Battle of Aldie

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Battle of Aldie
Aldie Civil War History

Battle of Aldie

Other Names: None

Location: Loudoun County, Pennsylvania

Campaign: Gettysburg Campaign (June-July 1863)

Date(s): June 17, 1863

Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick [US]; Col. Thomas Munford [CS]

Forces Engaged: Brigades

Estimated Casualties: 415 total

Result(s): Inconclusive

Battle of Aldie Map
Civil War Aldie Battle and Battlefield Map.gif
Civil War Battle of Aldie and Battlefield Map

Introduction: Stuart’s cavalry screened the Confederate infantry as it marched north behind the sheltering Blue Ridge. The pursuing Federals of Kilpatrick’s brigade, in the advance of Gregg’s division, encountered Munford’s troopers near the village of Aldie, resulting in four hours of stubborn fighting. Both sides made mounted assaults by regiments and squadrons. Kilpatrick was reinforced in the afternoon, and Munford withdrew toward Middleburg.

Background: Late in the spring of 1863 tensions grew between Union commander Joseph Hooker and his cavalry commander Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton because of the latter's inability to penetrate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry screen and gain access to the Shenandoah Valley to locate the Army of Northern Virginia, which had been on the move since the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May. On June 17, Pleasonton decided to push through Stuart's screen. To accomplish his goal he ordered Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg's division from Manassas Junction westward down the Little River Turnpike to Aldie. Aldie was tactically important in that near the village the Little River Turnpike intersected both the Ashby's Gap Turnpike and Snicker's Gap Turnpike, which respectively lead through Ashby's Gap and Snickers Gap of the Blue Ridge Mountain into the Valley.

Battle: Early that very same morning, Colonel Munford led the 2nd and 3rd Virginia Cavalry eastward across the Loudoun Valley from Upperville through Middleburg to Aldie on the Bull Run Mountains on a reconnaissance and forage mission. He established a line of pickets in Aldie to watch for enemy activity and withdrew his two regiments northwest of town on the Snicker's Gap Turnpike to camp on the farm of Franklin Carter.

About 4 p.m., Gregg's advance column of the 2nd and 4th New York, 6th Ohio, 1st Maine, 1st Rhode Island, and 1st Massachusetts, under the command of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick arrived in Aldie. Just west of the village the 1st Massachusetts encountered Munford's pickets and drove them back. Around the same time, the rest of Munford's brigade (the 1st, 4th, and 5th Virginia Cavalry, under the command of Col. Williams Carter Wickham) arrived at Dover Mills, a small hamlet on the Little River west of Aldie. Wickham ordered Col. Thomas L. Rosser to take the 5th Virginia to locate a campsite closer to Aldie. As they moved east they ran into the Massachusetts men and easily drove them back through Aldie to the main Union body. After positioning his sharpshooters (50 men of Company I under Capt. Reuben F. Boston) east of the William Adam farmhouse, Rosser deployed west along a ridge that covered the two roads leading out of Aldie and awaited the arrival of the Federals, as well as Munford and Wickham. As Rosser withdrew west, the 1st Massachusetts, with aid from the 4th New York, charged against what they believed to be a retreat. Rosser's line held and he mounted a countercharge in concert with a sharp volley from the sharpshooters he had placed on his left and easily drove the Federals back, securing his hold on the Ashby's Gap Turnpike.

Kilpatrick then turned his attention towards the Snicker's Gap Turnpike. An artillery duel ensued and more cavalry on both sides soon arrived. A furious fight erupted, which at first went in favor of Munford as Federal charges were met, stopped, and then forced back by the withering volley of sharpshooters entrenched along a stone wall. The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry was trapped in a blind curve on the Snicker's Gap Turnpike and was destroyed, losing 198 of 294 men in the eight companies that were engaged. One detachment under Henry Lee Higginson was virtually wiped out in hand-to-hand fighting. The tide finally turned as Union reinforcements charged into the fray in the fading light and the 6th Ohio overran Boston's detachment on the Ashby's Gap Turnpike, capturing or killing most of his men. The fighting died down around 8 p.m. as Munford withdrew his command west towards Middleburg.

Battle of Aldie
Battle of Aldie.jpg
Battle of Aldie was fought during the Gettysburg Campaign

Aftermath: Munford did not consider Aldie as a defeat as his withdrawal coincided with an order from Stuart to retire, as more Federal cavalry had been sighted at Middleburg. Union casualties were 305 dead and wounded, with the Confederates losing between 110 and 119. Aldie was the first in a series of small battles along the Ashby's Gap Turnpike in which Stuart's forces successfully delayed Pleasonton's thrust across the Loudoun Valley, depriving him of the opportunity to locate Lee's army.

