Book Review: Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville

ECW welcomes back Zachery A. Fry

The cavalry battles in the Loudoun Valley during the early summer of 1863 have rarely garnered much attention, at least not in comparison with the earlier dramatic action at Brandy Station and the later engagements of the Gettysburg Campaign. Robert O’Neill has resurrected those sweeping Loudoun battles and skirmishes in Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville. Although he published an earlier iteration thirty years ago in H.E. Howard’s Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders Series, O’Neill makes clear in the preface that this revised edition is “new in every respect, from the first page to the last” (xi).

O’Neill clearly loves his subject and has devoted a stunning amount of work to mining archival gold from key sources, many of which lie deep in the National Archives. Apart from deploying those sources to chronicle the valley’s actions, O’Neill establishes his purpose at the very outset of the book. Generations of historians have either vilified or ignored Union cavalry chief Alfred Pleasonton, but O’Neill “seeks a more balanced, objective interpretation” (1). This is a tall order. Even in an army notorious for big egos, Pleasonton possessed an outsized ambition that rubbed his peers and superiors the wrong way. A typical appraisal of the general’s career can be seen in Edward Longacre’s history of the army’s cavalry: “He seemed to spend the greater part of his time polishing his image instead of validating it.”[1] Like his early patron George McClellan, Pleasonton proved an effective organizer, particularly in the wake of George Stoneman’s tenure as cavalry commander during the ill-fated Chancellorsville Campaign. Rather than serving in supporting roles, as had often been the case for the army’s horsemen, Pleasonton “wanted his men, especially his officers, to earn a reputation as fighters, a command to be counted on in the heart of battle by the other branches of the army” (19).

The setting for O’Neill’s cavalry battles is Loudoun Valley, a rolling, twenty-mile-wide expanse of verdant meadows and villages situated between the Bull Run Mountains to the east and the more imposing Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. Operations at the outset of the Gettysburg Campaign placed Lee’s line of march west of the Blue Ridge, making the valley a key battleground for Union reconnaissance forces pushing west through the critical Bull Run Mountain gaps. O’Neill paints a vivid portrait of this valley environment that witnessed three sharp cavalry fights, each of which he chronicles closely—Aldie (June 17), Middleburg (June 17-19), and Upperville (June 21).

Small but Important Riots benefits from O’Neill’s gift for placing the reader in the very bedlam of Civil War cavalry combat. He leans heavily on the vivid accounts of horsemen in blue and gray, such as the veterans of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry who survived a “Balaclava” battle on the Furr farm at Aldie or troopers of the 8th Illinois who fought close-quarters with the Rebels at Upperville. O’Neill even utilizes pension files from the units engaged to offer detail about the average trooper’s experience, forming an image of mounted combat as short, sharp, and uniquely horrifying for man and beast alike. The author’s approach to narrating these three broader battles is to break them down systematically into digestible chapters of a few pages each, often as experienced by the men of a specific regiment. The most vivid of these is his treatment of the carnage at Upperville, which he notes was probably “the largest cavalry battle in Virginia to date” (189). More infantry-focused readers will also find a detailed discussion of Fifth Corps actions at Goose Creek, featuring a brilliant performance by the now-famous brigade of Col. Strong Vincent.

O’Neill stresses the Loudoun Valley fighting’s consequences for the Gettysburg Campaign. Stuart, though bruised particularly by the defeat at Upperville, prevented Pleasonton’s cavalry from gaining critical information about Lee’s march. Beyond the operational value of the actions, O’Neill highlights Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville as a formative experience for junior officers in the Union Cavalry Corps, one that bore fruit within weeks at Gettysburg and during Lee’s retreat. When it comes to his analysis of Pleasonton, the author finds only scattered faults in the corps commander’s conduct. Not so for Hooker, who communicated aggressiveness to his superiors, O’Neill says, while trying to keep Pleasonton on a short leash.

It’s hard to criticize much in O’Neill’s approach. Small but Important Riots is operational Civil War history at its best—dramatic, personal, and well-contextualized within both the nature of mid-nineteenth century combat and the strategic significance of the actions. Special mention should be made of the maps by Julie Krick, which are numerous and helpful.

Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville

By Robert F. O’Neill

Potomac Books, 2023, $36.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Zachery A. Fry



[1] Edward G. Longacre, Lincoln’s Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2000), 97.

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