Not for Gain or Glory: The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at Aldie

1st Massachusetts Cavalry monument at Aldie

Anyone who resides or has visited Northern Virginia around Washington D.C. is familiar with Route 50. Of the many roads in the area, it is one of the most traveled and congested. In fact, many commuters go out of their way to avoid it both in the morning and in the afternoon. Traveling west on this road, one will eventually clear the suburbs, and Route 50 opens up into rolling hills and beautiful farmland. There are several byways that branch off of Route 50 as you travel toward the town of Winchester. One of these roads intersects in the hamlet of Aldie, State Route 734, the Snickersville Turnpike. A right hand turn onto the highway eventually ascends to the top of a solitary hill where a lone monument stands.

Pausing to get out and inspect the marker, you are immediately struck with a feeling of being alone. It is very quiet, except for the occasional passing vehicle—a far cry from the hustle and bustle a mere 40 minutes to the east. Yet, this monument stands as the only reminder to the carnage and destruction that took place there so many years ago.

While the Battle of Brandy Station, fought on 9 June 1863, flexed the muscle of the Union Cavalry, it did not hinder the movement of the Army of Northern Virginia away from its Fredericksburg line in Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the Northern states. Despite the fact that Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the Union Cavalry Corps, kept his troopers in relatively close proximity to the Confederates following the battle, he had very little solid intelligence concerning Lee’s movements to pass on to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Joseph Hooker. Although Pleasonton would forward several different reports to Army Headquarters in the days after Brandy Station, it was not enough to convince Hooker that Lee’s Infantry remained opposite his own lines at Fredericksburg. (Pleasonton’s assertions, as they were at the time, are still considered quite dubious). Thus on 14 June, Hooker began withdrawing the Potomac Army away from the Rappahannock River and moving northward to concentrate on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad between Centreville and Catlett’s Station.

Meanwhile, the Army of Northern Virginia was indeed on the move. On 13 June, Lee’s Second Corps reached Winchester in the lower Shenandoah Valley. As Lee moved west and then north, J.E.B. Stuart and his Confederate horsemen spread out east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to screen the advance of the infantry. To successfully complete this mission, Stuart would have to maintain a tight hold on two roads that ran from the mountains toward Manassas and Hooker’s Army: the Little River Turnpike (modern Route 50) and the Snickersville Turnpike (modern Route 734). Each of these roads led to mountain passes and the main body of the Confederate Army. Further, these roads intersected well east of the mountains in the small town of Aldie, giving it a strategic importance to Stuart.

Finally fed up with overall lack of verifiable intelligence, Pleasonton received his orders on the morning of 17 June. In part they read “The Commanding General relies upon you with your cavalry force to give him information of where the enemy is, his force, and his movements. You have a sufficient cavalry force to do this. Drive in pickets, if necessary and get us information. It is better that we should lose men than to be without knowledge of the enemy.” After receiving the communication, Pleasonton’s first action was to send the Division of Major General David Gregg to take up a position at Aldie. In a little over a week’s time since they last met on the field of battle, the Union and Confederate horse soldiers were on track for another brutal collision.

Aldie Mill

Described by one Union Soldier as “a post village lying quaint and picturesque,” the town of Aldie sprouted up from Charles Fenton Mercer’s mill and store house. Mr. Mercer elected to name his house and the town Aldie, after Aldie Castle in Scotland. Aldie has changed very little since the War of the Rebellion, save for several shops and a fire department. Fortunately, the urban sprawl of Northern Virginia has spawned very little change to the town. But change it did forever on 17 June as it became the focal point of the cavalrymen from both armies.

Leading off the advance of Gregg’s Division was the four regiments of Judson Kilpatrick’s brigade, the 1st Massachusetts, 2d and 4th New York and the 6th Ohio. Kilpatrick would be accompanied by Alanson Randol’s combined Batteries E and G, 1st U.S. Artillery. Marching east at almost the same time came the brigade of Thomas Munford, consisting of the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, and 5th Virginia Regiments. Like his counterpart, Munford also had the added luxury of being supported by James Breathed’s Battery of Horse Artillery.

