Battle of Aldie, Pennsylvania

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Battle of Aldie: June 17, 1863

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

Confederate Approach to Aldie in early June Battle of Aldie Pictures History
 
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia marched north along the Blue Ridge from its camps near Culpeper, its destination Maryland and Pennsylvania. Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s five-brigade cavalry division was given the mission of screening the army’s advance from prying Federal eyes, a mission that brought Stuart into Loudoun Valley. Mid-morning, June17, Stuart and his escort reached Middleburg and planted the headquarters flag in an open lot adjacent to the Mansion House Hotel (now known as the Red Fox Inn). With Stuart was Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Brigade, commanded on the field by Col. Thomas Munford. The force consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Virginia Cavalry, numbering near 2,000 troopers, and Breathed’s Battery of horse artillery (five guns). Stuart’s other brigades were in lower Fauquier County slowly making their ways north on the flank of the infantry. Before mid-day, Stuart directed Munford to press on to Aldie Gap in the Bull Run Mountains, to hold the gap against Federal cavalry, and to picket the roads beyond. Aldie was a strategic location, for here two macadamized turnpikes diverged, one leading almost due west to Ashby’s Gap, the second northwest to Snickers Gap—both principal crossings of the Blue Ridge.
 
In need of forage for his horses, Col. Munford sent most of the 2nd and 3rd Virginia to the B. F. Carter farm to procure it, a distance of about five miles. This column likely followed Carter’s Bridge (modern Sam Fred) Road to the Snickersville Pike to cross Goose Creek at Carter’s Bridge and would have reached the farm between 1 and 2 p.m. Col. Williams Wickham continued with the rest of the brigade along the Ashby’s Gap pike to Dover, where he dismounted the 1st and 4th regiments to water the horses. A detached company of the 2nd Virginia continued scouting to Aldie Gap, followed by the 5th Virginia in column.

Federal Approach to Aldie
 
That morning, the Federal Cavalry Corps was also in motion toward Aldie Gap. Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, had directed his cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, to move into Loudoun Valley, to pierce Stuart’s screening cavalry, and to bring back intelligence of the location and movements of the Confederate infantry. Pleasonton’s Second Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg, led the advance to Aldie along the Little River Turnpike (Rte. 50). Gregg’s lead brigade, headed by Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, comprised the 1st Massachusetts, 2nd and 4th New York, and 6th Ohio, about 1,200 troopers. (Kilpatrick’s fifth regiment, the 1st Rhode Island was on a detached mission and would make an appearance at Middleburg later in the day.) Division commander Gregg’s Third Brigade under command of his second cousin, Col. J. Irvin Gregg, followed Kilpatrick by an hour’s march.

Opening Shots and Mounted Combat in Aldie
 
About 2:30 p.m., Kilpatrick’s advance, part of the 2nd New York, ran headlong into the scouts of the 2nd Virginia in or near Aldie Gap and exchanged carbine fire. The New Yorkers drew their sabers and charged up the turnpike chasing the outnumbered Virginians through the village of Aldie. Hearing the gunfire, Col. Thomas Rosser brought his 5th Virginia to their aid and drove the Federals back through the village and past the Aldie Mill, fighting with sabers and pistols. Other Federal units were reaching the field, however, and Rosser prudently withdrew his command to the Adam farm, a half-mile west of the intersection of the Ashby’s Gap (Rte. 50) and Snickersville (Rte. 734) turnpikes. Col. Wickham dispatched couriers to inform Munford of developments. Kilpatrick gained some advantage in the opening sorties as he had seized control of Aldie Gap and the turnpike intersection. Munford now had to worry about defending both roads.

Fight on the Adam Farm
 
Rosser dismounted about fifty sharpshooters on a low ridge east of the Adam house and orchard under command of Capt. Reuben B. Boston. These men took cover in drainage ditches that traversed the field and amid scattered haystacks on the hillside and began to harass the Federal skirmishers. Rosser held the rest of the 5th Virginia out of sight as a mounted reserve ready to charge down the Ashby’s Gap Pike in support of his sharpshooters. One section of Capt. James Breathed’s guns moved into position on the high ground west of the Adam house to cover the turnpike and opened fire on the Federals who were deploying in front of Aldie. Federal guns of Randol’s Battery climbed the Snickersville pike out of the village and unlimbered on the high ground to reply. A second section of Breathed’s guns dropped trail in the Adam orchard, north of the house, and joined the artillery duel until battered and forced to withdraw 500 yards to the next ridge. General Gregg arrived on the field and with Kilpatrick observed the battle from the knoll behind Capt. Alanson Randol’s four guns. The 2nd New York mounted piecemeal assaults against Rosser’s sharpshooters, met a withering fire, and found it difficult to maneuver over ditch.

