Click Here for Home Page
Click Here for Home Page
The Bristoe Campaign - by Chris Hartley

For Jeb Stuart and the Confederate Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Bristoe Campaign ended in one final blaze of glory. It was October 17, 1863, and Jeb Stuart -- having been summoned by General Robert E. Lee after Stuart fulfilled some previous orders -- began pulling back from the Frying Pan Church area. Beginning at sundown, Confederate General Wade Hampton marched toward Gainesville and Haymarket. Confederate General Fitz Lee rode by way of Manassas Junction and Bristoe Station. On October 18, Federal General Judson Kilpatrick's cavalry division and six pieces of artillery, supported by infantry, made it known that Stuart would not withdraw unpursued. Kilpatrick, it is said, remarked over dinner one day that "he would not press Stuart so hard, but he [Stuart] had boasted of driving him [Kilpatrick] out of Culpeper, and he was going to give him no rest." The Federals followed the Confederate rearguard toward Buckland by way of Gainesville. Stuart, realizing his precarious situation, ordered Fitz Lee to come up and monitor his right while Hampton continued toward Buckland.

Fitz Lee had camped near Auburn on the eighteenth, so he had to cover a few miles before he could take position. While he waited, Stuart halted along Broad Run, at Buckland Mills, on October 19. Posting sharpshooters and artillery on the stream's south bank, he hoped to delay the Federals. Several hours worth of skirmishing commenced, in which, Stuart reported, the enemy "was baffled in repeated attempts to force the passage of Broad Run." General James B. Gordon's Brigade, which had dismounted, fought fiercely. Late in the morning, when the Unionists gave up the frontal approach and began probing around the Rebel flank, Stuart heard from Fitz. It came in the form of a suggestion. If Stuart would withdraw toward Warrenton and draw Kilpatrick after him, then Lee would strike the exposed Federal left and rear. The brilliant plan delighted Stuart, so he immediately agreed to it. At the sound of Lee's signal gun, Stuart replied, he would turn and attack Kilpatrick to join the fun.

Slowly, Hampton's men began retiring along the broad, straight New Baltimore-Warrenton Turnpike. The withdrawal puzzled Gordon's men, but the brigades of Gordon, Young, and Rosser drew Kilpatrick's cautious Federals after them. Kilpatrick, not suspecting a trap, boasted that he would "catch Stuart before he got to Warrenton." About two and one-half miles northeast of Warrenton, the Confederates reached a low range of hills known as Chestnut Hill. While a weak line of skirmishers offered protection, Stuart stopped and formed his column behind the hills. Gordon dismounted his men in a field alongside the road and told them to be ready to move at a moment's notice. That done, Gordon joined Stuart. The waiting began. By mid-afternoon, the Federal advance caught up and began ascending Chestnut Hill: the column "of splendidly equipped cavalry came marching on with flags fluttering and arms glittering in the bright autumn sunshine," wrote Blackford. They soon reached a point within two hundred yards of Stuart's leading elements. As if on cue, the sound of artillery rolled across the countryside from the direction of Buckland. That was Fitz Lee! The order to mount spread along Gordon's column. A dozen bugles sounded the call "to saddle." The brigade trotted back into the road and began marching up and over Chesnut Hill toward the enemy.

In column with drawn sabres, Gordon's Brigade manned the center. Young and Rosser took position on either flank. William H. H. Cowles, second-in-command of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry, commanded the column's rear. However, "in the gratification of what I thought would be construed as a pardonable curiosity," Cowles rode to the crest of the hill and saw a "soul-stirring scene:"

Our own column resting in the road with sabres drawn and ready for action, with mounted skirmishers on either flank responding to the enemy's fire; Generals Stuart and Gordon on the right of the road viewing intently the situation; the enemy's column (the pick and flower of the Federal cavalry) confronting us and stretching in column of fours, completely covering the highway in our front as far as we could see, with mounted skirmishers on either flank and evidently in readiness to charge. Not a moment was to be lost; much, as every old cavalryman knows, depended on getting the "bulge on ?em," as Fitz Lee would say.
Stuart turned to Gordon and told him to advance rapidly along the pike. "Now, Gordon, is your time!" he called.

