Prelude to the Battle
In early May 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia soundly defeated Major General Joseph Hooker and his Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite the Rebel victory, Lee’s army needed food, horses, and equipment after the battle. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee took the war to the North. Lee planned to disengage from Union forces near Fredericksburg, move the Army of Northern Virginia northwest across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then push northeast through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lee began merging his army near Culpeper, Virginia, and troop movements began on June 3, 1863.
Battle of Brandy Station
To mask his intentions and screen the assembly of his invasion force, Lee stationed his cavalry, commanded by Major General J. E. B. Stuart, at Brandy Station, a few miles northeast of Culpeper. On June 9, Union Major General Alfred Pleasonton and his Cavalry Corps launched a surprise attack against Stuart’s Cavalry Division near Brandy Station. After an all-day fight at the Battle of Brandy Station, Pleasonton retired without discovering Lee’s main encampment at Culpeper, only six miles away.
Rebels Approach Winchester
After the Battle of Brandy Station, Lee’s army continued its trek northwest toward Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley where roughly 6,900 troops were garrisoned under the command of Brigadier General Robert Milroy. On June 13, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell and his 2nd Army Corps reached Winchester and started a three-day engagement that forced Milroy’s evacuation, clearing the upper Shenandoah Valley for Lee’s advancement.
As Lee continued to move north on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he ordered Stuart’s Cavalry to move in the same direction through the Loudoun Valley on the east side of the mountains, screening the Confederate invasion force. Lee instructed Stuart to prevent Federal reconnaissance forces from advancing through gaps in the mountains to gather information about the Army of Northern Virginia’s movements. Part of Stuart’s orders included holding the Ashby’s Gap Turnpike and the Snickersville Turnpike, two strategic roads leading through the mountains.
Orders to Occupy Aldie, Virginia
Frustrated by the lack of intelligence about Lee’s movements, on June 16, 1863, Hooker ordered Pleasonton, “to give him information of where the enemy is, his force, and his movements.” On June 17, Pleasonton ordered Major General David Gregg’s division to seize and occupy Aldie, where the two roads converged, setting the stage for a cavalry engagement that afternoon.
Advance on Aldie
Gregg assigned Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick and his troops to lead the advance on Aldie. At about 2:30 p.m., Kilpatrick’s brigade encountered Colonel Thomas Munford’s Confederate pickets east of town. Kilpatrick’s troopers quickly pushed the outnumbered Rebels back through the village until the 5th Virginia Cavalry reinforced them.
The Virginians, commanded by Colonel Thomas Rosser, forced the Federals back into Aldie where they established a defensive position. Rosser occupied the high ground west of town. Following a short lull, the rest of the day featured fierce, but indecisive, cavalry engagements west of town, especially around the two turnpikes.
At about 8 p.m., Stuart ordered Munford to disengage because his troopers were needed at another engagement at nearby Middleburg.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Aldie was inconclusive. At the end of the day, Pleasonton held the junction of the two turnpikes, but he had gained no significant information about Lee’s movements on the west side of the mountains. The battle cost the Union 305 dead and wounded compared to roughly 120 Confederate casualties.
Particularly hard hit was the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Of the 294 troopers from that unit, 198 were killed or wounded. Among Union officers who distinguished themselves at the Battle of Aldie was the young Brigadier General George A. Custer, who led several charges during the engagement.