After defeat at Bristoe Station and an aborted advance on Centreville, Stuart’s cavalry shielded the withdrawal of Lee’s army from the vicinity of Manassas Junction. Union cavalry under Kilpatrick pursued Stuart’s cavalry along the Warrenton Turnpike but were lured into an ambush near Chestnut Hill and routed. In the resulting [b]Battle of Buckland Mills[/b] Federal troopers were scattered and chased five miles in an affair that came to be known as the “Buckland Races.”
After initial reconnaissance and skirmirshing by the 1st Vermont Cavalry revealed the retreat of the Confederate army orders were issued to begin the pursuit. At 0300 on the 19th BG Judson Kilpatrick received orders for his division “[i]to move out on the Warrenton Pike and ascertain the movements and position of the enemy[/i].” BG George A. Custer’s brigade led the march out and successfully pushed the Confederate skirmishers back to the stone bridge at Buckland Mills. Here Stuart had taken advantage of the natural strength of the position to establish a blocking position. Broad Run ran deep here and the bridge and a ford about a miler away provided the only crossing options. When Custer rode forward with his staff to evaluate the situation at the bridge an enemy artillery shell quickly dispersed the group. Stuart’s well placed defense left Custer no choice but to deploy his men for battle.
While Custer deployed Stuart sent word to Fitzhugh Lee several miles south about the developing opportunity. After he gave up the crossing, as he intended to do, and moved west he correctly assumed that he would be followed by Kilpatrick. Lee moving north from Auburn would strike the Union column in the flank. If everything worked as planned then Lee would sieze the Broad Run crossings behind the enemy cavalry trapping them between the two groups of Confederate cavalry. The enemy began the battle acting precisely as Stuart had hoped. After a “[i]fruitless effort[/i]” to force a crossing at the bridge the 7th Michigan Cavalry was sent on a flanking march for the ford. The delay created by the time necessary to complete this manuever allowed Fitzhugh Lee to move into position to execute the plan. After turning Stuart out of his position on the west bank of Broad Run, Custer pushed Stuart back “[i]more than a mile from the stream[/i].” At this point BG Kilpatrick arrived and had Custer’s men step aside so that BG Henry Davies could take the lead with his brigade. While Davies advanced westward toward New Baltimore Custer was to follow. As Kilpatrick was being “[i]easily misled[/i]” by Stuart, Lee gained the position from which the “[i]very pretty bit of strategy[/i]” could be sprung.
The Bait Taken
Like all military plans things did not go exactly as planned. The execution of the trap was altered by an unforeseen circumstance. Contrary to his orders Custer did not immediately follow Davies forward. Instead he threw out pickets and [i]“ordered my men to prepare their dinner.”[/i] As his command settled down to graze their horses and feed themselves the distance between them and Davies grew larger. Stuart (Hampton’s Division) moved back west of New Baltimore with Davies command following. Davies gradually outdistanced any hope of support from Custer and became isolated in front of Stuart’s command. Custer, meanwhile, sat somewhat unprepared in Lee’s line of march.
After a three and a half hour delay to complete the feeding process Custer awoke his tired men with an order to move out. There was no indication of any enemy as they began their move west in a column of fours.The order of march had the main column led by the 5th Michigan followed by Battery M 2nd US Artillery, 1st Michigan, and 1st Vermont. The 7th Michigan was scouting in the vicinity of Greenwich after crossing the lower ford. The 6th Michigan took a position guarding the left of the main column. The movement had traveled barely 300 yards when a mounted vidette was spotted by CPT Don Lovell in the wood line to the south. At first he was mistaken for a returning member of the 7th Michigan but all mystery about his identity was removed when a bullet struck down the horse of on of the leading foursome. The tree line was full of Lee’s Confederate cavalry.
The 6th reacted rapidly to the new threat. The command was dismounted and took cover behind a nearby fence while a messenger was sent to inform Custer of the enemy presence. The main column was reversed and Custer soon had his regiments on line and the artillery in place. One of the “[i]gamiest fights against odds[/i]” was on. It was clear to the outnumbered Federals that the fight was to regain the bridge before they were cut off. Lee was indeed trying to pin the Union line with his dismounted troopers while cutting off the route to the bridge. For his part Lee was somewhat surprised to find this amount of opposition here. He expected that the entire Union column would be to the west and he could secure the bridge with minimal resistance. The resulting fight was descibed by MAJ P. P. Johnston, of Brethed’s battery, as one of the “[i]most obstinate character[/i].” Unfortunately for Lee, Custer’s quick reaction did not allow him to gain the bridge until the enemy had crossed. After “[i]a fierce fight”[/i] only one battalion of the 5th Michigan was trapped on the west side of Broad Run and was captured. Custer’s insistence on feeding his men had saved them but his retreat left Davies men to fend for themselves. With Lee in their rear holding the bridge and Stuart in their front it was a daunting prospect.
The “Buckland Races”
At the first indication that Lee was engaged in the Union rear, Stuart turned and attacked Davies brigade “[i]suddenly and vigorously[/i].” He arrayed his three brigades with BG James B. Gordon in the middle and Rosser and Young on his flanks. Stuart did not duplicate Lee’s error of not taking full advantage of his numerical superiority. He immediately ordered a full charge. Gordon’s brigade, led by the 1st North Carolina Cavalry struck down the pike at the strung out Union column. After a brief period of “[i]stubborn resistance[/i]” the “[i]impetuosity[/i]” of the attack created the disintegration of order in the Federal ranks. As Rosser’s and Young’s brigades began to envelop the Federal troopers the fight became an every man for himself race against death or capture.
Stuart reported that “[i]the enemy broke and the rout was soon comp[/i]lete.” The chase, conducted at a full gallop, lasted from outside of Warrenton to Buckland. Stuart also took great pleasure in quoting one version of the story that described the event as a “”[i]deplorable spectacle of 7,000 cavalry dashing riderless, hatless, and panic stricken[/i]” until they reached their supporting infantry. Not all were lucky enough to complete the dash for safety. Lost to Davies were “[i]about 250 prisoners[/i]” as well as [i]“8 wagons and ambulances[/i].” One of the wagons captured contained Custer’s personal baggage and headquarters papers. Some of Custer’s personal correspondence would eventually appear in the Richmond newspapers. Also left behind but later recovered were a forge wagon (the team shot to prevent capture) and a limber chest of artillery ammunition.
BG Davies’ report of the incident downplayed every aspect of the rout. He blamed the loss of the wagons on being issued mule teams instead of horses and claimed only 2 killed, 16 wounded, and 86 missing for the affair. His efforts at obfuscation could not disguise that fact that the rout was “[i]the most complete that any cavalry has ever suffered[/i].” Kilpatrick probably rubbed salt into his wounds when he invited the officer corps to a special dinner at his headquarters to celebrate surviving the close call. Recalling the event one Michigan officer wrote;
[i]“There were milk-punch and music, both of very good quality, but the punch, palatable as it undeniably was, did not serve to take away the bad taste left by the affair, especially among the officers of the First Brigade (Davies).”[/i]
Hurt feelings aside there was some reason for celebration. As bad as the outcome was it could have been much worse. Had Lee attacked the 6th Michigan with the overpowering superiority of numbers he possessed then Custer might have been trapped as well.