A hero charges to dusty glory at Aldie


Artist Edwin Forbes drew this highly detailed image of Union and Confederate troopers battling at Brandy Station, Va. on June 9, 1863. During the battle, the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment was involved in the savage fleeting at Fleetwood Hill, site of J.E.B. Stuart’s headquarters. Col. Calvin Douty led the regiment at Brandy Station and eight days later at Aldie. (Library of Congress Photo)

The sword-wielding Calvin Douty charged to glory in a Virginia dust cloud in mid-June 1863.

Born in Sangerville, Douty lived in Dover when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter. He had served two terms as the Piscataquis County sheriff; in April 1861 Douty “was then serving in the first year of his third term,” recalled Edward Tobie, a wartime comrade.

Tobie described the teetotaler Douty as “admirably qualified for a military command.” At 5-9 he sported blue eyes, brown hair, a light complexion, and a “hardy frame” strengthened by “a life of active industry [that] had given him extraordinary power of endurance.” Joining the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment as its major on Oct. 5, Douty mustered into the Army on Nov. 7.

Although he seems sleepy or weary in this photograph probably taken in winter 1863, Col. Calvin Douty of the 1st Maine Cavalry was a physically fit man who rode and fought with youngsters less than half his age. He led his regiment into the Battle of Aldie, Va. (Maine State Archives Photo)

The Federal cavalry underwent organizational transformation after Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac in winter 1863. He coalesced the army’s dispersed mounted regiments into a cavalry corps replete with divisions and brigades. Hooker understood the “hitting power” and maneuverability inherent in large cavalry units, advantages well understood and utilized by the hard-charging Confederate cavalry; horsemen deployed in large numbers could move fast and strike deep in enemy-held territory.

Promoted to colonel in March, Douty commanded the 1st Maine when events took the regiment north in June 1863 as Robert E. Lee sent his infantrymen tramping toward Pennsylvania.

Commanded by J.E.B. Stuart, Confederate cavalrymen screened the mountain passes through which Union scouts might spot Lee’s infantry marching down the Shenandoah Valley. In 90-degree heat on Wednesday, June 17, two Confederate cavalry brigade supported by four cannons moved into position to guard the roads leading west from Aldie, Va. to Ashby’s Gap and Snickers Gap in the Bull Run Mountains. The Confederates deployed “in a strong position on a ridge of hills covered with stone walls back of” of Aldie, Tobie wrote.

Confederate lines extended across “the Middleburg and Snicker’s Gap roads,” according to Tobie, and “their skirmish line occupied a stone wall on the eastern slope of the hill and a long ditch behind some hay stacks.”

While charging Confederate cavalry west of Aldie, Va. on June 17, 1863, Union troopers came around this curve in the Snickersville Turnpike in columns of fours; the view is from the Confederate positions. Pursuing two 1st Maine Cavalry companies late in the battle, Col. Calvin Douty reached the road at this spot after riding uphill from the left. He was soon shot and killed, likely within 100 feet on the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry monument. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Fighting broke out in late afternoon; Confederate troopers fired from behind the stone walls or met their enemies on horseback. “The cavalry was hotly engaged,” recalled 1st Lt. Henry Hall, Co. H, 1st Maine. “The charges and counter-charges were superb and grand.”

Commanded by Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, Union cavalrymen pushed their Confederate foes “back a full half mile to some high stone fences (walls)” beyond the Furr House, Hall wrote later. “A regiment of dismounted cavalry had been placed” behind those walls.

As Federal troopers approached them, the Southern cavalrymen “received Kilpatrick’s men with a murderous fire, which literally covered the field in front with dead and dying, and sent the others flying in disorder to the rear,” Hall wrote.

Just west of the tight curve in the Snickersville Turnpike (shown in previous photo) stands the monument to the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment. Confederate troopers hidden behind a stone wall ambushed the hard-charging Bay Staters and blew them to smithereens. The 1st Maine Cavalry’s Col. Calvin Douty was shot from his saddle very near this spot. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Two mounted Confederate regiments charged the “retreating troops, and drove them back in wild confusion,” he said. “Kilpatrick now called lustily for help.”

Minus four companies detached a while earlier, Douty was leading the 1st Maine Cavalry “up the left bank of Little River” when Kilpatrick’s courier reached him, Hall said. A bugler sounded “fours right about”; Co. H led the way as the regiment crossed a road and rode north “up through a sparsely wooded field” to its hilly crest, where Union artillery commanded by Capt. Alanson Randol fired on the enemy.