Fight on the Furr Farm
 
The principal axis of fighting then shifted from the Ashby’s Gap to the Snickersville Turnpike. Concerned that the Federals could turn his left, Munford brought the 4th and 5th Virginia from Dover north using Cobb House Road. Couriers raced to recall the 2nd and 3rd Virginia from their foraging expedition. Sharpshooters dismounted along the turnpike behind stone walls at the Furr house in a sharp bend of the road. One of Breathed’s guns arrived to unlimber on a knoll near the road from where it could enfilade the turnpike with canister. The 1st Massachusetts and the 4th New York climbed the turnpike out of Aldie to support Randol’s battery on the heights. Two squadrons of the 1st Massachusetts continued scouting north toward the Furr and Gulick houses and tangled with detachments from the 2nd, 4th, and 5th Virginia in a mounted melee in which Maj. Henry Lee Higginson of the 1st was badly wounded, some accounts say by Col. Thomas Rosser himself. Led by Capt. Charles Parsons, the Massachusetts men counterattacked up the pike to the Furr house where the lurking sharpshooters ambushed them with deadly effect. Rosser then unleashed the 4th Virginia, which scattered Parsons’ squadrons east of the pike. From the heights west of Aldie, Randol turned the attention of his guns to the Confederates on the Furr farm. Two more companies of the 1st Massachusetts rode into the fray supported by the 4th New York on their left. The Massachusetts men tried to outflank the sharpshooters at the Furr house and, for a moment, succeeded, but the main body of the 2nd and 3rd Virginia reached the field and sent them reeling. Munford reinforced his dismounted sharpshooters and then pressed a mounted assault along the turnpike and into the fields south of it, driving the Massachusetts men in confusion back into a wood. The 4th New York led by its colonel, Louis di Cesnola, charged into the valley on the left of the pike and attempted to reach the Confederate line from below. Breathed’s gun belched canister, the sharpshooters redirected their fire, and Munford directed amounted counterattack against the New Yorkers. The 4th New York lost all cohesion, and its troopers streamed south toward Aldie, most out of the action for the rest of the day. Di Cesnola had entered the fight at the rear of his men under arrest for some indiscretion. Borrowing a saber, he dashed to the forefront of the attack where he was wounded, trapped beneath his horse, and left behind as a prisoner. After the war, Di Cesnola was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry on the field of Aldie. Confederates pursued and overran two dismounted companies of the 1st Massachusetts and captured many. Two companies of the 1st Massachusetts under Lt. Charles Davis found themselves the last organized Federal unit on the Snickersville Pike. Ordered to attack, these men too galloped up the pike and into the maelstrom at the Furr house, losing heavily in officers, men, and mounts, until their order was broken. Much of the fighting was face-to-face with pistol and saber. Breathed’s gun fired more canister (according to an account) than at any other time engaged during the war, piling dead men and horses in the narrow turnpike, despite continual harassment from Randol’s guns. As the smoke and dust lifted, the 3rd Virginia Cavalry regrouped in the turnpike and turned their sights on Randol and his battery that appeared to have no defenders.

