Presently Kilpatrick discovered that Stuart had withdrawn from his front and was marching to Brandy Station, his plan being to attack and use up Buford, who was falling back from Stevensburg to Brandy Station, followed by Fitzhugh Lee's division. Divining his purpose Kilpatrick at once started for Brandy Station. In the race for that point the First Vermont marched on the extreme right of the division, on the right of the railroad, where heavy oak woods came close to the track and where progress was more difficult than in the open field on the left, through which the rest of the division moved.
For five miles the rapid march continued, when a stretch of open country on both sides of the track allowed the First Vermont to move in column by battalion. As the regiment and brigade neared Brandy Station, the sounds of firing to the right showed that Buford was not far away and that he was sharply engaged. He succeeded, however, in reaching the Fleetwood Hill, and taking a strong position there, which he held till he was joined by Kilpatrick. The latter part of the march of Custer's brigade, thither, was sufficiently exciting. It was a race with Stuart's advance, on parallel roads, the columns being near to and in full sight of each other. At one point three Confederate regiments blocked he way but the road was cleared by a charge of a battalion of the Fifth New York. There was danger that between Hampton's division coming in on the right, and Fitzhugh Lee's on the left, the brigade would get sorely pinched; but it got through and joined the division, which effected a junction with Buford. On the other side Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee united and attacked Pleasonton, who was now in command of the two Union divisions, and a spirited cavalry battle occupied the latter part of the afternoon.
The descriptions of the rush into Brandy Station given by the division, brigade and regimental commanders, all make lively reading. General Kilpatrick's is as follows:
The situation was indeed most critical; there was but one way out, there was but one road over which we could pass, and across that road stood Fitzhugh Lee with his division, larger than my own. I rode over the General Pleasonton, who had joined Custer in the fight, and said: "I propose to charge straight to the front on Fitzhugh Lee's division." "The only thing left for us to do," he replied. In five minutes every man knew what was expected of him, and with brave heart only waited for the cry to "charge." General Henry G. Davies rode upon the right with his four regiments-the second New York, First Vermont, Eighteenth Pennsylvania, and Twelfth Virginia-in column by squadrons doubled on the centre. Custer, with hat off, laced jacket, yellow hair dancing in wild confusion over his head and shoulders, rode-a perfect picture of manly health and courage-at the head of his Michigan brigade. As our column closed in compact order, and 3,000 bright, sharp sabres leaped from their scabbards and danced in the sunlight, the rebel chiefs realized for the first time and to their great astonishment that we were not captured yet or even frightened, but were preparing to charge through their lines and that their task had only just begun. In three heavy columns of a thousand each, we slowly but firmly moved down upon the foe, while a strong line of skirmishers on front, flanks and rear held back the eager, yelling foe, while from out the intervals the batteries of Pennington and Elder opened huge gaps in the strong rebel lines as they closed in upon us. When within a few hundred yards of Fitz Lee's position, our band struck up "Yankee Doodle," a hundred bugles rang out the charge, and 3,000 men in one unbroken front, with the grandest cheer I ever heard, like a loosened cliff fell upon the foe. Stuart's and Fitz Lee's cavalry corps had not the moral courage to witness and stand fast before this vast array of rushing squadrons and flashing sabres, but broke in wild dismay, opening wide a road over which passed my brave command, uniting with the men of Buford on the hills beyond.
Custer's account is as follows:
My advance had reached the vicinity of Brandy Station, when a courier hastened back with the information that a brigade of the enemy's cavalry was in position directly in my front, thus cutting us completely off from the river. Upon examination, I learned the correctness of the report. The heavy masses of Confederate cavalry could be seen covering the heights in front of my advance. When it is remembered that my rear-guard was hotly engaged with a superior force, a heavy column enveloping each flank, and my advance confronted by more than double my own number, the perils of my situation can be estimated. Lieutenant Pennington at once place his battery in position, and opened a brisk fire, which was responded to by the guns of the enemy. The major general commanding the cavalry corps at this moment rode to the advance. To him I proposed with my command, to cut through the force in my front, and thus open the way for the entire command to the river. My proposition was approved, and I received orders to take my available force and push forward, leaving he Sixth and Seventh Michigan cavalry to hold the force in the rear in check. I formed the Fifth Michigan cavalry on my right, in column of battalions; on my left I formed the First Michigan in column of squadrons. After ordering them to draw their sabres, I informed them that we were surrounded, and al we had to do was to open a way with our sabres. They showed their determination and purpose by giving three hearty cheers. At this moment the band struck up the inspiring air, "Yankee Doodle," which excited the enthusiasm of the entire command to the highest pitch, and made each individual member feel as if he was a host in himself. Simultaneously both regiments moved forward to the attack. It required but a glance at the countenances of the men to enable me to read the settled determination with which they undertook the work before them. The enemy, without waiting to receive the onset, broke in disorder and fled. After a series of brilliant charges, during which the enemy suffered heavily, we succeeded in reaching the river, which we crossed in good order.