Capt. George Armstrong Custer guided the 1st Maine into position near Randol’s guns, and Douty ordered his companies to assemble “as fast as they arrived” atop the hill, Hall said. He watched as “Kilpatrick’s broken regiments came up the hill in our front and passed to our right and rear, routed and demoralized.”

At that moment, Calvin Douty hovered somewhere on the 1st Maine’s left flank, “attending to the formation of the companies as they arrived,” Hall recalled.

Riding among his fleeing horsemen, Kilpatrick crested the hill and suddenly “saw an unbroken front of live men, with glistening sabres drawn.” He “instantly stopped,” Hall said.

“His moistened features were covered with dust; his countenance was dejected and sad; and fire and the flash of his eye were gone, and he looked indeed ‘a ruined man,’” Hall observed.

“What regiment is this?” Kilpatrick blurted.

“First Maine!” at least a dozen troopers shouted.

“The response was electric,” Hall realized. “Then we heard the old, familiar, clear-ringing tones, and saw his countenance brighten to a smile, [and] his eyes flash.”

“Forward, First Maine!” Kilpatrick cried. “Are there twelve men who will follow me?”

The sun was low in the Virginia sky as Kilpatrick turned his horse west. Joined by Custer, he and Pvt. Dennis Murphy, a 1st Maine trooper serving as his orderly, spurred their mounts.

“With deafening yells and flashing sabres,” some “forty boys of Co. H, followed by Co. D … charged down the hill” and collided with “the victorious rebels, brave, bold determined fellows,” Hall remembered that decisive charge. Troopers fought with pistols and sabers; “some of our boys fell here,” and so did Confederate riders, who “felt the steel borne” by the Maine troopers.

Four 1st Maine companies remained behind near Randol’s cannons.

Confederate and Union cavalrymen collide during the Battle of Aldie, Va., fought on Wednesday, June 17, 1863. Confederate cavalrymen sweep downhill from the left; Union troopers charge from right to left. The 1st Maine Cavalry was heavily involved in the fighting, and the unit’s commander, Col. Calvin Sanger Douty, was killed late in the battle. Artist Edwin Forbes drew this sketch on Wednesday, June 24. (Library of Congress)

Then the Confederate regiments broke, and Johnnies and Yankees rode intermingled “in the dusty darkness” along the Snickersville Turnpike, “where it was scarcely possible to distinguish friend from foe,” Hall recalled. He almost sabered a wounded Co. H trooper, then chased away a few enemy soldiers attempting to capture the Mainer.

In the melee Hall flew over his horse’s head as the animal went down; “I instantly rolled over into the ditch” alongside the road and dodged horse hooves as more Maine troopers charged past, he said.

Beside the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry monument at Aldie stands this stone wall, which runs almost north-south across the adjacent fields. Dismounted Confederate cavalrymen knelt behind this same stone wall late on June 17, 1863 and ambushed the Massachusetts cavalrymen; the same Confederate troopers also shot and killed Maine’s Calvin Douty near this spot as he followed two 1st Maine Cavalry companies in a wild charge. (Brian Swartz Photo)

As Kilpatrick ordered the Maine boys to charge, Douty evidently did not lose “any time in getting to the head of the charging column,” Hall recalled.

But another source claims that Douty, his attention diverted elsewhere, did not initially notice the charge, but chased after his two Kilpatrick-led companies.

A 1st Maine Cavalry eyewitness confirmed that assertion. Hailing from Lewiston, Pvt. William Howe caught up with Douty after the Maine boys slammed into the mounted Confederate cavalry. Douty rode hell-bent for leather toward the thick dust kicked up by hundreds of horses.

Today asphalt covers the narrow Snickersville Turnpike (Route 734), a winding country lane that gradually rises to the northwest after diverging from the Ashby Gap Turnpike (modern Route 50) a mile west of Aldie. Fields separated by fences and stone walls border the road; the bucolic landscape remarkably resembles the scenery across which the 1863 cavalry fight ebbed and flowed.

Their spirited charge funneled the 1st Maine troopers westward into the Snickersville Turnpike; as they struck the Confederate cavalry, the Maine boys spread the fight into the adjacent fields. Not far behind his men, Douty rode parallel on their right (or north), his route bringing him uphill on a converging course with the Snickersville Turnpike to the south.

Steering a wider course to Douty’s right, Howe saw “there were a few scattering men still in the open field.” Turning his horse’s head about 45 degrees to the southwest, Howe rode “into the cloud of dust,” where “no one was then individually visible” except for “a lone horseman charging up the line leaping obstacles and every obstacle that lay in his path.”