Fight along Snickersville Turnpike
 
General Pleasonton reached the field about 5 p.m. and established his headquarters at the Berkeley house. With him came the advance of his Third Brigade, commanded by Col. J. Irvin Gregg. Pleasonton dispatched his twenty-three-year-old aide, Capt. George Armstrong Custer, to guide the 1st Maine Cavalry into position to support Randol’s battery. Randol’s guns at this point in the action were likely deployed near the current intersection of the modern Snickersville Turnpike and Aldie Road (the old turnpike). With the last repulse and counterattack at the Furrhouse, the disordered remnants of Kilpatrick’s 1st Massachusetts and 4th New York raced back down the turnpike, eclipsing the fire of their own guns. The 3rd Virginia pursued them, closely followed by squadrons of the 4th and 5th Virginia regiments. When their fleeing comrades at last cleared the road, six companies of the 1st Maine charged in column of squadrons to meet the galloping Confederate troopers head-on. Kilpatrick and Custer impetuously joined the attack. Kilpatrick no doubt hoped to salvage a reputation bruised by the afternoon’s chaos; Custer hoped to gain a reputation. The columns collided along the pike and spilled into the fields, slashing with sabers and discharging pistols. The fresh Mainers and a squadron of the 4th New York (regrouped from its earlier disaster) forced back the now disordered Southerners. The Federals rode the momentum of their counterattack all the way back to the Furr house, where yet another squadron rode headlong into the killing ground beyond. Confederate sharpshooters, who had pulled back their left flank to shelter behind a stone wall at the bend in the road, opened fire, killing Col. Calvin Sanger Douty of the 1st Maine. Several squadrons of Mainers swept farther to the right and into the Furr house compound and orchard. These troopers, mounted and on foot, extended right to overlap the Confederate line and at last dislodged the sharpshooters from their fence. Munford was prepared to counterattack but at that moment word reached him that Federals were in Middleburg. Stuart ordered him to disengage. Reluctantly, he pulled his command from the battlefield and in the gathering darkness moved toward Middleburg.

Action at Middleburg
 
In the early hours of June 17, General Pleasonton ordered a regiment to scout west through Thoroughfare Gap and then north to Middleburg. For the task, Kilpatrick detached his fifth regiment, the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry commanded by a Frenchman, Col. Alfred Napoleon Alexander Duffié. Pleasonton’s plan to send a second column as a pincer into Loudoun Valley was sound strategy, but to be effective it needed to be a strong force; the 1st Rhode Island numbered only about 280 men. Duffié’s column passed through Thoroughfare Gap about 9:30 a.m. where it encountered pickets from the 9th Virginia Cavalry. After a brief skirmish, the Confederates withdrew toward Salem (modern Marshall) to rejoin their brigade, that of W. H. F. Lee commanded by Col. John Chambliss. Alerted to the presence of the Federals, Chambliss began to shadow their movements. From the gap, the Rhode Islanders rode north along modern Bust Head Road (Rte. 628) via Hopewell, Pickett’s Corner, and Halfway, to approach Middleburg on The Plains Road (Rte. 626). Duffié’s advance squadron surprised pickets at Burnt Mill Run and trotted into the town about 4 p.m. nearly capturing General Stuart and his staff, who departed hastily. Duffié ordered the roads into town barricaded and sent couriers toward Aldie to find his superiors. He expected to be reinforced. With insufficient force to hold Middleburg directly, Duffié left pickets at the barricades and dismounted about sixty men in ambush behind a stone wall that covered The Plains Road about 250 yards south of its intersection with the Ashby’s Gap Turnpike between the properties of Vine Hill and Boxwood. With the rest of the regiment, he returned on The Plains Road to Burnt Mill Run to rest and water the horses. In the meantime, Stuart had sent orders for Munford’s command to disengage and withdraw from Aldie and was bringing up Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson’s brigade from Rector’s Crossroad to handle the intruders at Middleburg. Robertson’s brigade consisted of the 4th and 5th North Carolina Cavalry. Just at dark, the North Carolinians and Stuart’s escort from the 4th Virginia Cavalry rushed the western barricades and reoccupied the town. Robertson dispatched patrols on all the roads to find the Federals. A patrol galloping south in the darkness ran up against a tree felled across The Plains Road, whereat the Federals rose from behind their fence and delivered a point-blank volley. A second mounted attack failed to get past the road block. The Confederates dismounted and began to work their way through the trees to outflank and surround the Rhode Islanders. At this point the Federals ran to their horses and rode south in search of their regiment. Duffié had abandoned his detachment, taking the rest of the regiment to Halfway, where it bivouacked nearby on the Little River. The following morning, June 18, the 1st Rhode Island was surrounded, broken up, and pursued for a distance of five miles by converging Confederate units. Duffié, some of his staff officers, and about 60 men escaped through Hopewell Gap, leaving more than 200 of their comrades behind, most bound for Southern prisons.

