BY CLARK B. HALL
Considering that “Decorating Day” – now “Remembrance Day” – was ushered in after the Civil War as Americans gathered to honor and decorate the graves of our dead, then it is especially fitting for us here at Culpeper – the most contested county during the Civil War – to mark the sacrifice of four senior officers who fell in America’s greatest cavalry action, the Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863.
Two were full colonels, one from each side; and two were lieutenant colonels, one from each side.
Their remarkable stories are fascinating. Among these brave officers was a Mississippian who fought for the North; another, one of the richest men in the South; a New Jersey farmer whose body never left Culpeper after his death; and a North Carolina who spotted the Kiowa American Indians in Nebraska before the war.
And rightly so, as leaders of daring men, they were all killed, “in front”, while boldly advancing their soldiers in fierce charges. Each, in fact, fell on widely divergent sectors of the battlefield, miles apart.
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These officers are presented in the order of their death on June 9.
Col. Benjamin Franklin ‘Grimes’ Davis
Colonel Benjamin Franklin “Grimes” Davis entered West Point from Mississippi and graduated in 1854. One of his classmates was Jeb Stuart. Lt. Davis served in the Indian Wars and was seriously wounded fighting Apaches on the New Mexico frontier. At the start of the Civil War, Grimes Davis remained loyal to the Union and served as the regimental commander of the 8th New York Cavalry.
Colonel Davis, 31, proved to be an outstanding cavalry commander and led the Federal attack through Beverly’s Ford on the Rappahannock around 5:30 a.m. on June 9.
And by then Colonel Davis had about half an hour to live.
Riding alone ahead of the 8th New York Cavalry on Beverly’s Ford Road, Grimes Davis presented himself as a prime target for an opportunistic 6th Virginia Cavalry lieutenant who boldly shot Colonel Davis in the head. Learning of Davis’s death, Brig. General John Buford, commanding all Federal forces crossing at Beverly’s Ford (12,000 men), described Colonel Davis as “…a diligent soldier, free from politics and intrigue, a patriot in his true sense , an adornment to his country and a shining star in his craft.”
Colonel Davis is now buried in West Point Cemetery.
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hampton
Six miles further on, just east of Hansbrough’s Ridge on Kirtley’s Road at about 10:30 a.m., Lt. Col. Frank Hampton, 33, executive officer of the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry was soon to be slashed in the face and shot in the the abdomen as he led his men on the attack.
Brother of General Wade Hampton, brigade commander at Brandy Station, Frank Hampton of Columbia, South Carolina, came from one of the wealthiest families in the entire South. And though Frank “was the ladies’ favorite,” he traveled north before the war and won the hand of a refined New York lady, Sarah Strong Baxter Hampton.
At the start of the war, Frank Hampton again traveled north, this time to fight the Yankees. On the morning of June 9, Lt. Col. Hampton and his undermanned regiment bravely counterattacked three Federal regiments on Kirtley’s Road (Rt. 3), precisely across (north) from an Amazon data center “insensibly planned ,” projected to be built here, exactly where this fierce fight took place.
Frank Hampton crossed swords with a private from the 1st Massachusetts and the enemy’s saber slashed Hampton’s face. Another Federal fired into Hampton’s body and Hampton’s horse bolted to the rear, toward Stevensburg. Frank Hampton would be taken by his soldiers to Clover Hill (still barely standing), a mile west of Stevensburg. He would die in the front saloon and a viewer would later say that Hampton was “completely disfigured”.
Frank Hampton is buried in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Cemetery, Columbia, South Carolina.
Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Broderick
In the middle of the afternoon of June 9, at Fleetwood Hill, half a mile from Brandy Station, Lt. Col. Virgil Broderick, 30, commander of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, a farmer before the war, was surrounded by Confederate soldiers shouting for the bewildered Federal officer to surrender.
As the Federal attack on Fleetwood Hill against Stuart’s counterattacking legions began to be summarily repulsed, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry found itself isolated from the rest of the Union forces now retreating toward the Rappahannock. Finding that the only escape route was to the east, along the ridge itself, Lt. Col. Broderick led this charge and was quickly unhorsed by the rebel mounted gunners.
Virgil Broderick rose from the ground and with “a stormy voice” began to swing his huge sword in wide circles. Driven to surrender, he killed a Reb soldier and was then pierced by Reb sabers. Coming to his aid, Major John Shelmire was also killed. They were the last two officers to die at Fleetwood Hill and both were buried “where they fell”.
Lt. Col. Virgil Broderick and Major John Shelmire were later exhumed and are now buried in the ‘post of honor’ at the foot of the flagpole in Culpeper National Cemetery.
Colonel Solomon Williams
Late on June 9, at around 4:30 p.m., two miles northwest of South Fleetwood Hill, four Confederate regiments counterattacked the Federals from the summit of North Fleetwood – and the last Confederate officer to die during the Battle of Brandy Station would also be the highest ranking officer to die, Colonel Solomon Williams.
A graduate of West Point in 1858, Lt. Solomon Williams of Nash County, North Carolina found himself hunting Kiowa American Indians while posted to Ft. Kearny, Nebraska. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Williams resigned in May 1861 and was soon appointed regimental commander of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry.
Returning home on leave in May 1863, he married Maggie Pegram and returned to his command at Culpeper on June 4, just enough time to be killed on June 9.
Late in the afternoon of June 9, Colonel Williams ordered the regimental color brought to his side. This order satisfied, Colonel William ordered the charge to begin and was immediately shot in the head.
After his death, one of his collaborators wrote: “He was loved by his men; a man as brave and faithful as in this army.
Colonel Solomon Williams is buried in Arrington Cemetery, Nashville, North Carolina.
Over four years of war, thousands of soldiers have died in Culpeper County and we sincerely hope that we will continue to honor their noble sacrifice by protecting and preserving the battlefields on which they gave their “last full measure of dedication”.
A Star-Exponent columnist, Civil War historian Clark B. Hall lives in Culpeper County. Write to him at [email protected]