Analysis: The opening battle of the Gettysburg campaign, Brandy Station, and the climactic battle at Gettysburg have eclipsed the intervening cavalry battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville in the history books.  But the fight for Loudoun Valley was significant on a number of levels.  Considered individually, each battle might not rank high in terms of forces engaged and casualties.  Considered together, however, it is clear that the week’s fighting represented a substantial effort on both sides.  At various times, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart committed each of his five brigades, numbering near 9,000 troopers, to the task of defending the Blue Ridge Mountain gaps.  Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton eventually pushed all of his available 8,000 men into the task of penetrating the Confederate cavalry screen and, in addition, called on infantry support.  Altogether some 19,000 soldiers struggled in the valley from June 17-21.

Civil War Generals.jpg
(L) Stuart; (R) Pleasonton

The cavalry battle of Brandy Station yielded 1,400 casualties from among 21,000 engaged.  Only eight days later the adversaries met again on very different terrain.  The steep-banked streams, ravines, stonewalled fields, and constricted roads of Loudoun Valley prevented the extensive troop deployments and open maneuvering seen at Brandy.  At Brandy Station combat was concentrated in time and spread out over the open fields.  In Loudoun Valley a comparable intensity of effort was concentrated along fairly restricted corridors of movement and spread out over five days.  Although records are incomplete, historians have estimated combined casualties for Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville as 1,360 (850 Northerners and 510 Southerners) with roughly similar losses among the mounts—an attrition of 8 percent of the forces engaged.  Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle thus far in the war, but the week’s fighting in Loudoun Valley drained an equivalent number of men and mounts from the ranks.

Loudoun Valley also witnessed a struggle of wills that permeated future cavalry operations in Virginia.  Stuart’s adjutant Henry B. McClellan wrote, “The battle of Brandy Station made the Federal Cavalry.  The fact is that up to June 9, 1863, the Confederate cavalry did have its own way... and the record of its success becomes almost monotonous... But after that time we held our ground only by hard fighting.”  It is true that the Union troopers had been remarkably buoyed by their performance at Brandy Station, but in Loudoun Valley they proved to an attentive public, to themselves, and to their adversary that Brandy had been no fluke.  Once derided as hopelessly outclassed by Stuart’s cavaliers, the Federal horsemen aggressively took “hard fighting” to their enemy with an offensive spirit hitherto lacking.  If Brandy Station marked the coming of age of the Federal cavalrymen as so many have observed, then the battles for Loudoun Valley proved their newfound confidence.  Stuart’s troopers, for their part, had to begrudge the fact that they now faced a foe that matched them steel for steel.

In mid-June 1863, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart faced the task of defending the principal gaps in the Blue Ridge—Ashby’s Gap and Snicker’s Gap—against Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s Federal divisions.  The two turnpikes leading across Loudoun Valley to the gaps diverged at Aldie, complicating Stuart’s mission.  Pleasonton could concentrate his full force on either turnpike, while Stuart had to spread out his forces to cover both.  The danger for Stuart was that his brigades could become isolated from one another and defeated one at a time.  The general nature of the terrain, though, favored Stuart’s defense.  Federal mobility was fairly closely restricted to the roads by the numerous streams, stone walls, and fences that crisscrossed the landscape.  The stone walls provided Stuart’s dismounted skirmishers with readymade fortifications.  Stuart selected his defensive positions carefully and could afford to give up ground in a series of delaying actions.  Pleasonton, on the other hand, had no choice but to attack each successive position that he encountered.  To accomplish his own mission—to discover the whereabouts of the infantry columns of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia--Pleasonton had to pierce the Confederate cavalry screen.

Much of the cavalry fighting in Loudoun Valley was dismounted.  Troopers fanned out on foot (with every fourth man holding the horses in the rear) to locate their opponents and test their strength.  Mounted units were held in reserve to exploit any weakness that might be uncovered.  At Aldie, and again at Middleburg, the Confederates relied heavily on the tactic of dismounting sharpshooters behind stone walls and ambushing the Federals at point-blank range.  Federal commanders had limited tactical options and tried them all.  They could extend their lines beyond the Confederates’ flanks and maneuver them out of position; they could mass a deadly concentration of artillery fire to drive the defenders off; or they could bull their way up the road in a mounted assault.  Even if momentarily successful, they could expect an equally determined mounted counterattack, and the momentum could swing abruptly to the other side.  While there was much dismounted fighting, these battles featured a great deal of what can only be called stubborn brawling—the kind of stirrup-to-stirrup mounted combat with saber and pistol that took a deadly toll of men and mounts.

As the war dragged on, the saber charges of Brandy Station and of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville became increasingly rare as units of both sides forsook cold steel for carbines and repeating rifles.  But in June 1863, the thunderous mounted assault embodied all the dash and chivalry that yet adhered to the cavalry arm.  See also Pennsylvania Civil War History.

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Sources: National Park Service; Civil War Trust; civilwar.org; Head, James W. History and Comprehensive Description of Loudoun County Virginia. Washington, DC: Parkview Press, 1908. OCLC 1837578; O'Neill, Robert F. The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville: Small But Important Riots, June 10–27, 1863. Lynchburg, VA: H.E. Howard, 1993. ISBN 1-56190-052-4; Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8117-2868-4.

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