the running water as the first riders made their way into rebel territory this morning.

Some 8,000 Federal cavalry troopers, backed by an estimated 3,000 infantry, surprised a 10,000-strong Confederate camp near Brandy Station in what soon turned into the largest battle of the war to date between warhorses.

Union Gen. Joe Hooker’s orders were simple: “Disperse and destroy the rebel cavalry force assembled in the vicinity of Culpeper, and destroy his trains and supplies of all description to the utmost of your ability,” he ordered Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton.

Although Federal forces were unable to do that and in the end were forced to withdraw back across the river, they did leave their mark.

Long derided as inferior horsemen and scouts, if nothing else Pleasanton’s Union cavalry corps appears to have demonstrated his troops are now among equals when facing off against rebel riders.

By the end of the day, the battle claimed 900 Union casualties; about half were believed to have been captured. Confederate losses are estimated at more than 500.

One Union trooper fresh from the daylong battle said the fighting was fierce. Describing one scene of frenzied fighting, Union troops “who resisted were sabered or shot till they reeled from the saddles, the victor rushing madly on to engage another foe.”

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