June 19, 1863 (Friday)
The small battle between a two cavalry brigades at Aldie, Virginia had done little aside from giving Union Cavalry commander Alfred Pleasonton something to brag about. In his messages to General Joe Hooker, commanding the entire Federal Army of the Potomac, he gushed over the prowess of his troopers and made it seem like his entire corps had been somehow involved.
It was wonderful that Union cavalry was finally able to stand up to their Rebel counterparts, but it still didn’t tell Hooker anything he needed to know about the location and movements of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. With Pleasonton’s two division still in the Aldie area, Hooker again ordered them to penetrate the enemy’s cavalry screen thrown up by Jeb Stuart and find out what Lee was about.
Since the fighting on the 17th, Stuart had pulled a brigade out of Aldie, sending it northwest to to the town of Union. There, they could still screen Lee’s infantry from Pleasonton’s prying eyes and would be more or less in line with two of his other brigades near Middleburg. Another brigade soon joined them, leaving only one, Wade Hampton’s, farther to the south to deal with some detached Yankee cavalry. With four brigades, Stuart hoped to face down Pleasonton’s entire corps.
Stuart, unlike Pleasonton, had no need to attack. He didn’t need to break through a Union screen to gain information. All he had to do was stop Pleasonton from doing that to him. And at 6am, Pleasonton moved to do just that.
The plan was to send three brigades under David Gregg from Aldie to Middleburg and Union. They were to capture the town and send units towards Upperville and Ashby’s Gap, a few miles farther up the road. This would pierce the Blue Ridge Mountains and in that way they could learn General Lee’s positions.
Before their arrival, Stuart had vacated the town, taking a defensive position a mile to the west. Gregg arrived soon after, deployed his troopers and waited. From time to time, the artillery would boom and skirmishers would skirmish, but no move was made. In the midmorning, Gregg looked over the strong enemy position and ordered a brigade commanded by his cousin to assault it. There was a bit of hesitation on the part of the cousin – he insisted that his men would be slaughtered. The General, however, restated the order, urging his kin to hit them in the center.
He followed orders, sending nearly his entire dismounted brigade across the clearing. In some cases, the Federal charge broke the Rebel lines, but any jubilation was quickly washed away by a full Confederate brigade of cavalry, mounted, sabers drawn and ready to drive them back. There was some delay, but before long, the Rebels counterattacked, pushing the Union troopers and their reinforcements back towards Middleburg.
But when more Yankees joined the fray, it was too many to handle. Before it became a full on retreat, Jeb Stuart called off the engagement, falling back to a more westerly ridge. And there they stayed. Pleasonton’s men had won the battle, but had gained nothing at all. “We cannot force the gaps of the Blue Ridge in the presence of a superior force,” he wrote to Hooker that evening.
Throughout the day, Hooker had been trying to figure out the enemy’s positions on his own. Left with no other choice, he turned to the newspapers. He found in them several contradictory reports and predictions of where the Rebels were heading. This was of little use as it was impossible to tell which reports were accurate. What he did find to be accurate, however, were the news reports giving the exact position of his own army.
“So long as the newspapers continue to give publicity to our movements,” wrote Hooker to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, “we must not expect to gain any advantage over our adversaries. Is there no way of stopping it?”
This was something Henry Halleck knew quite a bit about. He completely commiserated with Hooker’s dilemma, having faced it himself in Tennessee and Mississippi. “I see no way of preventing it as long as reporters are permitted in our camps,” he replied, placing the blame on Hooker, not the reporters. “Every general must decide for himself what persons he will permit in his camps.”
When pressed, Halleck had no more idea where Lee’s army was than had Hooker. He tried to give some helpful prognostications, but admitted “that it is impossible to judge until we know where Lee’s army is.” He did, however, state that “no large body has appeared either in Maryland or Western Virginia.”
That wasn’t quite true. Robert Rodes’ Division in Richard Ewell’s Corps had been in Williamsport, Maryland for days. Halleck and Hooker both probably knew that, but on this day Allegheny Johnson’s Division crossed the Potomac at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, making it all the way to Sharpsburg.
This wasn’t accomplished without a bit of prodding. General Lee, unhappy that Ewell was dragging his feet, wrote that he regretted that his entire corps had not crossed the Potomac. “Should we be able to detain General Hooker’s army from following you,” he continued, “you would be able to accomplish as much, unmolested, as the whole army could perform with General Hooker in its front.”
Ewell’s last division, under Jubal Early, however, was not able to cross. Rains had flooded the Potomac and barred any such splashing. Rather than send his two crossed divisions onward, he halted them all. They would wait until the waters receded.
Meanwhile, the rest of Lee’s army moved northward, with A.P. Hill’s Corps bringing up the rear, and James Longstreet’s before them. Hooker’s Army also edged northward, trying to shadow a foe whose purpose he didn’t yet understand.1
- Sources: Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Noah Andre Trudeau; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington. [↩]