Situation Report, June 17
 
Kilpatrick’s and Gregg’s troopers technically won the protracted brawl for the Snickersville pike, but Pleasonton had little to show for the victory. Federal casualties for the day were severe, numbering 305 killed, wounded, and missing (without including the near destruction of the 1st Rhode Island on June 18). According to the regiment’s historian, the 1st Massachusetts alone lost 198 troopers of 294 engaged, or 67 percent of its strength. In exchange, Pleasonton had garnered no further intelligence for army headquarters as to the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia, despite the fact that Hood's infantry division had camped near Upperville that night before continuing through Ashby’s Gap. Munford lost about 120 men, but his stubborn defense of the turnpikes fulfilled the spirit of his mission and bought Stuart valuable time to concentrate his brigades in Loudoun Valley. Brig. Gen. Kilpatrick showed great personal bravery but exercised little overall direction of his brigade, sending squadron after squadron at the hay stacks or into the ambush at the turn in the road. He lived up to his nickname “Kill-cavalry” at Aldie. Capt. Custer, for his part, attracted the attention of a New York Times correspondent, who praised the “young stand-out” for personally leading “several charges upon the enemy.” Pleasonton promoted his young aide-de-camp, and, in less than three weeks, Brig. Gen. Custer would lead the Michigan brigade, “his wolverines,” into battle at Gettysburg.
 
Postscript: Henry Lee Higginson and his surviving comrades from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry returned in 1891 to dedicate their monument on Aldie battlefield, the scene of their greatest loss. Confederate veteran Dallas Furr in a spirit of national reconciliation donated the plat of ground where the monument rests.

Aldie—Study and Core Areas
Study Area: 3866 acres
Core Area: 847 acres
 
The study area for Aldie battlefield includes a buffer along the Ashby’s Gap Turnpike (Rte. 50 to Dover and Aldie), along Sam Fred Road to the B. F. Carter farm, and from there along Snickersville Turnpike back to the Furr farm, to outline the opening movements of the Confederate troopers. Although Stuart and Munford did not anticipate encountering the enemy in force, their decisions directly precipitated the battle at Aldie and left Munford’s command dangerously divided when combat began. The battlefield study area picks up the Federal approach at Mount Zion Church (which would serve as a field hospital) and the important intersection of the Little River Turnpike (Rte. 50) and the Old Carolina Road. Confederate pickets were en route to this intersection when they encountered the Federal advance. The battlefield core area begins in the gap and follows the combat through the village of Aldie. At this stage, fighting appears to have been confined closely to the turnpike. The study area broadens out, bounded on the south by the high ground beyond Little River and encompassing the creek and ravine north of town. The terrain beyond these features would have restricted the movement of large bodies of troops. The battlefield core area broadens out to encompass Federal gun positions west of Aldie, the Adam farm, and Confederate gun positions along and above modern Cannon Ridge Lane. Breathed deployed his guns by section, holding one section to cover the turnpike and shifting the second in an attempt to support the sharpshooters. Randol also deployed his guns by section and likely shifted position from time to time as the battle developed. Gun positions as depicted on the map are approximate based on a view shed analysis. The core area of the battlefield expands northeast from Aldie along the Snickersville Pike to encompass the Furr and Gulick farms and west to take in the high ground parallel to the Cobb House Road. Cobb House Road was included in the study area as an important corridor of movement. Phases five and six were fought over much of the same ground along the Snickersville Turnpike. The flanking movements of the First Maine extended the core area farther east and north of the Furr house, and the day’s final action pushed it west beyond the Cobb House road intersection with the turnpike. Because Duffié’s advance on and occupation of Middleburg directly influenced the fighting at Aldie, this action was included in the study area of the Battle of Aldie. This includes a buffer along The Plains Road from the hamlet Halfway into the town, anchored at the old Halfway church. A buffer along the Ashby’s Gap pike brings Robertson’s troopers to Middleburg from Rectors Crossroad. A second smaller core area (at No. 7) encompasses the site of the ambush south of Middleburg. The action of June 18 was not included in the study area because the historians considered it too far a field to be associated with the fighting of June 17. Locations associated with Duffié’s running fight have not been identified because of vague and conflicting sources. Kilpatrick’s and Gregg’s troopers technically won the protracted brawl for the Snickersville pike, but Pleasonton had little to show for the victory. Federal casualties for the day were severe, numbering 305 killed, wounded, and missing (without including the near destruction of the 1st Rhode Island on June 18). The 1st Massachusetts alone lost 198 troopers of 294 engaged, or 67 percent of its strength. In exchange, Pleasonton had garnered no further intelligence for army headquarters as to the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia.
 
Source: 1863-amu-battles.org

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The Civil War Battle of Aldie, Virginia: Pictures, Detailed Battle History, Summary, Facts, Essay, Confederate Army, Union Army, Loudoun County Details

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