By December, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was an internationally famous cavalry raider. Now, on the 26th, he led 1,800 horsemen out of Fredericksburg, Virginia, to harass Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's successor as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Crossing the Rappahannock River near Brandy Station, Stuart divided his column for simultaneous attacks on 2 supply bases along the Telegraph road. He hoped to deny Burnside provisions and force him to weaken his command by detaching pursuers.
At first it was Stuart who was discomfitted. A 2-pronged assault by his main body against Dumfries, 22 miles above Fredericksburg, was thwarted on the 27th by an unexpectedly large garrison. While covering his retreat, a part of Stuart's 5th Virginia Cavalry, was cut down before his eyes. Farther north at Occoquan, meanwhile, Brig Gen. Wade Hampton, Stuart's ranking subordinate, nabbed only a few supplies while allowing his trapped enemy to escape. The raiders reunited at Cole's Store. 9 miles northwest of Occoquan, where their leader considered returning home empty-handed.
When he learned that Burnside had dispatched mounted pursuers, now massing to the north, Stuart felt renewed and pushed on during the 28th. Near Selectman's Fort on Occoquan Creek, his 1st Virginia spearheaded a charge that scattered the nearest Union force. A swift pursuit by the rest of the Confederate column captured a hastily abandoned and well-stocked Union camp.
Avoiding other, larger forces, Stuart continued northwest, determined to crown his journey with a dramatic gesture. At Burke's Station, barely 12 miles from Washinton, D.C., he seized dozens of depot guards, horses, mules, and supply wagons. There, he also tapped telegraph lines to moniter the progress of the Union pursuit. Shortly before starting on a frigid and weary, but successful, return march to the rappahannock, Stuart wired Union Q.M. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs to complain about the "bad quality of the mules lately furnished" to the raiders.