Besides Winchester, one of the most well known Civil War battles to take place in the Shenandoah Valley – thanks to some Hollywood magic – is the battle at New Market on May 15, 1864. And the most famous aspect of the battle is the charge of the Virginia Military Institute cadets across the muddy field. The movie “Field of Lost Shoes” has sparked the imagination of moviegoers and budding historians. While the movie definitely stretches the truth in some respects, few can be unimpressed by the cinematic grandeur of that fateful charge, and the stories of the young men who tug at the heartstrings of the viewers.
However, as most historians know, it’s rarely a good idea to get their history from a movie, whose producers and writers may be more concerned with box office proceeds and ratings.
In the spring of 1864, the new commander of all Union forces, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had a plan to crush the Confederates. While he and George Gordon Meade attacked Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Benjamin Butler would threaten Richmond via the Peninsula, plans were laid to take Mobile, William T. Sherman would make an advance toward the railroad hub of Atlanta, and Franz Sigel was sent up the Shenandoah Valley to threaten the back door of the Confederate capital. The concept was that if the rebels were attacked on all sides, the forces would be pinned down where they were unable to come to the aid of any other region or forced to sap forces from one place to reinforce another and therefore weakening their positions.
Franz Sigel immigrated from Germany with other, so called “48ers”, where he led 1848 radicals during their revolution. In exile, he came to the United States and continued his military career. At the beginning of the war, Sigel became the poster child for the Union cause, especially for the German immigrant population in the North who were targeted for recruitment. His struggles in the West, however, proved to be a detriment to his reputation. The phrase, “I fights mit Sigel” boosted his acclaim a little, but this “Yankee Dutchman” was still in the doghouse by 1864. As also in the case with Butler, Lincoln and the high command of the Union decided to give Sigel another chance to save his career by giving him that assignment to proceed up the Shenandoah Valley to distract the Confederate forces. Issues arouse early between Sigel and high command as he clashed with his subordinate officers. He kept a staff of immigrants, which created communication conflicts during the campaign. He was also convinced that his troops needed more training, which would slow their progress and cause friction for the 7,000 under his command.
On the Confederate side, John C. Breckinridge, former vice president of the United States, was severely outnumbered. At the onset of the war, Breckinridge was accused of treason for his outspoken criticism of Lincoln and fled south in order to evade arrest. He was promoted to a brigadier-general after the battle of Shiloh in April of 1862, and participated in numerous western engagements under Braxton Bragg. He replaced Samuel Jones as commander of the Western Department of Virginia on March 4, 1864, which incorporated a vast spread of land with too few soldiers to command it – only 5,000 and eighteen guns. Breckinridge was woefully at a disadvantage to face the Federal army headed his way. Francis H. Smith, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, offered up additional recruits once the threat was made known. These boys had no battle experience, and Breckinridge did not initially want to send these cadets into a real fight, but he grew desperate by May 10.
The Virginia Military Institute, founded 1839, was located in Lexington, Virginia and offered a military education for young men as young as fifteen and supported their education into their twenties. It also functioned as the arsenal for Lexington. When the call came for Confederate volunteers, students who were of qualifying age rushed to the recruiting office. By early May of 1864, Superintendent Smith wrote to Breckinridge regarding the 280 cadets that were willing and ready for service. Organized into a battalion of four small companies, they came with artillery and ample supplies for the march from Lexington to Staunton and beyond. The boys were assembled on the night of May 10th and told that they would be moving out immediately, to march north to assist Breckinridge in his task to fend off the Federal invaders.
Between May 11 and 15, heavy rains made the roads muddy and difficult to traverse. Jack Standard recalled, “The roads were awful perfect loblolly all the way and we had to wade through like hogs.” When the seasoned, hardened Confederate veterans were joined by the young cadets on May 12, they teased and mocked them for their youth and inexperience. Soon, they’d be eating their words.
