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

Small but Important Riots

By Robert F. O’Neill
Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2023
ISBN 978-164012-547-6
Illustrations. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xix, 319. $36.95

Nearly all of the literature published over the last 160 years since the eventful Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 has largely focused on the events of 1-3 July 1863 in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They usually examine the epic struggle of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac on the hills and ridges west and south of the town of Gettysburg. In reality, the actual engagement at Gettysburg was just part of an overall two-month campaign that saw the advance of the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania, and its eventual retreat and pursuit by Union forces, throughout June-August 1863. During this time, there were multiple engagements in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. This book focuses on several small cavalry actions 16-20 June 1863 in the Loudoun Valley in northern Virginia.

After the indecisive 9 June 1863 battle at Brandy Station, and with the realization that Confederate forces were advancing north, Major General Joseph Hooker began dispatching Union cavalry patrols into the Loudoun Valley. They were to conduct reconnaissance against Confederate forces and ascertain Lee’s plans and movements. Lee used his cavalry as a screening force, protecting his flanks as the infantry moved down through the Shenandoah Valley. Union and Confederate forces first met at Aldie on 17 June, the site of a “fiery ordeal” between troopers from Massachusetts and Virginia.

Two chapters of the book focus on the important 17-18 June engagement at Middleburg between units from North Carolina and Virginia and the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. Under the command of colorful French dragoon officer Colonel Alfred N. Duffie, the 1st Rhode Island was sent along and unsupported towards Middleburg where Union troopers almost captured Major General J.E.B. Stuart on the afternoon of 17 June. After routing the Confederates, it was the Rhode Islanders who themselves were routed, losing nearly 230 out of 280 men killed, wounded, and captured. Although defeated, the Rhode Islanders proved the Confederates were advancing towards Pennsylvania, allowing Hooker to concentrate his forces and begin moving more thoroughly against Lee. Finally, the 20 June engagements at Upperville, and subsequent smaller cavalry actions near Ashby Gap are covered in detail.

Small but Important Riots is extremely well-researched and detailed. Often forgotten in the larger context of the Gettysburg Campaign, O’Neill has done a marvelous job of conducting extensive primary research into a variety of archives throughout the United States. The book is highly detailed on the tactical level, showing both the overall strategy of Union and Confederate commanders, as well as individual regiments on the ground. Each battle is mapped, often for the first time, and allows readers to trace the path of individual companies and regiments in the action. Furthermore, several appendices provide information regarding casualties from these battles, as well as an order of battle. Overall, this gives readers a complete and thorough view of these battles that helped shape the course of action for the main engagement fought at Gettysburg in July.

In conclusion, this book is highly recommended for the U.S. Army Cavalry community. The three small actions at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville showed the traditional deployment of cavalry, both in the case of the Confederacy as a flank protection unit, and for the Union in a reconnaissance capability. The lessons that can be drawn from the use of cavalry in both roles in the Loudoun Valley in June 1863 can have modern implications on the battlefield of today. Extensively researched, crisply written, and featuring excellent maps, Small but Important Riots belongs on the bookshelf of both students of the Gettysburg Campaign, as well as any modern soldier wearing the crossed sabers insignia.  

Robert Grandchamp
Jericho Center, Vermont