May 15, 1864: Battle of New Market

“And New Market’s young cadets.”

Southern Birthright, Bobby Horton

New_Market_svg

John C. Breckinridge, fourteenth Vice-President of the United States and current Confederate Major General, had a big problem.  His task was to hold the Shenandoah Valley, the bread basket of the Army of Northern Virginia, for the Confederacy, and he was confronted with two Union columns seeking to rendezvous at Staunton, Virginia and place the Valley under Union control.  One column under George Crook was coming from the West Virginia.  The second column under Franz Sigel was coming down the Valley.  Sigel had twice the men that Breckinridge could muster, 9,000 to 4000, but Breckinridge saw no alternative but to march north and engage Sigel before the two Union columns could join against him.

The Confederacy by this time was robbing the cradle and the grave to fill out its ranks.  In the cradle contingent with Breckinridge were 257 cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, who ranged in age from 15-24.

Breckinridge brought Sigel to battle at mid-morning on May 15, 1864 south of New Market.  With detachments Sigel’s force was down to 6,000 men.  However, 2 to 3 was still very poor odds for an attacking army.

Breckinridge at first hoped to entice the Union force into attacking but the Federals remained firmly on the defensive.  Breckinridge launched his attack at noon, keeping the VMI cadets in reserve.  He paused in his attack after moving north beyond New Market, with the remainder of Sigel’s force forming a defensive live.

Breckinridge renewed his attack at 2:00 PM which stalled due to vigorous Union rifle and artillery fire.  Breckinridge reluctantly ordered the VMI cadets into line to plug a gap created by retreating Confederate units.  Breckenridge beat off two counter attacks by Sigel.

At 3:00 PM Breckinridge ordered the attack that caused the retreat of Sigel.  Five cannon were taken by the Confederates, one of them by the cadets.  Breckenridge and his men had saved the Valley, for the time being, for the Confederacy.

Union casualties were 96 killed, 520 wounded and 255 captured or missing.  Confederate casualties were 43 killed, 474 wounded and 3 missing.  Of those casualties, 10 of the killed and 47 wounded were from the VMI cadets.  Here is the report by Lieutenant Colonel Shipp, Commandant of Cadets, on the cadets at New Market.

HEADQUARTERS-CORPS OF CADETS, July 4, 1864.

Maj. Gen. F. H. SMITH, Superintendent.

        GENERAL: In obedience to General Orders, No. –, headquarters Virginia Military Institute, June 27. 1864, I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of the Corps of Cadets under my command in the field from May 11 to June 25, inclusive:

 

 

In obedience to orders from Major-General Breckinridge, communicated through you, at 7 a.m. on the morning of May 11 the Corps of Cadets, consisting of a battalion of four companies of infantry and a section of 3-inch rifled guns, took up the line of march for Staunton. The march to Staunton was accomplished in two days. I preceded the column on the second day some hours for the purpose of reporting to General Breckinridge, and was ordered by him to put the Cadets in camp one mile south of Staunton.

 

 

On the morning of the 13th I received orders to march at daylight on the road to Harrisonburg, taking position in the column in rear of Echols’ brigade. We marched eighteen miles and encamped; moved at daylight on the 14th; marched sixteen miles and encamped.

 

 

At 12 o’clock on the night of the 14th received orders to prepare to march immediately, without beat of drum and as noiselessly as possible. We moved from camp at 1.30 o’clock, taking position in the general column in rear of Echols’ brigade, being followed by the column of artillery under the command of Major McLaughlin. Having accomplished a distance of six miles and approached the position of the enemy, as indicated by occasional skirmishing with his pickets in front, a halt was called, and we remained on the side of the road two or three hours in the midst of a heavy fall of rain. The general having determined to receive the attack of the enemy, made his dispositions for battle, posting the corps in reserve. He informed me that he did not wish to put the Cadets in if he could avoid it, but that should occasion require it, he would use them very freely. He was also pleased to express his confidence in them, and I am happy to believe that his expectations were not disappointed, for when the tug of battle came they bore themselves gallantly and well.

 

 

The enemy not making the attack as was anticipated, or not advancing as rapidly as was desired, the line was deployed into column and the advance resumed. Here I was informed by one of General Breckinridge’s aids that my battalion, together with the battalion of Col. G. M. Edgar, would constitute the reserve, and was instructed to keep the section of artillery with the column, and to take position, after the deployments should have been made, 250 or 300 yards in rear of the front line of battle, and to maintain that distance. Having begun a flank movement to the left, about two miles south of New Market, the nature of the ground was such as to render it impossible that the artillery should continue with the infantry column. I ordered Lieutenant Minge to join the general artillery column in the main road and to report to Major McLaughlin. After that I did not see the section of artillery until near the close of the engagement. Major McLaughlin, under whose command they served, was pleased to speak of the section in such complimentary terms that I was satisfied they had done their duty.

