Life Stories of Civil War Heroes banner

Henry Lee Higginson and the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at
the Battle of Aldie

Major Henry Lee HigginsonAs Union troopers rode beyond the village of Aldie, Virginia on June 17, 1863, they were assailed by a volley of shots fired over stone walls along the Snickersville pike. The horsemen of Major General Alfred Pleasonton had met Major General JEB Stuart's Virginia cavalrymen, and while seeking to uncover the whereabouts of General Robert E. Lee's infantry through this encounter, faced strong resistance as the Confederates made every effort to conceal the movement of their troops. The outcome of this meeting resulted in a clash that would be known as the Battle of Aldie—centrally fought near a small, rural home owned by Mr. Dallas Furr. For Major Henry Lee Higginson—who commanded a battalion of two squadrons led by Captains Lucius Sargent and John Tewksbury—this would be the fiercest of all contests in which he and the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry would engage during the Civil War.

In the early stages of this battle, several units from Brigadier General (Hugh) Judson Kilpatrick's 1st Massachusetts Cavalry—under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Greely Curtis—charged the enemy, Sargent and Higginson taking the lead as they headed towards the Furr house. Riding up the road with sabers flashing, Higginson's men skirmished briefly with Lieutenant Alexander Payne's squadron from Colonel Thomas Munford's 4th Virginia Cavalry. Payne's men soon retreated and Higginson ordered his troops to halt, but Sargent—desiring a more satisfying end to this match—taunted and provoked the Virginians to finish the fight. A swift and savage combat between Payne's troops and a few members of Higginson's battalion left all five Federals severely wounded: Sergeant Martin slashed by a saber; and Captain Sargent, Lieutenant George Fillebrown of Sargent's platoon, and a private each pierced by gunshot. Major Higginson, who had crossed sabers with a foe, had been knocked out of his saddle—a bullet lodged at the base of his spine; a saber gash across his right cheek. Unhorsed and wounded in the road, Higginson was struck on the head and told by his assailant that he would be taken prisoner. When the major informed his attacker that he believed he would not live, the man robbed him, leaving only his horse that had been shot several times.

Lieutenant Charles Parsons of Sargent's squadron acted quickly to reform the troops and successfully scattered Payne's men, but in driving back the enemy Parsons and his unit became cut off from their regiment. As Tewksbury struggled to support Parsons his squadron was assaulted by gunfire along the Snickersville pike, just before the Furr house. A third squadron of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry under Captain Charles Adams—grandson of President John Quincy Adams—failed to charge in a planned attack with Tewksbury. While carrying out the command to dismount and take cover in a small patch of woods, Adams's men were decimated in a deadly crossfire.

Curtis now ordered the final squadron of the 1st Massachusetts—under Lieutenant Charles Davis—to advance with sabers drawn up the narrow road. As Davis's lead troopers reached the bend along the Snickerville pike, they found their path obstructed by a mass of dead and wounded men and horses; the barely living still writhing in agony. Before the troopers could slow to a halt they were ambushed—mowed down by a stream of fusillade by Virginians who were lying in wait for them behind the stone walls. Unable to retreat, these men were trampled upon by their comrades who followed in suit.

Fewer than half of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalrymen remained following this nightmarish melee. Among the survivors of the four squadrons was Higginson's younger brother, Lieutenant James J. Higginson, who was taken prisoner.

In the final stages of the Battle of Aldie, additional Federal regiments entered the fray as the battle raged on across the fields. After a number of fervent attacks, the Confederates were successfully driven off the ridge they occupied and the battle ended, though at a great cost to the Union. As a result of this non-conclusive engagement in which neither side attained a true victory, there were 250 casualties.

scroll

Higginson Reminisces on the Aftermath of the Battle

In his reminiscences, Major Higginson describes the events that occurred after the "little shindy" at the Battle of Aldie that left him severely wounded:

So in five minutes the shindy was over, and three of us were wounded and one dying. When they were out of sight, I induced Captain Sargent to get up off the ground and come under a tree, where I left him close by a little house. He declared he could go no further and should die in a few minutes. I crawled along to a brook, where I lay down and drank a pailful of water, then crossed the brook and got up into a wood. When I had nearly reached a fence, I heard some noise, and lay down in the leaves and made a little memorandum in my notebook. Just then a solid shot came down close by me. Presently, when all was quiet, I got up again, climbed over the fence, and walked in the direction where fighting was still going on, and presently came in sight of our men, many of whom had been killed or wounded. I lay down on the ground, was presently put on a horse, which I could hardly bear, and taken to the hospital, where Dr. Osborne looked at me, and began to patch me up. He made a little slit in my back to see if he could find the ball, but could not; as a matter of fact, I had a pistol ball in the sacrum, a good slash across the cheek, a punch in the shoulder, which was of little account, and a bad whack on the head, which also turned out to have no results except a sore. Then I was taken down to the village by Colonel Curtis,—some men carrying the litter,—and put in a house with one or two other prisoners, and there left for the night. I heard that my brother [Jim] had been captured, and a good many of our men had been killed or wounded; in fact, we had lost about half of our regiment. But we had beaten the enemy back....