Howe “followed closely in his wake” and finally “saw that it was Col. Douty,” who this day rode “on his old white horse.”

The cavalry charge created a “line of smoke and dust … stretching from the summit of the hill to the base and no man could tell where the dividing front between friend and foe ended,” Howe said. Union troopers “charged on and up the slope, and I followed” Douty to “the terminus of the field.

“At the point where the road turned in a right angle to the left, he espied me in his wake,” Howe noticed.

The cavalry fight at Aldie ebbed and flowed across these fields and hills bordering the Snickersville Turnpike. The stone wall on the left was defended by dismounted Confederate cavalrymen during the June 17, 1863 battle. Eight companies of the 1st Maine Cavalry charged across this same site late in the battle and broke the Confederates’ left flank. (Brian Swartz Photo)

His sword thrust above his head, Douty shouted, “Where is the head of the regiment?”

“The [Confederate] cannonading from the heights had ceased in large measure,” so Howe thought that the 1st Maine Cavalry “was in possession of the hill.” He pointed toward the summit.

Digging in his spurs, Douty steered his horse through “an opening in the fence” and “over a pair of bars and through a dugout road in the side of the hill,” Howe noticed as he rode behind Douty. The road was “skirted on the right by a heavy stone wall” that intersected another stone wall at a right angle “about twenty rods” away, Howe described the topography.

This stone wall “ran over the brow of the hill, leaving the field open beyond the intersection,” he said.

Heavy fighting had left the “dugout [road] literally filled with dead and dying men and horses.” Still riding hard behind Douty, Howe saw him “turning [his horse] to the right to go into the open field beyond.” Douty still rode “with his sword hand raised.

“This one last moment “I last saw him alive,” Howe realized. “Just then a volley came from behind the stone walls and the Colonel fell, my horse was wounded and I received a slight wound in the right ankle.”

Hauling on the reins, Howe “ran as if my life depended upon my speedy flight — and jumped my horse over the fence [to the left] on the other side” of the Snickersville Turnpike.

“I just escaped another volley from the stone wall,” Howe noticed as Confederate bullets whizzed past him. “When I made the leap over the fence (a leap for life) and went sailing down the canyon, I believe it was the largest leap ever made by man or beast, for my horse’s feet did not strike ground for several rods.”

As his horse landed hard, “I was … severely thrust upon the horn of my saddle.” Howe and his mount raced uphill “towards the woods on the high ground at the other side.”

There waited the four 1st Maine Cavalry companies that had not charged. In pain from his damaged groin — “the injury has since been a serious disability,” he wrote years later — Howe pushed his lathered horse onward to where the other Maine troopers gazed across the battlefield.

Watching Howe approach, Maj. Stephen Boothby of Portland “came forward and asked if I knew where was the Colonel,” Howe recalled.

Reining his horse, Howe pointed to the stone wall-crowned hill. “I told him he was yonder on the heights dead[,] I believed,” Howe remembered.

The news stirred a violent reaction. “The very air was blue with flashing words that fell from Boothby’s lips,” Hall recalled; pausing only briefly, Boothby ordered the four companies to charge “on the right (north) side of the road” to aid their hard-pressed comrades in Companies D and H.

Boothby’s men “had a hard fight down by the sheds and the hay-stacks on the right,” but led by Lt. Col. Charles Smith, the four detached 1st Maine companies arrived and joined the charge. The reinforcements “quickly got in on the rebel left and cleared the field,” remembered Hall, who now rode a captured Confederate horse.

“Then the second charge and the most irreversible ever known was made by the old First Maine Cavalry,” Howe described the savage charge that carried the day. “Inside of two minutes the life of this indomitable hero was avenged, the heights captured, and Colonel Douty’s body recovered from that point where I last saw him in life.

“His wound was two buckshots under the right armpit which must have entered the heart,” Howe remembered.

Near Douty lay other Maine troopers, including “the dead body of” Capt. George Summat, “with one leg terribly crushed and broken,” Hall reported.

The wild charge broke the Confederate lines, and Kilpatrick claimed a victory.

Dover residents held a hero’s funeral for Calvin Sanger Douty on Saturday, June 27. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people attended, and a large procession accompanied the hearse to the cemetery.

“The services were exceedingly solemn and impressive, and the immense throng present testified to the respect felt for Colonel Douty by his neighbors,” a newspaper correspondent reported.

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.