How the thing looked from Buford's position is thus described by Captain Whitaker of the Sixth New York cavalry:
Buford fell slowly back in the direction of Brandy Station, and as his read there was much shorter than that of Kilpatrick's division, found himself there before Kilpatrick. Custer's brigade was on the right of the Third division, and Pleasonton was with Kilpatrick. Therefore the position was now very curious. At Brandy Station, with his back to the river, was Buford, a force of cavalry and infantry, with several batteries, pressing all round him. Several mounted charges had been made to drive back the enemy, and in every instance they fell back. Suddenly the heavy fire in Buford's front ceased, and then recommenced with tenfold fury, but not a shot came near Buford's men. In increased to a perfect roar, while the yells of charging men were plainly audible over the firing. The next moment, out of the woods into the open fields, came tearing Kilpatrick's men, charging in column, Pleasonton with the guns, in the middle of the column, all looking pretty well used up. Had it not been for the firm attitude of Buford's division, whose flanks were safe, and who had kept the enemy all in the front, Kilpatrick's men must have suffered as fearfully as they did a few days later at Buckland's Mills. As it happened, Buford's stand gave them time to rest and get into decent order, and the rest of the afternoon the two divisions confronted the enemy without further disaster, till nightfall the most exasperating part of this battle at Brandy Station was however yet to come. It was when the cavalry after dark rode down to the fords to cross the Rappahannock and beheld the whole country on the further bank bright with the camp-fires of their own infantry, who had been compelled to lie idle all day, passive spectators of a fight which their presence could have determined. 'To the cavalry, the battle of Brandy Station was creditable. It was a gallant struggle against fearful odds.
Colonel Sawyer's description is as follows:
The scene began to grow interesting. It was seen that we were not only flanked on both right and left, and closely pressed in the rear, but that right across the road we desired to travel, we were confronted by a strong force; that we were surrounded. We now supported the right of Captain Elder's battery, who directed his attention to the columns of rebel cavalry, infantry and artillery, on the east of the road. I was then ordered to recross the railroad-having crossed a little previously to the left-and again cover the right of General Davies's brigade. The road is here built upon an embankment, raised, I should judge, ten feet above the surrounding ground, so that while we were on the left of the road we had a very good cover from the enemy's batteries. But we had to cross this embankment and re-form under a terrible fire, at point-blank range. We re-formed in column of squadrons, and moving up on parallel lines with the cavalry on our left, came to a run, with steep banks, compelling us to break by fours to cross it, and re-form again on the other side in column of squadrons. Here a good many stragglers from other regiments rushed wildly by us. Several horses being wounded became unmanageable, and communicating their excitement to others, considerable disorder was likely to ensue. I halted the command and addressed a few words to the officers and men. The majors deliberately dressed their battalions, and the regiment moved on, passed the station, and came into line of battle in splendid order, eliciting the warm compliments of General Kilpatrick, who personally witnessed the manoeuver. We were now ordered to support a section of Captain Elder's battery, and formed on its left.
The scene had become wild and exciting. We had formed a junction with Buford. The batteries of the two divisions, and more than an equal number on the rebel side-in all probably forty-were vigorously playing. Charges and counter-charges were frequent in every direction, and as far as the eye could see over the vast rolling field, were encounters by regiments, by battalions, by squads and between individuals, in hand-to-hand conflict. We were not allowed to remain long as idle lookers on. General Custer with the other regiments of the Second brigade had made a magnificent charge, but finding the rebel line formed beyond a ditch too wide for his horses to leap, he had, after the exchange of a few rounds been obliged to retire in considerable disorder. The rebels seeing this disorder, were coming with strong force from the woods on our left, aiming for Captain Elder's guns, which we were supporting. The regiment obeyed the order to charge with more than their usual alacrity. The enemy was held in check until the guns took up another position. The contest was sharp and severe, my loss in killed, wounded and missing being four officers and 29 men. To charge into woods with the sabre, against cavalry supported by infantry or dismounted cavalry, requires high courage, and is against immense odds. But not one faltered, officer nor man. After this charge the regiment re-formed under a heavy fire from the enemy's artillery, and took its full share in the subsequent scenes of the day.