Sigel had procrastinated in his movements in the Valley. Not only was he caught up in executing full-scale military training exercises in the form of wargames, which only proved to slow down the army and upset his troops, Sigel also delayed when he received news that Breckinridge was moving to meet him. Instead of responding to his opponent, he continued to drill his troops and focus on his interior issues rather than the campaign. This only gave Breckinridge more time to recruit and set up his defenses. Partisan raids also delayed his progress.
Breckinridge issued his formation orders for the advance. Gabriel Wharton’s Brigade would serve as lead, followed by Brigadier General John Echol’s Brigade. The VMI cadets would be held in reserve, ahead of the ambulances and wagon trains. He moved his army 45 miles north of Staunton to the little town of New Market and remarked, “I shall advance on him. We can attack and whip them and I will do it.” Another cadet, John S. Wise, wrote years later regarding the mood of the march, “Even in the hour of levity the shadow of impending bloodshed hangs over all but the cadet. The new world that has burst upon him; the strange, bustling outside world, so in contrast with the quaint secluded precincts of Lexington; the bright hopes of the morrow; the joyful thought of real soldier-life, banish fear and doubt. He drinks of this bright sparkling stream like the weary traveler at the desert spring.”
Federal Colonel William Boyd and his 1st New York Cavalry were sent to the Luray Valley – a valley within the Valley between Massanutten Mountain and the Blue Ridge – to scout the eastern flank of both armies. They passed through New Market Gap in the Massanutten to find Breckinridge’s army on their way to the town by May 13th. Imboden spotted Boyd’s unit and deployed the 23rd Virginia Cavalry and Chrisman’s Boy Company from his own unit to oppose the enemy. In a moment of identity confusion, Boyd thought this detachment of cavalry belonged to Sigel. When it was discovered that was not the case, they turned to make their escape back through Luray Valley. The Confederates moved to intercept, but the Federals managed to make their way back to Sigel to inform him that Breckinridge was on his way to occupy New Market.
The rest of Imboden’s cavalry were sent north as skirmishers and ran into Colonel Augustus Moor with his 1st West Virginia and 34th Massachusetts infantry. In the 4 miles between Rude’s Hill to the north and New Market, Imboden implemented some delaying tactics, but by 6pm on May 14 his cavalry were steadily pushed south. They established a strong position just southwest of New Market upon Shirley’s Hill, a valuable and commanding position for the Confederates. By this time, Breckinridge’s troops were encamped at Lacey Spring, about ten miles south of town. Breckinridge gave his orders for Wharton and Echol’s to move forward, with the cadets trailing behind. Captain Frank Preston, a VMI professor and soldier who had seen battle before, gathered up the cadets and spoke a prayer over the young men. “It was not a long prayer,” one cadet later recalled, “nor an elaborate prayer, but an humble, earnest appeal from a Christian, a gentleman, a soldier that sunk into the heart of every man who heard it, and I doubt if it will ever be forgotten even by the scoffer or the infidel. Few were the dry eyes, little the frivolity in that command, when he had ceased to speak of home, of father, of mother, of country, of victory, and defeat, of life, of death, of eternity.”
At the same time, Sigel sent forward the 18th Connecticut to support Moor in his approach to the town. However, there was a strategical flaw in his plan. Colonel David H. Strother wrote, “Sigel it seems wished to take possession of New Market to secure the roads leading over the mountains east and west of that place. At the same time this did not excuse him for sending detachments of his force so far from the main body as to be destroyed in detail and to court destruction…” Moor and Colonel John Wyncoop took position on Manor’s Hill opposite Shirley’s Hill on the night of May 14. A short-lived firefight erupted between the lines, but reduced to the occasional rifle shot in the dark. As rain continued to drizzle over New Market, the civilians and soldiers within the town prepared themselves for what might come the following day.
In the early hours of the morning, Breckinridge employed some classic military illusionist measures by moving his troops back and forth along Shirley’s Hill, creating the impression that he had more men than he really did. It worked to intimidate the Federals, but they stood their ground. During this time, Major General Julius Stahel arrived and outranked Moor, taking command of the forces on Manor Hill. Sigel also arrived at Rude’s Hill as Federal artillery began to bombard Shirley’s Hill and the artillery posted there. Civilian homes became casualties in the resulting exchange.
