Battle of Unison 1862

The Loudoun Valley Campaign of 1862 and the Forgotten Battle of Unison

Mitch Diamond

To make the eight-mile drive south from the village of Philomont in Western Loudoun County through Unison to the small town of Upperville you travel on unpaved roads lined with stone walls and ford streams and pass beautiful rolling fields and old antebellum houses. There are periodic glimpses through the trees of the Blue Ridge just to the west. The drive takes only a few minutes today, but 146 years ago it took Federal cavalry and infantry forces a critical three days to cover this same short distance on these same roads.

In late 1862, over 150,000 soldiers from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac occupied the area between Leesburg and Winchester. President Lincoln had noticed that Lee’s army, just west of the Blue Ridge, was actually farther from Richmond, the Confederate capital, than McClellan’s army camped near Antietam Creek in Maryland. He ordered McClellan to cross the Potomac and move most of his 100,000-man army along the east side of the Blue Ridge to bottle up Lee and cut him off from Richmond. Loudoun County, with a population of just over 20,000, mostly merchants and farmers, was overwhelmed by this invasion. Observers on the Blue Ridge saw campfires covering all the Northern Loudoun Valley and dust rose from roads clogged with wagons, horses, and men.

Lee, sensing the trap set for him, started moving his own army southward and sent J.E.B. Stuart and a small band of cavalry and horse artillery to delay McClellan long enough to escape the President’s trap.

The leading units of McClellan’s army and Stuart’s force met on November 1st on the dirt roads and fields just north of the village of Unison, near Philomont. Using every stream and hilltop to his advantage, Stuart’s 900 men battled the advance forces of the huge Federal army around Unison and on the roads and fields leading to Upperville. By the 3rd of November Stuart’s resistance was finally broken by a combination of almost 4,000 Federal cavalry, infantry, and artillerymen. His small force escaped along today’s Route 50, through Upperville and through Ashby’s Gap, to safer ground. But he had done his job. On that same day the first units of Lee’s army rushing south reached Culpeper and took up positions to block the Federal advance. Lincoln learned of the failure of his plan and drafted the order firing the popular McClellan on November 5th. Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac in Rectortown on November 7th. The war went on for two more years.