In this engagement nearly the whole cavalry force of the armies of the Potomac and Virginia confronted each other, and, having a splendid field, undoubtedly exhibited the most magnificent display ever witnessed upon this continent; and had it not been for the well known fact that the rebels were heavily supported by infantry, or had the rebels displayed more ardor for the offensive, after our junction with General Buford, it must have resulted in one of the most bloody cavalry fights in history.
Exciting as was this battle, not much blood was shed. The bodies of eleven men of Custer's brigade were buried on the field. The loss of the Vermont regiment was reported at the time as one killed, four wounded and 28 missing. Sergeant Jason A. Stone, the man reported killed, was wounded and captured, and died of his wounds in Richmond at some date not known. Captain Adams of company H, who was with the rear guard, was cut off with 13 men of that company and captured, and Captain Beeman and Lieutenant Horace A. Hyde of company B, with 10 men, were also taken prisoners in some of the skirmishing. Captain Beeman was confined in Libby Prison until May, 1864, when he was taken to Macon, Ga. While on the way thence to Charleston he escaped from the cars, was recaptured by means of blood-hounds, and after five months' further confinement in Charleston and Columbia, was paroled December 9th, and mustered out of the service December 17th, 1864. Captain Adams was confined at Charlotte, N. C. He escaped from prison March 1st, 1865, made his way on foot to the Union lines at Knoxville, Tenn., and rejoined his regiment soon after. Sergeant A. M. Crane of company I, and Private Solon D. Davis of company H, escaped from Libby in October by lowering themselves by the lightning-rod from the upper story of the laundry, and rejoined the regiment soon after. The capture of the senior major of the regiment was an unfortunate sequel of the battle of Brandy Station. Major Hall, being barely convalescent from a recent illness, was compelled by exhaustion to leave the filed. During the action. He crossed the Rappahannock, and while searching for the regiment next day was captured, with the orderly who accompanied him. He was confined in Libby Prison until August 26th 1864, when he was exchanged and rejoined the regiment.
There was a good deal of scolding on the part of officers and men of the cavalry, when on crossing the Rappahannock they found that the larger part of the infantry of the Army of the Potomac had been lying within sight and hearing of the cavalry fight, without rendering any support.
The regiment had bivouacked two miles beyond the Rappahannock, when it was ordered, with the Fifth Michigan, to picket the river from Ellis's to United States Ford, involving a night march of thirty miles for a portion of the regiment. On the 13th the two regiments joined the division at Bealton Station, and marched with it, covering the left flank of the Second Army Corps, to within three miles of Buckland Mills.
Early the next morning, the 14th, the command was aroused by the firing near Warrenton, where Stuart had attacked Gregg, and the division started thither; but finding it was not needed, it returned and moved to Gainesville, where for several hours it stood in line of battle while General Warren was making his splendid rear guard fight at Bristoe Station. No enemy appearing it then marched to Sudley Church, on Bull Run. Here the division was reinforced by Merritt's brigade, and for that day and the next, covered the right flank of the army. The regiment remained in that vicinity with the division until the 18th of October, the enemy being still in force in front. On the 18th it having become evident that Lee was withdrawing his army, Meade began to press his rear with the cavalry. That day the division moved rapidly to Gainesville, the Second brigade, with the Vermont regiment in advance, moving by the New Market road. Company I, thrown forward as skirmishers, soon encountered the enemy's pickets, and the first battalion becoming engaged, drove up the enemy's rear-guard to the junction of the New Market road with the Warrenton pike. Here the Vermont regiment was joined by the Second New York cavalry and followed the enemy to Gainesville, where a formidable line checked further pursuit. The regiment was on duty during that cold and rainy night. Next morning Bennett's battalion was deployed, with Wells's battalion in support, and charged the enemy, who beat a hasty retreat.*1*
1. General Custer in his report, says: "The First Vermont cavalry, Colonel Sawyer, deserves great credit for the rapidity with which it forced the enemy to retire."
Source George G. Benedict, "Vermont in the Civil War, 1861-5," (Free Press Association, Burlington, 1888), pp. 617-624.