A missive from Lee prompted Breckinridge to take the initiative in this engagement. Around this time, the Overland Campaign had begun and the Army of Northern Virginia needed reinforcements. After he dispensed with Sigel, Breckinridge planned to take his troops east. Still in the midst of a rainstorm, the ground soggy and sky overcast, Breckinridge ordered Wharton and Echols to begin their dismounted advance toward the Federals around noon on May 15. As they descended, they would become prime targets for the Union artillery. Speed was of the essence in order to get out of the danger zone and into the valley between the two hills. There, the threat would not come from the artillery, but the infantry. The Union skirmishers retreated from the Confederate advance, clearing the way for the two brigades and the cadets to occupy the base of Shirley’s Hill.
In an encouraging speech before the VMI boys – who would remain in reserves – followed Wharton’s Brigade, Pierre W. Woodlief said, “I like fighting no better than anybody else, but I have an enemy in my rear as dreadful as any before me.” He referred to the loved ones at home who both fretted and gloried in the fact that their sons and brothers were getting their first taste of combat. If Pierre turned coward or shied from the battle, he knew that the ridicule he’d suffer back home would be worse than any bullets he received on the battlefield. Breckinridge had told the boys, “I hope there will be no occasion to use you, but if there is, I trust you will do your duty.”
When the cadets crested Shirley’s Hill, despite the artillery fire, they continued to march down the slope in parade fashion, orderly and in time. Any gaps blown in the line were quickly closed up. An artillery shot wounded a few boys, but knocked down several others. They drew the attention of both Union and Confederate veterans, earning the respect of the soldiers by their cool composure during their baptism of fire.
The 18th Connecticut and 123rd Ohio were forced off of Manor Hill, and the secondary line of 34th Massachusetts, 54th Pennsylvania, 1st West Virginia, and 12th West Virginia occupied Bushong’s Hill just north of the Bushong Farm. “Sigel seemed in a state of excitement and rode here and there with Stahel and Moore, all jabbering in German. In his excitement he seemed to forget his English entirely, and the purely American portion of his staff were totally useless to him.” As Sigel struggled, Breckinridge maneuvered well, taking his troops from Manor Hill toward the Bushong Farm with Imboden’s cavalry guarding his right flank and artillery repositioning to keep up their fire on the Federals.
There was little time to rest or take assessment of the new battle lines as they advanced and reformed in response to one another. The battle proceeded fluidly. Dr. Alexander Neil of the 12th West Virginia described, “The noise so terrible and the scene so frightful, the rebels advancing on us like a stone wall, never flinching for a moment, though their ranks were thinned every moment and the ground was covered with their dead and wounded. I never saw braver men than those rebels, they fight worthier of a nobler cause.”
Along the Bushong lines, a series of charges and countercharges took place between the Confederates and Federals. Between Wharton and Woodson’s Missourians (1st Missouri, Company A, also called the Missouri Exiles) a gap developed in the Confederate line. If Breckinridge shifted troops from his existing line, it would further stretch his already limited manpower to defend the line. Still, the longer he allowed the gap to exist, the sooner the Federals would discover the weak point and make a run for it. The VMI Cadets in reserve were his only reasonable option to close that gap and save the line. He gave the order, “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.”
As the cadets moved forward down Manor Hill, they were once again in line with the Federal artillery. And as before, when holes were blown in their lines, they quickly reformed and continued. Unlike before, the cadets sustained multiple, serious casualties. When they reached the Bushong Farmhouse, two of the companies rushed to the right while the rest moved to the left. Ahead was a rail fence that provided them a place to reform their lines and seek cover. Those who didn’t rally at the fence stayed behind to help patch up their wounded classmates.