Aldie would be a meeting engagement, meaning that neither side expected to find one another. Around 2:30 that afternoon, elements of the 2d New York ran into pickets from the 2d Virginia Cavalry just east of town. Utilizing their numbers, the New Yorkers pushed the Virginians back through the town to the west, only to run up against the 5th Virginia under the command of Thomas Rosser. In turn, Rosser ordered his men into the fight and pushed the 2d New York back into the town. Rosser then directed his regiment to some high ground west of Aldie. This withdrawal allowed Kilpatrick time to bring up the rest of his brigade as well as to deploy Randol’s Battery on a high knoll near the Snickersville Turnpike. Deploying his regiments in order of the line of march as they arrived, the 6th Ohio joined the 2d New York on the Little River Turnpike. The 4th New York came on line to support both Randol’s guns and the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry was formed in the fall of 1861. Its companies were made up from various militia units within the Bay State. In late December, 1861, the Regiment would be sent to Hilton Head, South Carolina. They would remain in this “Garden of Eden,” as one Trooper called it, until August, when two of the three Battalions would be sent to Virginia to join the Army of the Potomac. By the early summer of 1863, the 1st Massachusetts had seen little fighting. Beyond some skirmishing in South Carolina, the Regiment did not participate in any of the fighting at Antietam and Fredericksburg. Although they would be engaged in some skirmishing during Stoneman’s Raid, up until this time in the war, the most fighting the Regiment had seen was at Stevensburg during the Brandy Station battle. This would all change at Aldie.

Taking up a position along the Snickersville Turnpike, the Bay Staters watched as their comrades from New York and Ohio dislodged the 5th Virginia from their position west of the town. As the rest of the Brigade secured the Little River Turnpike, pickets from the 2d Virginia suddenly appeared on the front of the 1st Massachusetts. Much of the terrain along the Snickersville Turnpike is open and rolling and thus somewhat adequate for cavalry maneuvers. There is still an original house there today; at the time of the battle it was owned by Dallas Furr and is thus known as the Furr House. In front of the Furr House, the Turnpike makes a sharp bend to the left and ascends to a slight hill. Along with the rolling ground, the other notable feature, both in 1863 and today, are the low stone walls. Near the Furr House and to the east, there was a wall running perpendicular to the road as well as stone walls on either side of the pike. As the pike ascends to the hill just west of the Furr House, there is another stone wall running perpendicular from the highway. It would be in this area, around the Furr residence and between these aforementioned stone walls, that the mettle of the 1st Massachusetts would be severely tested.

The Furr House.

There is still some confusion as to who actually ordered the Bay Staters forward. With the fighting winding down on the Little River Turnpike, the sphere of combat would shift to the Snickersville Pike between the remainder of Kilpatrick’s and Munford’s Brigades. It is probably irrelevant as to whether Lieutenant Colonel Greely Curtis or Major Henry Higginson ordered the Regiment into the fight. Whatever the case may be, Higginson ordered his Battalion forward to engage the 2d Virginia just east of the Furr House. The Virginians had been sent forward to watch the Turnpike and to hold their position long enough for the rest of the Brigade to arrive should they encounter the enemy. A squadron of the 4th Virginia would join their comrades here momentarily. Utilizing the stone wall east of the residence, the Virginians opened fire on the Bay Staters. Pressing his men forward, Higginson would be shot down along with one of his squadron commanders, Captain Lucius Sargent. The sudden loss of leadership caused the attack to break down, until Lieutenant Charles Parsons led a contingent from Sargent’s squadron up the road. Parson’s men would push back the 4th Virginia, who were still mounted and completely bypass the contingent of the 2d Virginia behind the stone wall. Parsons led his men past the Furr House but was stopped at the knoll west of the house by the rest of Munford’s brigade which was arriving on the field. Finding themselves cut off, Parsons would extricate his men and take a detour to rejoin the rest of Kilpatrick’s Brigade at Aldie.

