Every regiment that served in the Civil War had one day that exemplified the rest of their wartime service. For the men of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, June 17 was their day. In particular, it was June 17, 1863.
That morning, the 294 men of the regiment advanced west with the rest of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry on a fact-finding mission to determine where the Army of Northern Virginia was and what its intentions were. Confederate cavalry took positions in the Loudoun Valley to block the Federals’ attempt.
The first clash of the collective series of actions known as the Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville came on June 17, 1863, outside the town of Aldie. In the heated fight, the 1st Massachusetts made multiple charges along the Snickersville Turnpike straight at their enemy who fired carbines, revolvers, and cannon from near point-blank range thanks to a fortuitous bend in the road. Massachusetts men wilted under the devastating fire and, by day’s end, counted 198 of their 294 pre-battle strength as casualties. Those are high losses for an infantry regiment but especially for cavalry. “My poor men were just slaughtered and all we could do was stand still and be shot down,” wrote a member of the regiment.
Survivors of the Battle of Aldie never forgot their comrades and the sacrifices they made that day. June 17 became sacred to the veterans of the regiment as they grew older. The committee of veterans chose to hold their annual reunions on that date. In 1891, they made the date even more hallowed. Sixteen survivors dedicated a monument to the regiment on the 28th anniversary of the battle at the curve in the Snickersville Turnpike that caused them so much distress all those years earlier. “The monument bears upon its face the badge of the regiment, and upon its panels are inscribed the names of the soldiers who died there,” said the Boston Daily Globe. It is said to be the first Federal regimental monument erected on a southern battlefield.
Following the brief ceremony at the monument, the veterans became lost in their memories of June 17, 1863. They wandered the old battlefield, ironically then owned by a Confederate veteran. As they passed by this former scene of battle, the men muttered to themselves remembrances of the fight. “Here is where Sergeant Teague charged the stone wall,” said one. “Here we buried comrades,” murmured another. Then Charles Davis, presider of the ceremony and a veteran of the regiment himself, called the wanderers together and asked, “Well, boys, who next?”
Each year, the surviving veterans held June 17 as a special day in the commemoration of their Civil War service. It remained so until the last gray-haired veteran passed away. But even today, knowing what the men of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry experienced at that simple bend in the road and how they sought to memorialize their participation still makes June 17 a special day of commemoration for me.