By Clark B. Hall
(May 2013 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
Col. John S. Mosby certainly knew more than most about fighting on horseback and his conclusion that the Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, was “the fiercest mounted combat of the war — in fact, of any war,” must today receive weighty consideration.
A staff officer to Jeb Stuart concurred when adding, “Brandy Station was the most terrible cavalry fight of the war” and the “greatest ever fought on the American continent.”
It is indisputable that Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the war but we also concur with another distinction posited by a battle participant. Summoned in 1888 to offer dedicatory comments for the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Monument at Gettysburg, Col. Frederick Newhall asserted the following:
“From my point of view, the field at Gettysburg is far wider than that which is enclosed in the beautiful landscape about us …. The larger field of Gettysburg … is the great territory lying between the battleground and the fords of the Rappahannock in Virginia.
“And while Gettysburg is generally thought of as a struggle which began on the 1st and ended on the 3rd day of July, 1863, the fact will some day be fully recognized that it had its beginning many miles from here …. It was at Beverly Ford then that Gettysburg was inaugurated.”
So with Brandy Station acknowledged as the grandest cavalry battle of the war and equally renowned as the inaugural action of the war’s threshold campaign — both matters of no small distinction — we who serve Brandy Station do “fully recognize” that the Sesquicentennial recognition of such a momentous battle must be commensurate with the import of this “sudden clash in Culpeper, precluding the thunder at Cemetery Hill.”
It is further emphasized that 20,000 soldiers fought at Brandy and many of them never departed as they are buried there yet today.
There is a myth suggesting that soldiers killed at Brandy were all disinterred after the war and given a “proper burial” elsewhere. This is a cynical myth, and one advanced by those who aimed to treat the battlefield as a utilitarian commodity.
So, our foremost duty 150 years later mandates we not only memorialize the courage and sacrifice of horse soldiers who fought and died at Brandy Station, but that we also tenderly treat the battlefield as a combat cemetery — because this is exactly what it is.
As one who has been on duty at Brandy Station since a California developer and a New York Formula One racetrack promoter deigned to destroy America’s greatest cavalry battlefield in the late 80s, I can tell you from long experience that the preservation path which led us to this point of a largely-preserved battlefield has been both tortuous and intense. Briefly, I’ll describe this heavy backdrop.
After the war, the Brandy Station Battlefield went “back to crop,” an appropriate economic configuration considering the large, open and well-watered fields have been farmed since the Colonial Era.
Indeed, when I first tried to comprehend this huge battlefield in the mid-‘80s, much of the land was comprised of several large farms, most in excess of 500 acres.
I became friends with area farmers and they granted me permission to stroll their farms with my maps in hand. It was a farm owner, in fact — my lamented friend, Bob Button — who first informed me in late 1987, “Bud, someone from California just bought my farm.” (This farm, the wartime “Cunningham Farm,” comprised John Buford’s attack platform on the morning of June 9.)
I can still recall today the uneasy feeling that washed over me when I considered Bob’s words, “someone from California….” Well when Fred Gordon shortly thereafter sold his adjacent farm (Rooney Lee’s defensive position, the “Green Farm”), I determined to find out exactly who was buying these farms.
It didn’t take long to reveal that the new owner of these two farms and, soon, several more nearby — amassing almost 6000 acres — was a commercial developer from Irvine, Calif.
We often hear the axiom that timing is everything, and for once, timing favored the good guys. Brian Pohanka, Ed Wenzel and I had previously formed the “Chantilly Battlefield Association” and we had just fought a mostly losing battle when trying to protect that sanguine battlefield from commercial development.
As a direct result of this failed preservation ordeal, a new nationwide battlefield preservation organization had formed and was solidly in place just before Brandy Station was slated for wholesale destruction.
Dr. Gary Gallagher, President of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites Inc. (APCWS), asked me to give the board a briefing on this terrible threat to Brandy Station.
Following that long update, Dr. Gallagher and the board authorized me (ordered me, actually) to meet with the developer and determine his plans.
The developer’s expressed intentions: “To farm the property.” Did we believe him? Not hardly. In fact, we girded for the battle to come.
And when considering that singular APCWS decision to become involved in Brandy Station’s preservation over 25 years ago has resulted in so much that has proven eternally good, it is appropriate that you consider the names of these few, good men who made that fateful decision on May 15, 1988:
Gary Gallagher, Bob Krick, Jack Ackerly, Merle Sumner, Don Pfanz, Alan Nolan, Will Greene, Dennis Frye, Brian Pohanka, Chris Calkins and Ed Wenzel... Brandy Station heroes, all of them, and but for their courageous decision to “get involved,” Brandy Station would now be an industrial office park, or a Formula One racetrack.
Point being APCWS showed preservation leadership when it most counted.
Many contentious years of lawsuits ensued against the developers by the APCWS-created and funded Brandy Station Foundation and finally resulted in developer bankruptcies. And after sweeping away our collective tears at the “tragic” demise of these star-struck developers, APCWS purchased hundreds of battlefield acres for millions of dollars in 1996.
Today, the Civil War Trust — the extraordinarily effective successor organization to APCWS — controls almost 2,000 acres at Brandy Station. But, although much has been accomplished, it is a reality that yet remains to be accomplished.
The hallowed ground CWT presently owns and controls at Brandy Station is vitally significant ground, to be sure, but the most significant military acreage on the entire battlefield has remained in private hands all these years, to wit: Fleetwood Hill.
Fleetwood Hill is without question the most fought over, camped upon, and marched over real estate in the entire United States.
From March 1862 to May 1864, Fleetwood Hill — especially the southern terminus — witnessed hotly-contested actions and heavy troop occupation as both Blue and Gray armies jockeyed for control of the strategically significant “Rappahannock River Line,” situated just three miles north of Fleetwood.
As one Confederate officer put it, “Fleetwood Heights … commands the country and … there was no movement of troops across Culpeper that artillery did not blaze from its summits, and charging squadrons … did not contend for supremacy.”
Recently, the Civil War Trust has undertaken steps to secure the 61 precious acres that comprise the entirety of the southern terminus of Fleetwood — Gen. Jeb Stuart’s Headquarters during the battle.
The price tag is steep and there is no guarantee of success, but for the first time in modern history Fleetwood Hill is for sale and CWT is doing everything in its power to close the deal.
We can help, each of us, to make this happen and I urge you to do your part, if you can. Here is how:
Please visit the Trust’s website, www.CivilWar.org, and click on the link, “Civil War Trust Announces Preservation Opportunity on the Brandy Station Battlefield.”
After reviewing the details, and if you are so inclined (and I sincerely hope you are), please click the “Donate” link and join with many others who believe saving Fleetwood Hill is a national preservation priority of the highest rank.
On June 8, by the way, the esteemed Loudoun County (Va.) Civil War Round Table is hosting an all-day tour at Brandy Station to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the battle. For tour details, please see their website, lccwrt.wordpress.com. And if you attend, we promise you a cavalry battlefield outing that you will not soon forget.
Clark B. Hall is co-founder, Chantilly Battlefield Association; former board member and secretary, APCWS; and co-founder, Brandy Station Foundation (the original preservation entity).