By this point in the battle, neither Breckinridge nor Sigel were in direct control of their troops. Decisions were made quickly and at the regimental level as regiments advanced and retreated in turn across the field. Smoke from the guns and the heavy veil of rain that continued to pour over the soldiers obscured much of the battlefield. One soldier said, “the fire was withering. It seemed impossible that any living creature could escape; and here we sustained our heaviest loss, a great many being wounded and numbers knocked down, stunned, and temporarily disabled.”
It’s still debated upon who gave the cadets the order to charge past the fence to take the field, but it was resolutely done. The boys fixed bayonets, overtook the fence, and charged toward the Federal line. They came under the scattered fire of the Union soldiers as they leapt and ploughed through ankle-deep mud up the slope of Bushong Hill. Many lost their shoes and ran barefoot as they charged straight for the Federal artillery placements. For the first time all day, the cadets did not maintain any semblance of discipline as they overtook the cannoneers and captured one of the guns as the Federals fled in their wake. All along the rest of the line, the Confederates made headway and also advanced, pouring in a devastating flanking fire as well. The pressure from all sides proved too much and the Union line broke. The Federals retreated for three miles through mud and swollen streams while the Confederates pursued them.
Past Rude’s Hill, Sigel sought refuge at Mount Jackson. The Confederates stalled in their pursuit as units became disorganized and many stopped to pick up discarded equipment or souvenirs from the battlefield. Breckinridge was unable to continue further beyond Rude’s Hill. After the fighting was over, Union soldiers believed they had done well under the circumstances, and their commanding general – Sigel – became the scapegoat. He sent a brief message of the engagement, stating, “A severe battle was fought to-day at New Market between our forces and those of Echols and Imboden under Breckinridge. Our troops were overpowered by superior numbers. I, therefore, withdrew them gradually from the battle-field, and recrossed the Shenandoah.” The Union army continued north and reached Cedar Creek by the evening of May 16. Sigel would later complain that because of his long wagon train that needed to be guarded, he could only deploy six of his regiments into the fight. Despite the assurance that the troops were in “very good spirits” Sigel likely knew that his military career hung by a thread.
Of the 5,300 Confederates engaged in the battle at New Market, 257 were cadets from VMI. Of the 588 casualties, 55 of them belonged to the cadets – 10 dead and 45 wounded. For the Union, 744 were dead, injured, or captured, of over 6,000 who were present on May 15.
Breckinridge did as he set out to do, defend the Valley from Sigel and free up his troops to join Lee in central Virginia. After their victory at New Market, those who were still able to fight were sent to Harrisonburg, then to Staunton, where they would embark on a train to take them east. The VMI cadets who survived or recovered from their wounds would continue on with Breckinridge. Franz Sigel was replaced by Major General David Hunter, who took command of the Department of Western Virginia. Sigel later said, “It were better to have died on that battlefield than to have suffered this disgrace.” Hunter would do what Sigel could not, and marched as far south as Lexington and burned the Virginia Military Institute, carrying on to Lynchburg.
The battle at New Market would prove the last decisive, large-scale victory for the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley. The rest of 1864 would see another tug-of-war between Jubal Early and Phillip Sheridan. But, the battle in May of 1864 proved to boost Confederate morale at a critical point in the war. In contrast, the defeat did little to dampen the spirits of the Federals, as Grant was making his own progress through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, drawing ever closer to Richmond. While the outcome at New Market didn’t create vast ripples in the overall 1864 campaign, it would never be forgotten by the VMI cadets that endured their first battle upon that muddy field. The drama of the battle and the story of the VMI cadets would inspire historians and writers for years to come.
To close up this article, here’s a clip of the VMI cadets as they made that fateful charge.
Call Out the Cadets: The Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864, Sarah Kay Bierle (Emerging Civil War Series)
Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864, Charles R. Knight
The Battle of New Market, William C. Davis
Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, May 1864, David Powell
The Corps Forward: Biographical Sketches of the VMI Cadets who Fought in the Battle of New Market, Colonel William Couper
Letters of a New Market Cadet, J.B. Standard; John Gilchrist Barrett, Robert K. Turner
The End of an Era, John S. Wise (a VMI cadet)