This June marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War cavalry engagements in southern Loudoun County known as the Cavalry Battles of Upperville, Middleburg, and Aldie, events that led ultimately to the battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania just over two weeks later. This event will be commemorated by a weekend-long series of events on June 14-16 throughout the Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville areas.
To help us understand what happened here, and why this is a great time to visit the area, we spoke with historian Bob O’Neill. Along with authoring a book on the battles titled Small But Important Riots, The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville, he has published a number of articles on the cavalry during the war. A retired Fairfax County police officer, O’Neill has recently moved back to Virginia after ten years in Montana. His most recent book is Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby, The Union Cavalry in Northern Virginia from Second Manassas to Gettysburg.
VL: What draws you to study the Civil War?
BON: My interest in military history was instilled by my dad. My interest in the Civil War and specifically these battles was developed by the late John Divine – a life-long resident of Loudoun County. On a miserably icy day in 1980 we met for the first time and he patiently guided me over these fields – the first time that I had ever seen them. And while I’ll never truly know any of the soldiers themselves, John did. As a young man he knew veterans of the war and his respect for them never faded. John’s friendship and knowledge, as well as his link to the soldiers cemented my interest in the war. I can only hope to know those men through further study.
VL: What’s the significance of the Cavalry Battles of 1863 in Upperville, Middleburg, and Aldie?
BON: The Gettysburg Campaign began on June 3, when Gen. Robert E. Lee began moving his troops out of their lines along the Rappahannock River and north toward Pennsylvania. Shielded by Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, Lee’s infantry was soon lost to Union observation. Following the intense fighting six days later at Brandy Station on June 9th, Union army commander Joseph Hooker needed to locate Lee’s army, determine his intentions, and develop a plan to counter Lee. He relied upon Gen. Alfred Pleasonton and his cavalry to accomplish that. The fighting that erupted around the bucolic towns of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville between June 17 and 22 was a result of Pleasonton’s efforts. That he was largely thwarted by Stuart insured that the campaign would continue.
VL: What is your favorite story of the battles that took place?
BON: When I published the book in 1993 I included an account from a Southern officer referring to a Union soldier he had observed in the fighting near Middleburg on June 19th. Years after the war, Lt. George Beale remembered this unknown cavalryman “backed up against an oak…and having fired his last cartridge, was defending himself with rocks…until he fell from their pistol shots.” It was not until after the book was published that I learned of Sgt. Michael Logan, 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry through an account, entirely independent of Beale’s. Logan, “fighting until his ammunition was exhausted, clubbed his carbine. Losing that he threw stones until he fell exhausted from wounds and loss of blood.” Logan, who had sustained “several ugly sabre cuts on his head and three gunshot wounds,” survived and was almost certainly the soldier referred to by Lt. Beale.
VL: Is there a specific individual who fought here that you find most interesting?
BON: In the early 1960s my family visited Gettysburg and I saw the statute of Gen. John Buford, maintaining his eternal vigil along the Chambersburg Turnpike, for the first time. That statute and the significance of the struggle that he and his men endured on the morning of July 1, 1863 has always stuck with me and led directly to my interest in the cavalry. Buford’s division was involved in several of the battles in the Loudoun Valley in June.
VL: Why should people visit this area during the commemoration?
BON: Historian John Hennessey has said that, rather than celebrating events as we did at the 100 year mark in the 1960s, “we are now commemorating people” and events at the 150 year mark. Beyond the battles themselves, there are many people to remember. It is estimated that nearly 1,400 young men were killed, wounded, or captured during the six days of conflict in the Loudoun Valley. It is also a sad irony that in an area known today as ‘horse country’, a large number of horses and mules may have been killed or maimed. It is just as important that we remember the many local citizens who have, over the last twenty years or so, fought, and continue to fight numerous battles of their own to insure the beauty of the area and the integrity of the battlefields remain for future generations.
VL: Thank you, Bob. We appreciate your insights.
More information on the anniversary events surrounding the Cavalry Battles of 1863 can be found here.