Bend in the Turnpike just beyond the Furr House

A lull now settled over the field, but only briefly. The 2d and 3d Virginia would come up and a squadron from each Regiment, along with a lone gun from Breathed’s Battery would dismount and occupy the stone wall west of the Furr House. Just on the other side of the lines, John Tewksbury and Charles Adams’ squadrons from the 1st Massachusetts, along with the 4th New York, prepared to renew the assault. Attacking piecemeal, Tewksbury would push the element of the 2d Virginia still east of the Furr House back upon the dismounted squadrons west of the house. Here, he would run into stiff resistance from the dismounted cavalryman on the knoll and behind the stone wall. The Confederate line held and Tewksbury was forced to withdraw.

Now it was time for the 4th New York to advance. Led forward by their Colonel, Luigi di Cesnola, the New Yorkers would run into the rest of the 4th Virginia along with elements of the 5th Virginia who had joined the Brigade after the fight along the Little River Turnpike. The attack was a disaster. Di Cesnola had his horse shot out from under him and was taken prisoner.

It was now time for Charles Adams to try his hand against the Confederate position. Like Tewksbury’s squadron, Adams’ men would be cut to pieces by the Confederates. Adams later wrote, “My poor men were just slaughtered and all we could do was to stand still and be shot down…The men fell right and left and the horses were shot through and through…”

With Adams out of action, the only Union force left on the field was Lieutenant Charles Davis’ squadron from the 1st Massachusetts. Davis boldly ordered his men to draw sabers and led them in a charge in column up the Turnpike. As they rounded the bend in the road west of the Furr House, the Virginians opened fire and cut the Bay Staters to pieces. Davis himself was wounded during the attack, which gave out in front of the stone wall and at the base of the knoll.

The Union attacks were spent against the Confederate positions west of the Furr residence. Neither the 1st Massachusetts nor the 4th New York could offer any resistance to the impending Confederate counterattack. It came in the form of Colonel Thomas Owen’s 3d Virginia. There were no immediate Union reinforcements at hand and the Turnpike was open for Owen’s Virginians to advance and capture not only Randol’s Battery, but the vital intersection of the Turnpikes. Luck would have it that the lead element of J. Irvin Gregg’s brigade were now coming onto the field in the form of the Calvin Douty’s 1st Maine Cavalry. Spotting Douty’s Regiment, which had executed one of the more memorable charges at Brandy Station, Kilpatrick ordered them to deploy and save Randol’s guns. Kilpatrick himself would order Douty forward. Douty took his place at the head of his Regiment and led them in what would be his last charge. The men from Maine hit the Virginians and steadily drove them back to the stonewall west of the Furr House. It was here that Douty was killed, but his last effort helped secure the Turnpike for Gregg’s Division. By this time, darkness was ascending and the two sides began to disengage.

Stonewall west of the Furr House. It was in this area that Colonel Douty of the 1st Maine Cavalry fell.

Within the next several days, the Union and Confederate cavalries would clash again west of Aldie at Middleburg and Upperville. However, the 1st Massachusetts would not participate in this fighting, but would only serve in a supporting role at Upperville. The Regiment had been decimated at Aldie. Of the 294 troopers engaged, 198 would be counted as casualties. The regimental history lists 60 engagements in which the Regiment was either present or directly participated in. Many of these engagements are quite familiar to students of cavalry operations: Todd’s Tavern, Trevilian Station and Haw’s Shop. But at none of these did the regiment sustain such a high loss as they had at Aldie. It is difficult to find another instance in which a cavalry regiment, Union or Confederate, sustained such a high loss of men in battle. That is what stands out, both today and to the Veterans of the regiment—so much so that twenty-eight years after the dust settled at Aldie, the Bay Staters returned.