Higginson explains that the next day he and Lieutenant Fillebrown were brought by ambulance across rough roads and placed on a train bound for Alexandria:

The train jerked us to and fro, and we got into Alexandria about one or two o'clock in the morning, were taken out by a lot of young men, who acted as if they were on a picnic, and who got us into ambulances with many jokes, and at last we were carried to a hospital, and got to bed somewhere. I had a little straw mattress, with a deep hollow in the middle. It was a great relief, but still was very bad to lie on, for I could lie only on one side, one shoulder being hurt, the back of my head being hurt, and my back being hurt, and, on the other side, my face being cut. Our wounds were dressed, and I found in the morning lying next me Dr. John Perry, whose leg had been broken by a kick of his horse. On my other side lay our lieutenant, who had considerable morphine to relieve his pain and who would sit up in bed and eat peanuts. I knew that he had been shot through the side, and I watched to see them come out, but none of them came.

There were two or three rough privates who waited upon us, and tried to help. They were good boys, but did not know anything and were not nice at first, but presently they learned better manners. My difficulty was getting in a position in which I could lie without excessive weariness; there was no good side, and I could not move without putting my arms around somebody's neck and then swinging from one side to another.

After several days, Higginson was carried to the ferry and crossed the river to the Armory Square Hospital in which he found greater comfort and better food under the care of nurse Anna Lowell, cousin of his friend Charles Russell Lowell. But Higginson did not remain at this hospital for very long:

It was decided to send me home, and after the second or third day and a restless night or two, I was taken to the railroad and put into a car full of wounded men, which was going North. All the seats had been taken out, and a lot of beds slung from standards one over the other and one beside the other, with just a narrow space between. Opposite to me lay a man, young and pleasant-looking, who had lost his leg up to his thigh, and was evidently dying. I saw many horrid cases in the hospital. John Perry went in the same car with me, and as the mattresses on which we lay were slung from rubber straps, we did as well as we could; but it was a dreadful night, and the language was fearful.

In the morning we were at Jersey City, got across the river, and then we were put into wagons, and I was driven to a hospital in Union Square, where father got Doctor Stone, and he redressed my wounds. John Perry was driven to his home, where his leg had to be broken again and set straight, for this friendly nurse, who was learning her business, had set it crooked. That night I was taken home in a sleeping-car and carried to father's house in Chauncy Street, where I passed several months. After a few days, Dr. Cabot, who had examined my wounds and had seen a piece of cloth and piece of bone come out of my back, thought he had found the bullet. He had already probed for it, and the second time, by using a porcelain probe, got the black mark of the lead, and then knew he had found the bullet. So he gave me ether for the second time, and when I came to, the bullet was out, and he was sitting in the chair saying, "Thank God!" The truth is that the bullet had been close by the seat of the nerves, and if it had not come out, I should have been paralyzed as to my lower limbs. That is what I had feared from the first, because I knew that I was shot pretty nearly where [my friend] William Sedgwick was shot [at the Battle of Antietam], and he was paralyzed below his waist, and presently died. I had a dreadful night after the extraction of the bullet, for he had touched one of the great nerves, and that began to beat like a hammer; but father gave me so much laudanum that I went to sleep and the next day was all right. After a while, I was well enough to go downstairs, and presently to go out to Waltham and stay with Mr. Frank Lowell [Charlie's uncle] and his daughter [Anna].

Higginson's account quoted from Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson by Bliss Perry. Text in brackets [ ] added for reference.

More about the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at the Battle of Aldie can be found in the article: "In Remembrance of Their Comrades at the Battle of Aldie: The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry Dedicates a Monument in 1891." This piece by Major Benjamin Crowninshield features the 1891 address given by Major Charles Davis, dedicating a monument to their comrades on the battlefield at Aldie.


Acknowledgments

I would like to express my sincerest thanks and gratitude to Brian C. Pohanka for generously providing his time and materials, and invaluable contributions to this written work.

Sources used in preparing this essay:

The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville: Small But Important Riots, June 10 - 27, 1863 (The Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders Series), by Robert F. O'Neill, Jr., H.E. Howard, Lynchburg, VA, 1993, pp. 47-49.

The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, by Edwin B. Coddington, Morningside Press, Dayton, OH, 1994, pp. 78-80.

Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson, by Bliss Perry, The Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, MA, 1921, pp. 196-202.

"Loudoun Valley Cavalry Battles of '63," by Robert F. O'Neill, Jr., Blue and Gray Magazine, October 1993, pp. 16-19.

scroll

Image of Major Higginson, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, from the collection of Massachusetts / MOLLUS, USAMHI, Carlisle, PA.

Image and all sources used in this essay courtesy of Brian Pohanka, except for The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command.

leaf

Index to Higginson's Pages
Back | Home


Copyright 2001 - 2009 1st Dragoon's Civil War Site. All rights reserved.

Spider Map Index