Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review of Wittenberg & Davis: "OUT FLEW THE SABRES: The Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863"

[Out Flew the Sabres: The Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863 by Eric Wittenberg and Daniel Davis (Savas Beatie, 2016). Softcover, 9 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, orders of battle, reading list. 168 pp. ISBN:978-1-61121-256-3. $14.95]

By all conventional measures, the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station was a clear cut Confederate victory. With material infantry support, the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac under Alfred Pleasonton attacked the Army of Northern Virginia's cavalry division under J.E.B. Stuart with superior numbers and was repulsed after a sharp and bloody battle. The Union troopers also failed to obtain any useful information (i.e. the location of Lee's infantry) regarding the enemy's plans and dispositions for the season's upcoming campaign. Stuart's command held the field and inflicted near 2:1 losses on the enemy.

Nevertheless the most popular interpretation of the battle is to view it as the eastern theater Union cavalry's "turning point," a demonstration of battlefield skill that provided a much needed infusion of self-confidence that also delivered a signal embarrassment to the Confederates. While certainly cognizant of the Confederate victory and dismissive of the idea that Stuart's command had been eclipsed by mid-1863, this notion that the battle "made" the Union cavalry is the main theme of author Eric Wittenberg and Daniel Davis's Out Flew the Sabres: The Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863.

Operating within the space confines of the Emerging Civil War series of introductory-scale volumes, it's difficult to imagine someone else doing a substantially better job of narrating the flow of the battle and hitting all the key clashes. The actions of John Buford's division—the initial crossing at Beverly Ford, the temporary stalemate at the Yew Ridge stone wall, and the eventual dislodging of the much diminished force opposite—are skillfully outlined. The razor thin margin between victory and defeat fairly jumping from the page, the key contest between David Gregg's division and Stuart himself at Fleetwood Hill is very well described, as are the indecisive engagements to the south at Stevensburg and Mountain Run. The book also discusses the Loudoun Valley skirmishes and battle that occurred after the battle, where the Confederatse again proved stiff on the defense and Pleasonton (whose subordinates fought well) again failed to locate Lee's infantry.

It is popular to criticize Stuart for being surprised at Brandy Station, but he recovered extremely well and brilliantly coordinated a multi-axis defense that was nevertheless a near run thing. According to the authors, Stuart subordinates Grumble Jones and Wade Hampton, along with staff officer Henry McClellan, aided this effort with inspired performances. Pleasonton, whose leadership was indecisive and planning questionable (Duffie's division would have been far more useful at Fleetwood Hill than Stevensburg), receives no such praise by the authors, who rightly determine that another leader would be needed to take the Union cavalry to the next level.

Like most books in the series, the abundant illustrations in Out Flew the Sabres substantially enhance the text. Modern photographic views of significant points on the battlefield are plentiful, and all of the important fighting locations are well represented in the small-scale map set provided. To better comprehend the big picture, a good map of the entire battlefield (one showing the initial dispositions of both sides in detail, as well as Pleasonton's battle plan) would have been very useful.

The appendices, a frequent highlight of series volumes, discuss the four battles of Brandy Station, the Battle of Kelly's Ford, the nearby 1863-64 winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac, and the long and expensive modern battle to preserve the ground for posterity. The tour part of the book is well integrated into the text. For each stop, the reader receives detailed driving instructions and viewing orientation (with GPS coordinates), as well as some interesting additional historical context.

A distillation of eastern theater cavalry expertise well-honed over decades of research and writing, Out Flew the Sabres exceeds expectations for a narrative overview of the Battle of Brandy Station. It also should prove equally handy on a personal visit to the battlefield.


  1. I've always enjoyed Wittenberg's books. I have the other Brady Station book he wrote for The History Press. Besides the added appendix's does the battle narrative differ greatly from the previous book?

  2. Good question. I don't know anything about the other book so I can't offer an opinion.

  3. Thank you for the in-depth review of Out Flew the Sabres. We appreciate your review and are glad to hear that the book surpassed your expectations! Those interested in checking out this book can read more at the Savas Beatie website here:

  4. Thank you for the kind words and wonderful review of the book. Your support and the support of your readers is very much appreciated.

    All the best,

    Dan Davis


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