Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Review - " Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville " by Robert O'Neill

[Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville by Robert F. O'Neill (Potomac Books, 2023). Hardcover, 18 maps, photos, illustrations, appendix section, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xix,228/338. ISBN:978-1-64012-547-6. $36.95]

The June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station is often heralded as a major turning point in the fighting force development of the previously much-maligned Union cavalry arm of the eastern theater. Much of this rise toward parity was achieved under the oversight of Major General Alfred Pleasonton, who was selected to head the Army of the Potomac's cavalry corps after the Chancellorsville debacle. Even though Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry shrugged off the initial surprise, held the field at the end of the day, and inflicted casualties on their Union opponents at a ratio of two to one, vocal elements of the southern newspaper press and critics within the army judged Stuart's mixed performance at Brandy Station very harshly. Criticism of Pleasonton was muted by comparison, with Union observers instead mostly emphasizing how well his subordinates and their men fought during the battle. However, scarcely more than a week later, a new series of cavalry clashes would quickly put Brandy Station in the rearview mirror.

An incisive chronicling and analysis of those events, Robert O'Neill's Small but Important Riots puts forth a very strong argument that the Loudoun Valley cavalry fights at Aldie (June 17), Middleburg (June 17 and 19), and Upperville (June 21), though collectively far less appreciated in the historiography than Brandy Station has been, were every bit as significant contributors to Union ascendancy in mounted warfare. Though Stuart's delaying actions succeeded in keeping probing enemy eyes east of the Blue Ridge Mountain gaps and away from observing the Army of Northern Virginia's march down the Shenandoah Valley, Pleasonton's horse soldiers gave the Confederates all they could handle, driving them across the valley from east to west and into the sheltering arms of Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps artillery at Ashby's Gap. Accustomed to better results, many of Stuart's roughly-handled men were stung by their experiences during the small but ferocious sequence of running fights between Aldie and Ashby's Gap. On the other hand, their Union opponents, though battered themselves on numerous occasions, received another significant injection of self-confidence. Overall, June 1863 was a pretty good month for the Union cavalry in the East.

O'Neill paints a convincing portrait of confusion and odd duplicity within the Union high command's internal communications and their response to the early stages of Lee's movement north. Telegrams between Army of the Potomac commander Joseph Hooker and General in Chief Henry Halleck in Washington were highly illustrative of that dissonance. With the positions of Lee's army corps unknown, Halleck, undoubtedly hounded by the administration for better information, pressed Hooker to send out strong reconnaissance forces to positively locate the Army of Northern Virginia. Hooker informed his superior that he was doing so but at the same time paradoxically kept his cavalry close by and on a very tight leash. Fearing that Lee's army might descend upon his own through the Bull Run mountain gaps, Hooker wanted Pleasonton to send out small scouting forces into the Loudoun Valley while keeping the great bulk of his cavalry command massed east of the Bull Run mountains as a screen for the Union army's main body. In turn, a frustrated Pleasonton chomped at the bit. On the 17th, he defied Hooker's instructions and committed larger formations into the valley, where they promptly met Stuart's men in battle.

In the book, events between the 17th and 21st are covered in great detail, aided by eighteen original maps of varying scale. Even though Stuart's men blocked the initial Union advance into the valley during the sharp fight at Aldie on the 17th, that same day a federal reconnaissance mission consisting of a single regiment led by Col. Alfred Duffie struck the Confederate rear at Middleburg, where Stuart had established his headquarters. Duffie's command was quickly run down and destroyed, but that troubling development behind his forward screen led Stuart to recall the units at Aldie. On the 19th, Pleasonton, advancing from two directions, aggressively pushed Stuart's men off the high ground west of Middleburg. Two days later the bluejackets struck again, this time with infantry assistance part of the way, at Goose Creek, along Trappe Road north of Upperville, and at Vineyard Hill on the direct road to Ashby's Gap. Unfortunately for Pleasonton and his mission, the hard fighting on the 21st burned all the daylight and the gap itself could not be breached.

Aided by many firsthand accounts uncovered through his decades of research, O'Neill really captures vividly and well the character, very different from infantry fighting, of Civil War cavalry combat, both mounted and dismounted. Numerous incidents described in the text were of a swirling, hand-to-hand nature, and it is made very clear how the environmental particulars of the Loudoun Valley shaped the course of battle. O'Neill's narrative meticulously traces how and where the movements and deployments of both sides were repeatedly challenged by terrain decidedly unfriendly to cavalry. The hilly countryside, large patches of soft ground, and creeks running at seasonal highs made things difficult enough, but the seemingly endless network of high, thick stone walls lining roads, farm lanes, and property lines was deeply disruptive, especially to mounted maneuvers and formations. One might reasonably have expected that the walls would greatly aid the defense, but, on several occasions, Union superiority in horse artillery weight and numbers seems to have greatly mitigated that and other terrain disadvantages. Additionally, since the opposing forces was constantly on the move between the 17th and 21st, Union cavalry on the attack and the Confederates employing a mobile defense in depth, the blocking and channeling effects the stout walls had on movements were really equally troublesome to both sides.

Generally speaking, the historiography does not regard Alfred Pleasonton very highly as a fighting general. Today, he is recognized more for selecting and promoting capable young officers who would emerge as top leaders later on in the war than he is for any particularly notable impact in the field. Evidenced by what happened in Loudoun Valley in June 1863, O'Neill argues for a greater appreciation of Pleasonton's generalship. Though he did ultimately fail to achieve his principal objective of penetrating the enemy's Blue Ridge mountain screen and discovering the locations of Lee's columns, Pleasonton's leadership of his improved corps in Loudoun Valley demonstrated yet again that Union cavalry were now fully capable of equaling or bettering their foes with carbine, pistol, or saber. That further solidification of earlier promise boded well for the future. In light of the event timeline documented in the book, when one takes into account Hooker's direct communications (formal and informal) with Pleasonton and the bad faith exchanges between Hooker and his superiors in Washington that were referenced earlier, it becomes clear that the inability of Union intelligence gathering to directly observe Lee's army was not a principal fault of Pleasonton's performance of his duties. Indeed, as O'Neill muses, one wonders what more might have been accomplished had Hooker not waited until June 20-21 before fully releasing the tight restraints he had previously placed on Pleasonton's forces. As the author also notes, Pleasonton's clearing of Loudoun Valley (though Stuart would soon return) did finally relieve General Hooker's anxiety over the possibility that Lee's army might emerge from the Bull Run mountain gaps to yet again strike the Army of the Potomac's flank and rear.

Decades ago, H.E. Howard's Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series (its volumes now long out of print) provided Civil War readers with a number of truly landmark histories. One of those was O'Neill's The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville: Small But Important Riots, June 10-27, 1863. Not having a basis for comparison (I've neither read the earlier version nor own a copy of it), this review will have to rely on the author's own words regarding the differences between the 1993 and 2023 editions. If you own the older Howard series title and are wondering if it is worth it to pick this one up as well, the author explains that 2023's Small but Important Riots is "new in every respect," with thirty years of additional research leading him to "reconsider the judgments and conclusions" reached long ago. In addition to correcting "errors, timeworn assumptions and interpretations," this fresh version offers "new explanations and conclusions" (pg. xi).

In addition to providing an exemplary historical account of a series of sharply contested cavalry actions fought during the early stages of the Gettysburg Campaign, Robert O'Neill's Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville is unquestionably indispensable to any meaningful discussion of the mid-war evolution of the Union mounted arm in the East. Highly recommended.

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