Gordon accordingly rode to the front of his column and sought Rufus Barringer, who commanded the 1st North Carolina. "Major Barringer," Gordon said, "charge that Yankee line and break it."

A trooper stood nearby. He too saw the Federals drawn up in "splendid array." He also saw Gordon. "Brigadier General Gordown [sic] was a nervous excitable man, but he had the courage and readiness of a born soldier. He had hastily gotten his orders what to do, and what was wanted. He dashed up in person to the front of the 1st, and then said with a calm air that inspired confidence and success, ?Major Barringer, charge those Yankees and break them.'"

Barringer, who "from a sense of duty alone" had recently turned down "numerous solicitations" to become a candidate for the Confederate Congress, accepted the assignment. His command to the regiment rang in Southern ears: "Forward, trot, march!" After the men marched a few paces in perfect order, Barringer quickened the pace. "Gallop, March!" he yelled. Then, with the 1st aimed for the enemy, there remained only a single formality. Barringer told the regimental bugler, "Little" Henry Litaker, to sound the charge. The man bore slightly to one side, faced the regiment, and let loose. Bold notes pierced the air. The men let out a terrific Rebel yell; behind them, bugles from all the division's regiments spread the call. Cowles took an unassigned position at the head of the 1st, yelling "Forward First North Carolina Cavalry; I will lead you!" The smooth, firm ground passed quickly beneath hundreds of horses' hooves. The Confederate brigades bore down on the Federal brigade of General Henry E. Davies. Artillery boomed, sabres flashed, and carbines cracked, and the Federals stood momentarily, but the 1st led the three brigades forward with effective "impetuosity." The 1st drew within fifty yards of the Federal column, with the remainder of Hampton's division not far behind. At that, the blue troopers emptied their pistols and carbines at the Confederates, wheeled, and galloped away in all directions.

Fitz Lee's flank attack struck Brigadier General George A. Custer's Brigade at Broad Run. Unlike Davies, Custer had been ready and was able to keep Lee at bay. Indeed it was Stuart's attack, not Lee's, that really sparked the Federal retreat. Davies's galloping withdrawal uncovered Custer and forced a general retreat, although the Federal fire caused momentary confusion in the 1st. Quickly Barringer reformed his line and resumed the pursuit. The Federals galloped in an orderly fashion for more than a mile, and even wheeled and fired on occasion. Barringer decided to hasten the retreat. At Barringer's command, Cowles and Company A pressed harder and broke the Federal ranks.

At that, Gordon reported, "The enemy fled in great confusion and were pursued for several miles with unrelenting fury." The Confederates pushed their steeds hard, passing riderless horses and running, dismounted blue troopers. Fitz Lee's Brigade chased the enemy more to the right, toward Gainesville. Back through New Baltimore toward Buckland and Haymarket, Gordon's Brigade enlarged its success. The 5th North Carolina routed the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry; the 1st, 2d, and 4th Tarheel horse regiments hunted with glee. Cowles, with what Gordon called "that conspicuous gallantry which always characterizes him," not only helped Barringer lead the chase but also captured five wagons and two enemy ambulances. The haul included Custer's headquarters baggage and papers, as well as discarded weapons. Barringer was perhaps the only man who did not enjoy the chase; near New Baltimore, his horse, Black Shot, became unmanageable and threw him against a house. This aside, the victorious pursuit did not stop until it confronted the lines of Meade's I Corps.

So the Bristoe Campaign ended for the cavalry. From the infantry camps along the Rapidan to Stuart's bivouacs, Confederates began buzzing about the Buckland fight. A less pleasant sensation plagued the opposing army. Wags called the affair the "Buckland Races," and the name stuck. Ever afterward, memories of the Buckland Races brought smiles to the faces of Stuart's cavalrymen. "It certainly stands alone," Cowles later wrote, "as the steeple chase of the war." The Buckland Races was also another milestone of sorts: nobody knew it then, but it marked virtually Stuart's last victory over the Federal cavalry.

Click Here for More Articles