 

 

Continuing the advance on the ground to the left of the main road and south of New Market, at 12.30 p.m. we came under the fire of the enemy’s batteries. Having advanced a quarter of a mile under the fire we were halted and the column was deployed, the march up to this time having been by flank in column. The ground in front was open, with skirts of woods on the left. Here General Breckinridge sent for me and gave me in person my instructions. The general’s plans seem to have undergone some modification. Instead of one line, with a reserve, he formed his infantry in two, artillery in rear and to the right, the cavalry deployed and, guarding the right flank, left flank resting on a stream. Wharton’s brigade of infantry constituted the first line; Echols’ brigade the second. The battalion of Cadets, brigaded with Echols, was the last battalion but one from the left of the second line, Edgar’s battalion being on the left. The lines having been adjusted the order to advance was passed. Wharton’s line advanced; Echols’ followed at 250 paces in rear. As Wharton’s line ascended a knoll it came in full view of the enemy’s batteries, which opened a heavy fire, but not having gotten the range, did but little damage. By the time the second gotten line reached the same ground the Yankee gunners had the exact range, and their fire began to tell on our line with fearful accuracy. It was here that Captain Hill and others fell. Great gaps were made through the ranks, but the cadet, true to his discipline, would close in to the center to fill the interval and push steadily forward. The alignment of the battalion under this terrible fire, which strewed the ground with killed and wounded for more than a mile on open ground, would have been creditable even on a field day.

 

 

The advance was thus continued until having passed Bushong’s house, a mile or more beyond New Market, and still to the left of the main road, the enemy’s batteries, at 250 or 300 yards, opened upon us with canister and case-shot, and their long lines of infantry were put into action at the same time. 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. I was here disabled for a time, and the command devolved upon Captain H. A. Wise, Company A. He gallantly pressed onward. We had before this gotten into the front line. Our line took a position behind a line of fence. A brisk fusillade ensued; a shout, a rush, and the day was won. The enemy fled in confusion, leaving killed, wounded, artillery. and prisoners in our hands. Our men pursued in hot haste until it became necessary to halt, draw ammunition, and re-establish the lines for the purpose of driving them from their last position on Rude’s Hill, which they held with cavalry and artillery to cover the passage of the river, about a mile in their rear. Our troops charged and took the position without loss. The enemy withdrew, crossed the river, and burnt the bridge.

 

 

The engagement closed at 6.30 p. m. The Cadets did their duty, as the long list of casualties will attest. Numerous instances of gallantry might be mentioned, but I have thought it better to refrain from specifying individual cases for fear of making invidious distinctions, or from want of information, withholding praise where it may have been justly merited. It had rained almost incessantly during the battle, and at its termination the Cadets were well-nigh exhausted. Wet, hungry, and many of them shoeless–for they had lost their shoes and socks in the deep mud through which it was necessary to march–they bore their hardships with that uncomplaining resignation which characterizes the true soldier.

 

 

The 16th and 17th were devoted to caring for the wounded and the burial of the dead. On the 17th I received an order from General Breckinridge to report to General Imboden, with the request upon the part of General Breckinridge that the corps be relieved from further duty at that time and be ordered back to the Institute. The circumstances of General Imboden’s situation were such as to render our detention for a time necessary. We were finally ordered by him to proceed to Staunton without delay, for the purpose of proceeding by rail to Richmond, in obedience to a call of the Secretary of War.

 

 

Returning, the corps marched into Staunton on the 21st; took the cars on the 22d; reached Richmond on the 23d; were stationed at Camp Lee until the 28th; were then ordered to report to Major-General Ransom: ordered by him to encamp on intermediate line.

 

 

 

On the 28th left Camp Lee; took up camp on Carter’s farm, on intermediate line, midway between Brook and Meadow Bridge roads; continued in this camp until June 6.

 

 

On the 6th received orders to return to Lexington; reached Lexington on the 9th; Yankees approached on 10th; drove us out on the 11th; we fell back, taking Lynchburg road: marched to mouth of the North River and went into camp.

 

 

Next day (Sunday, the 11th) remained in camp until 12 m.; scouts reported enemy advancing; fell back two miles and took a position at a strong pass in the mountains to await the enemy. No enemy came. We were then ordered to Lynchburg; went there; ordered to report to General Vaughn; ordered back to Lexington; reached Lexington on the 25th. Corps furloughed on June 27.

 

 

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

S. SHIPP,  Lieutenant-Colonel and Commandant.

The fallen cadets of New Market are remembered each year on May 15 at the Virginia Military Institute.

Charge of the Cadets

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  1. Last Thursday (8 May), the warden and I drove from NY to Fort Campbell, KY to visit our son.

    On the way (US Rte. 81 through VA) , we passed by New Market. I know the history of the fight. But, we didn’t have time or energy to divert and tour the field.

    John Ford’s and John Wayne’s 1959 movie, “The Horse Soldiers” has a fine (“Bonny Blue Flag” and all) scene wherein the local military school cadet corps is called out to charge the Union cav. Pretty good, except (sadly) there would have been much more bloodshed.

  2. Those KIA statistics on both sides are astoundingly low for a battle of this size. What happened? No Minie balls? Or was there an astoundingly good field hospital around? Or was it just that the Northerners broke and fled too early?

  3. “Or was it just that the Northerners broke and fled too early?”

    These statistics are pretty typical for a small battle in the Civil War where a force was holding a position that did not need to be held at all costs or taken at all costs. One side or the other would decide to call it a day and there would be rarely much of a pursuit.

  4. At one of the visitor centers, there is a display of a cadet’s shell jacket, (I think it is called), still with the bullet hole that killed the lad. To see it, you will be impressed with how very small it is. Seems as if sized for a 12 year old boy today.
    .
    I halfway think that this display is at Chancellorsville or the Wilderness, because I don’t recall touring New Market, and I know I’ve not done the VMI campus.