Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Dateline Brandy Station, Virginia June 9, 1863: A Fateful Encounter at Dawn

As dawn approached about a mile from Beverly Ford on the north side of the Rappahannock River the morning of June 9, 1863 Brigadier General John Buford's Cavalry Division was waking from a fitful sleep.  Included in that division was a brigade commanded by Acting Brigadier General Benjamin Franklin Davis.*  Davis's command had been selected to spearhead the attack of the right wing of the Union Cavalry.  They were to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly Ford than advance in conjunction with the left wing, which was ordered to cross at Kelly's Ford about six miles downstream, toward Culpeper Courthouse, where they expected to encounter the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Everything was in place for what the northerners thought would be a surprise attack.  Events did not play out as planned however.

Map Beverly Ford and Environs

About 4:00 a.m. Davis's command silently mounted their horses and headed toward Beverly Ford.  They arrived at the ford about four-thirty.  As the cavalry horses stepped into the stirrup deep waters of the Rappahannock they and their riders were shrouded in mist rising from the river and any sounds they made were muffled by the noise the streams generated when it passed over a timber crib dam just upstream of the ford.  

The Rappahannock River near Beverly Ford

Benjamin Davis, who wore a Mexican serape to ward off the morning chill, led the advance as his command dashed up the southern bank of the Rappahannock.  He was followed closely by two squadrons of the 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry who were in turn supported by the 8th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry and the 3rd Indiana.  Just after crossing the river, much to their surprise, the northerners encountered two pickets, Fleet and Bob James, from the 6th Virginia Cavalry.  The James brothers fled, firing their pistols in the air to alert their comrades as they headed in a southwesterly direction from the ford toward a stand of timber about a quarter mile in their rear.  The Union troopers followed the retiring Confederate pickets down the Beverly Ford Road.

Captain Gibson of the 6th Virginia heard the picket fire and gathered his command for action.  When he saw the James brothers come into view followed by the 8th New York Cavalry he ordered his line to fire at the attacking Yankees.  Lt. Henry C. Cutler of the 8th New York was the first casualty of the day when he took a bullet in the neck from one of Gibson's troopers.  Captain Gibson's small force delayed the Yankees momentarily before they were forced to make a hastey retreat toward their own lines themselves.

Benjamin Davis brought up the 8th Illinois Cavalry to support the New Yorkers under his command.  The Union cavalry branched out on both sides of the Beverly Ford Road and headed southward.  Their advance was met by a charge from additional troops of the 6th Virginia under the command of Cabell Flournoy.  Flournoy's surprise, vicious counterattack halted the Union advance, which was pushed back in disarray.

Beverly Ford Road (Davis was wounded at the bend in the road just south of where the road intersects the Beverly Ford road from the east.) 

Benjamin Davis saw his troops break.  Realizing he needed to regain the initiative and rally his disorganized forces the gallant and brave officer raised his saber above his head and trotted down the Beverly Ford Road toward the Confederates.  When about 75 yards in front of his command Davis turned in the saddle to face them with his back to the enemy.  With raised saber he reportedly shouted "Stand Firm 8th New York" several times.  

A Confederate lieutenant with the 6th Virginia, Robert Owen Allen, saw Davis in the road.  Realizing the officer was in an exposed position and unaware of his presence he raced toward his unsuspecting prey.  Benjamin Franklin Davis's attention was focused on his command and he failed to realize Lt. Allen was approaching him from behind until it was almost too late.  Upon hearing Allen's horses's hoofbeats he turned in the saddle and raised his saber to strike Allen.  Allen dodged the blow and at the same time raised his pistol and sent a bullet into the Union officers forehead.  Davis fell to the ground mortally wounded at a bend in the road not far from Beverly Ford.

Mortal Encounter by Don Stivers Depicting Davis's Wounding

Site of Davis Wounding on the Beverly Ford Road

Sometime before 6:00 a. m., Benjamin Davis's comrades gathered the grievously wounded officer up in a litter and transported him back across the Rappahannock to the Hamilton House.  In route the litter bearers encountered Reverend Samuel L. Gracey, Chaplain of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry.  "Who is that boys?" Gracey reportedly said.  "Colonel Davis Sir."  "Is it possible!"  "Noble fellow"  Is he badly wounded?" Gracey asked.  "A mine ball through the head, sir!" replied a litter bearer.  Gracey then noted:  "He is insensible, his hair matted and clotted with blood.  God have mercy on this brave, noble, patriotic soldier the hero of Harpers Ferry."  Davis wound breath his last before the sunset on June 9, 1863.

Colonel and Acting Brigadier General Benjamin Franklin Davis's body would be transported to Washington by train, where it would be embalmed before being shipped to New York for burial.  On June 20, 1863 Davis's remains were interred in the cemetery at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.  He now reposes there next to Alonzo H. Cushing and one space away from his commander at Beverly Ford Major General John Buford.  May these American heroes from a by gone era rest in peace.

*  Confederate general JEB Stuart referred to Benjamin Davis as an "Acting Brigadier General" in his official report about the Battle of Brandy Station.  Davis was the Colonel of the 8th New York and while he had been recommended for promotion to Brigadier General that appointment was not confirmed before his death, most likely, because, being from the south, he had no support in Congress which had to approve all military appointments.  He lead a brigade and at times a division as a colonel for months before his death.