In Fields Where Soldiers Died

In Fields Where Soldiers Died

For the first time, cavalry battles at Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville are mapped with help of local volunteers and professional map makers.

Paul Ziluca was sitting in his dog kennel turned office in Upperville when a friend handed him a book through the window.

"He said, 'Paul, you oughta read this book,'" Ziluca remembered.

That was five years ago, and the book, "The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville," by Robert F. O'Neill Jr., became the blueprint for Ziluca's plan to map, for the first time, the Civil War battles that took place in the June days of 1863.

THAT SUMMER, Gen. Robert E. Lee was leading his army northward in hopes of meeting the Union troops near Washington, D.C. He dispatched Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart with the job of protecting two chinks in the protective rise of the Blue Ridge Mountains just east of the army's path: Ashby's Gap and Snicker's Gap.

If Union troops climbed to either gap from the east, they would see the huge dust clouds lingering from the Confederate troops' tromping in the Shenandoah Valley below, betraying the army's position and ruining Lee's plans for a northern battle.

Stuart sent bands of cavalry east over the mountains to stymie Union movement westward, not realizing that Union Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton was heading straight at him with the instructions to take Ashby's Gap along the road of the same name, now known as Route 50.

"That set of circumstances put them in conflict at the same time and the same place in Aldie," Ziluca said. "They were both surprised when they met."

On June 17, 1863, the Union and Confederate cavalry forces met for the first of three times in five days in Loudoun Valley. It was an inauspicious start — each party had 20 or so men on horseback. The Confederates, outnumbered, fell back, but fought the Union forces to a standstill when reinforcements arrived later in the day.

By the next day, however, Confederate forces had fallen back again, setting the stage for the next phase of battle a few miles west in Middleburg on June 19.

THE PATTERN continued in Middleburg and again in Upperville, but the number of troops grew with each conflict and fighting intensified. By the time the Battle of Upperville quieted, there were 1,400 casualties counted and many wounded or killed horses for the five days. In total, an estimated 19,000 forces were engaged in the valley. It was the largest cavalry battle of the war.

Union forces had advanced 12 miles westward and approached Ashby's Gap — but Stuart still protected the vital location, as per his instructions from Lee.

In Richmond papers, Stuart was charged with losing the series of battles, but it was Pleasonton who was fired by U.S. Maj. Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker shortly thereafter.

"According to his orders, he should have gone further," said Ziluca. "He didn't find out a hell of a lot. He didn't find where Lee was."

The fact that Stuart "lost" by ceding 12 miles of road to the Federals is "a pretty shallow way of looking at it," Ziluca said. "Stuart did his mission perfectly."

Lee's army advanced up the Shenandoah Valley unperturbed. Less than two weeks after the battle of Upperville, Union and Confederate forces lost an estimated 50,000 men in the fields surrounding Gettysburg, Pa.

TO ZILUCA, it was a revelation to discover that battles that played such a critical tactical role in the Civil War were right in his backyard. As an avid fox hunter, Ziluca had crossed many of the battlefields on horseback without knowing much about the mounted men in gray and blue who came before him.

Ziluca wasn't alone. Although he'd lived in Upperville since retiring from the U.S. Air Force 25 years ago, he had heard others describe the battles as "skirmishes." No one seemed aware of their magnitude.

"It was obvious that the citizens need to know more," he said.

In 2000, the Board of Supervisors approved the formation of a committee with Ziluca at its helm: The Citizens Committee for the Historic Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. While its mission is threefold, encompassing history, preservation and tourism, the 33-member committee's first order of business was to create maps of the battlefields.

Ziluca acquired a grant from the National Parks Service worth approximately $15,000. In truth, the grant was more an offer of goods than cash; the National Parks Service commissioned one of its own, David Lowe, to create the maps in question.

"They are our nation's foremost, most knowledgeable, most experienced historical battlefield map makers," Ziluca said.

Ziluca set his committee members to identifying and filling out reports on the important sites in the battles. In total, 162 surveys were completed on barns, houses and significant geological features.

"Following the committee's survey work, a team from Cultural Resources GIS visited Loudoun Valley to collect global positioning system (GPS) positions for sites," wrote Lowe in the maps' presentation introduction, completed in June 2004. "The GPS positions were folded into an array of modern and historic data in a geographic information systems project that encompassed the counties of Loudoun and Fauquier."

The results were digitized over a topographical map and made their debut at a private gathering at Llangollen Farm in Upperville on Oct. 2.

The public can obtain copies of the maps by contacting Ziluca directly. He used to give them away, but demand proved so dogged that he now charges $5 to cover printing and shipping.

"I've got a little business here," he said with a laugh.

THE COMMITTEE'S work is far from done. Now that the maps are in hand, the work on preservation and encouraging tourism is just beginning.

Henry Plaster, chair of the Snickersville Turnpike Association, knows what Ziluca's getting himself into with the tourism aspect — his association has succeeded in getting one roadside marker erected on the turnpike. As a member of Ziluca's committee, Plaster, already plugged into the history of the area, recognized that many Loudouners aren't aware of the Civil War significance of the Route 50 corridor.

"Previous to the formation of the committee, most people you asked, 'What do you know about the Civil War battles in Loudoun County?' they all said Ball's Bluff," Plaster said. "I think it's going to bring proper attention to how significant those battles were."

The committee's plan to encourage tourism and establish a way-finding system for visitors dovetails with Supervisor Stephen Snow's (R-Dulles) pet project: to improve the Route 50 corridor from the Fairfax County line to Route 15 with roadside markers and way finding signs to nearby Mt. Zion Church and other historical sites.

"This is all very compatible," said Snow, who attended the maps' unveiling at Llangollen.

ZILUCA IS A FORMER president of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which is dedicated to putting land under conservation easements so it can not be significantly subdivided even in the case of resale. He estimates that approximately 4,000 of the 22,821 acres studied for the maps is currently under easement. To fulfill the committee's preservation mission, he hopes to encourage more property owners to protect their land with easements.

With the maps, Ziluca now has the tool to educate landowners about what happened in Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville and pique their interest in preservation. And once the roadside markers are erected, at $2,600 each, residents and tourists alike will know what happened during the summer of 1863 in the weeks leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg.