Introduction to a series
One of the things I enjoy the most as a historian is the process. Searching for the pieces and putting the puzzle together through constant analysis, discussion and refinement. Interpretation can turn on a dime. It can seem like a chase that will never end.
Recently, through the efforts of an ECW colleague on the West Coast, I was able to procure a copy of Capt. Wesley Merritt’s report of the Battle of Brandy Station. At the time, Merritt commanded the 2nd U.S. Cavalry in Maj. Charles Whiting’s Reserve Brigade. It was an incredible surprise to see the file when I opened it in Dropbox.
Merritt’s report was not included in the volumes of the Official Records compiled in the post-bellum years. The document was written one day after the battle, on June 10, 1863, which means that Merritt’s memory was exceptionally fresh. Upon examination, the details in the report are fairly consistent with the Recollections Merritt provided to Theophilus Rodenbaugh for inclusion in From Everglade to Canyon, the Second’s regimental history. Most importantly it provides insight on a pivotal engagement that took place 155 years ago. Using the report, this series will trace Merritt and the 2nd U.S. through the course of the battle. Unless indicated, all quotations from Merritt are from his official report.
The fourth child in the marriage of John Willis Merritt and Julia Anne de Forest, Wesley Merritt was born in New York City on June 16, 1836. A lawyer affected by financial issues, John moved his family to Lebanon, Illinois in 1840 to take up farming. He eventually became a newspaper editor in the village of Salem. Young Wesley initially prepared to follow in his father’s first profession, however in 1855 he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He finished twenty second in a class of forty-one cadets in 1860. Upon graduation, Merritt was assigned to the 2nd U.S. Dragoons in Utah. From July 1, 1861 to January 1, 1862, Merritt served as the regiment’s Adjutant. In February, 1862, he became an aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke. Promoted to Captain on April 5, 1862, Merritt fought in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days’ battles. That fall Merritt was assigned to the defenses of Washington. On April 1, 1863, Merritt accepted the position of Ordnance Officer on the staff of Brig. Gen. George Stoneman, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps. When Stoneman took a leave of absence shortly after the end of the Chancellorsville Campaign, Merritt briefly joined the staff of his successor, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. Growing tired of administrative work, Merritt longed to be back in the saddle with his troopers. He returned to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry on June 1.
Formed in the spring of 1836, the 2nd U.S. Dragoons served in Florida, Mexico and on the Great Plains in the ante-bellum years. During the Mexican War at Resaca de la Palma on May 9, 1846, Capt. Charles May’s squadron assaulted an enemy artillery position. Before the assault, May famously implored his men to “remember your regiment and follow your officers.” The subsequent attack captured several batteries and a Mexican general. On August 3, 1861, Congress reorganized the mounted regiments of the United States Army. The 2nd Dragoons became the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. As the senior officer present, Merritt assumed command. He would not have to wait long until he led his men into action.
Shortly after his victory at Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart to consolidate his cavalry in Culpeper County, west of Fredericksburg. This concentration was soon discovered by the Union horsemen. Concerned that Stuart was about to turn his right flank and launch a raid toward Washington, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered Pleasonton to launch an expedition to destroy Stuart’s force.
On the evening of June 8, Merritt’s regiment, along with the 1st U.S. Cavalry, 5th U.S. Cavalry, 6th U.S. Cavalry and 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which made up the Reserve Brigade in Brig. Gen. John Buford’s Right Wing, bedded down opposite Beverly Ford on the north bank of the Rappahannock. Pleasonton planned to send Buford over the river early the following morning and head for a nearby stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, Brandy Station. There Buford was to rendezvous with Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s division, which was to cross the Rappahannock several miles downstream at Kelly’s Ford. With Col. Alfred Duffié’s division covering their left, Buford and Gregg were to move on to Culpeper and engage Stuart. The next day, Merritt would lead his Regulars into battle.