Members of every company of the regiment, save for Company G, met again on that field to erect a monument to their comrades who fell that day. Once again, the rolling fields along the Snickersville Turnpike were dotted with the men from Massachusetts, the contingent even paying a visit to the Furr House. The keynote speaker was Charles Davis, himself wounded during the battle. During the ceremony, Davis spoke of his comrades, both there gathered around him and those who never came home:

Those were the days when experience and hard service made us men of ideas. We…learned to endure fatigue and hunger, to suffer from heat and cold, to face danger and even death, not for gain or glory, but to uphold the flag and preserve the Union. Together I lift my eyes to Heaven and thank God that we are permitted to live in a country enjoying the blessings of liberty and peace…and where the glorious flag we fought to save floats protectingly and lovingly alike over those who wore the blue and the gray.

Davis went on to speak of the healing taking place between both sides, quoting

No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red,
They banish our anger forever,
When they laurel the graves of our dead.
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement day,
Love and tears for the Blue.
Tears and love for the Gray.

Nearing the end of his remarks, Davis said:

This monument we dedicate to the memory of our comrades who fell at Aldie. It bears upon its face the badge of our beloved Regiment. Upon its panels are inscribed the names of our fallen braves. As we salute the dead and wipe away the silent tear, we feel that we can ask no higher honor than the proud consciousness that we once wore the crossed sabers of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

© 2011 Emerging Civil War

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Emerging Civil War and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Not for Gain or Glory: The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at Aldie

  1. Pingback: Not for Gain or Glory: The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at Aldie | www.1080p.it

  2. Berry Fitzhugh says:

    A map would be helpful,very well written!

  3. Daniel Davis says:

    Thank you! Truth be told, I gave alot of thought to adding a map. I eventually decided not to as the actions of the 1st Massachusetts occur in such a small area. That and my artistic skills are not something to write home about. However, I will be including maps in future postings that focus on battles and skirmishes.

  4. cc2001 says:

    Thank you for this interesting and moving piece! I especially enjoyed the quotes from Davis’s speech. I am visiting this area in late October and will be sure to stop at the monument.

  5. Daniel Davis says:

    Very cool. There is a wayside at the monument with a couple of interpretive markers. Much of the property where the 1st Massachusetts fought is private property, so please be mindful of owners’ rights. The Aldie Mill is open to the public. There are several websites with good information on the Mill, here is one of them: http://www.nvrpa.org/park/aldie_mill_historic_park

  6. Dan Goldstein says:

    Very interesting piece. Well done.

  7. Pingback: Weeks 4 and 5 and Upcoming! | Emerging Civil War

  8. DJ Clary says:

    Very interesting to me, my great great grandfather was among the casualties of the 1st mass here. Elias Bradford of comp. E, wounded and captured. This is the most information I have been able to find on this engagement in 30 yrs. of looking! Thank you! You have done a wonderful service here!

  9. Daniel Davis says:

    DJ,
    Thank you for the kind words. For further reading, I recommend looking for “The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville June 10-27, 1863″ by Robert F. O’Neill, Jr. It is part of the H.E. Howard Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders Series. It may be difficult to find, however, it is a superb work on the fighting in the Loudoun Valley in June 863.
    If you don’t already have it as well, Butternut and Blue, a publishing company in Maryland, republished “A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers” as part of their Army of the Potomac series. This is a great source on the battle as well as the monument dedication after the war.

    Regards,

    Dan

  10. ron jackson says:

    Ronald Jackson
    April 28 2013

    My great gramps was John Tewksbury , he is buried in Bluffs Illinois, he joined the war as a sergt, left the war as commander of 1st mass cav, he traveled to Illinois as a railroad detective, he was in all the engagements of the 1st mass, i have been to the marker, it is very quit there , my email is rjack15256@yahoo.com thanks

    • Daniel Davis says:

      Ron,
      Good morning and my pleasure. Tewksbury is, as you mentioned, a very prominent member of the regiment. I cannot begin to count the number of times his name appears in the regimental history.

      Regards,

      Dan

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