Virginia Military Institute and the Battle of New Market
(Adapted from a speech made by Colonel William Couper to the VMI Corps of Cadets at New Market Day ceremonies, 15 May 1939.)
This is not a new story. It has been related many times. And, it could be summarized briefly: A Confederate army under General Breckinridge defeated a Federal army under General Sigel at New Market, Va., on May 15, 1864. The VMI cadets were in the victorious army and took part in the final charge. That is a correct statement and one which many consider sufficient, if we may judge from the narrative as it is recorded in numerous histories. But some people desire to know a little more about what occurred, and to them I will speak. Our story starts on the tenth of May, 1864, the day a memorial service was conducted in Lexington for the great military chieftain, General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who had died just one year earlier following his wounding at Chancellorsville. Jackson made his home in Lexington while he was a professor at VMI, and he was laid to rest in the local cemetery where this ceremony, attended by the Cadet Corps and a great throng of visitors, was held.
The ceremony over, the corps returned to the Institute and resumed customary routine. It was like any other night in barracks and as "Taps" reverberated from the surrounding hills, the cadets, rolled their mattresses on the floor and were soon asleep. Little did they know that a courier on foaming steed had dashed in from the north at nine o'clock and reined up at headquarters then located in what is now the center of the parade ground. Immediately all was astir - a not unexpected movement of the corps was at hand, but there was much to be done in a short time. Horses had to be impressed for the artillery; stores, ammunition and equipment had to be assembled; and organization orders had to be prepared. These orders provided, among other things that eight cadets from each company should be detailed for service with the artillery. Twenty-seven others were to be left behind because of sickness, assignment to guard duty and other causes. The preliminaries out of the way, the cades were notified - and later it was said:
One night when the boys were all abed, we heard the long roll beat,
And quickly the walls of the building shook with the tread of hurrying feet;
And when the battalion stood in line we heard the welcome warning;
Breckinridge needs the help o' the corps; be ready to march in the morning.
Now, Major General John C. Breckinridge, the Confederate commander, a veteran of the Mexican War, was a former U.S. Senator, who, although only 43 years old, had been Vice President of the United States and one of the three unsuccessful candidates for the presidency in 1860 when Lincoln was elected by a minority of 40% of the popular vote. Breckinridge's opponents at New Market were commanded by Major General Franz Sigel, a 40-year old native of Germany who had been Minister of War in Baden before he came to the U.S. and who had enjoyed some military success earlier in the war in the West.
Breckinridge nees the help o' the corps; be ready to march in the morning. And telling of the morning, the same bard Irving Bacheller, wrote:
The battalion was off on the Staunton pike as soon as the sun had risen.
And we turned and cheered for the VMI, but yesterday a prison.
Yes, at sunrise they were up, but to be strictly accurate they started at seven, and that night, without benefit of tentage, they camped at Midway while the rain, through which they had marched for eighteen miles, continued to fall in torrents. Rain, Rain, Rain - it continued for days. At Midway there was, and still is, a Presbyterian Church. Seeking shelter, some cadets climbed through the windows and, in the words of one, they "slept where many a good follower of Calvin had slept before us." Truly, the genus cadet has not changed!
On through the mud and drenching elements, the next day the corps pressed to Staunton, where a regimental band struck up a tune similar to the later published "Rock-a-bye, Baby," as the corps passed, and when seasoned veterans took up the strain, the cadets fumed! But the tables were soon turned, for tired though the cadets were, it was a grand night and in the grim art of dancing the veterans were no match for the young soldiers they had so recently ridiculed.
Staunton was the first objective of the Federal army approaching from the north, but the Confederate forces reached there first - having arrived from Southwest Virginia just ahead of the cadets. A decision was now necessary. Should the Confederates intrench and try to stave off the invaders, or should they press on and intercept them farther down the Valley? The decision was quickly made and the next morning - Friday the thirteenth - leaving three cadets behind in Staunton, the corps pushed on - again through the rain, this time an integral part of an organized army. That night they camped at Mt. Crawford and on the following (the fourth) night they camped in a grove beside the pike, about seventy miles from Lexington; and where again many of the cadets slept in a church. New Market, a little village which marked the junction of the Valley Pike and an important road which led eastward over the mountains, was less than ten miles beyond. Its location made it a strategically important position to defend and there, at the suggestion of General Imboden, who had been impeding the approach of the invaders, the Confederates determined to make a stand. However, with the hope of luring the Federals onward, General Breckinridge decided on the night of the fourteenth to withdraw General Imboden's men from Lacy Spring, about nine miles south of the cadet camp.
Later that same night, just after midnight, a courier brought a dispatch which ordered the corps roused and formed. In the dank atmosphere of a gloomy night, the corps reverently bowed their heads and one of the tactical officers, Captain Frank Preston asked God's protection for the corps as they once again took up their march along the muddy pike. They stopped several hours later just one mile from New Market behind a low elevation known as Shirley's Hill. Imboden's cavalry and a battery were to the right of the cadets, and in front of them were two lines of Confederate soldiers. From their vantage point, the cadets were not able to see what was happening, but they later learned that about three infantry regiments (the 123rd Ohio, the 1st West Virginia and detachments from the 15th New York the 20th and 22nd Pennsylvania and the 34th Massachusetts) along with about 300 cavalrymen of the 1st New York had occupied the town of New Market in the early morning hours and that Snow's Federal battery had taken a position there further back in a churchyard.
Because of the mud, the VMI artillery were not able to accompany the corps to their spot at Shirley Hill. Rather, they were directed to join the Confederate Artillery near the front. There were 32 cadets in this artillery detail and they served two rifled iron three-inch muzzle loaders which had replaced the bronze guns of the old Cadet Battery six months before. They had the distinction of being the first of the corps to venture into the fray.
In all, it is estimated that approximately 215 cadets were engaged in the Battle of New Market. The best estimate - and no one has the precise figures - of the opposing forces shows that a Confederate Army of about 4,500 endeavored to stay an invading Federal Army of 6,000, but the numbers were probably closer to 2,000 and 4,000 respectively.
The Battle of New Market commenced at about 11:00 in the morning (although skirmishers had gone forward at nine and the artillery duel had started about half an hour before that.) Morning efforts were directed at driving the Federals from the town. General Sigel arrived about noon and directed his advance brigade to withdraw to a hill about one mile north of New Market where Von Kleiser's battery had been posted. About half a mile back, Sigel posted his artillery on the heights along the Shenandoah River, directly opposite the Confederate left.
Early in the afternoon General Breckinridge maneuvered his army into two lines with the cadets in the second. Pressing forward in this formation, the battalion of cadets descended the north slope of Shirley's Hill and approached the River Road which runs west from New Market. When they were in Federal range, a volley of shells exploded over the battalion wounding four cadets and an officer. Among those wounded was Charles H. Read whose rifle, bearing the imprint of the shell which bent it at right angles, may be seen in VMI's museum.
The main part of the battle took place in the afternoon after the Federals had withdrawn to their new position and the units of the Confederate army had been redisposed. The Confederates were the aggressors and the assault upon the first of the Federal lines got underway about 2:00 P.M. Colonel Moor's two regiments (the 18th Connecticut and the 123rd Ohio) and Von Kleiser's Battery were soon driven from their position.
General Imboden attempted to adjust positions by taking his force off to the right beyond Smith's Creek, maybe with an eye to getting to the Federal's rear and destroying the Shenandoah River Bridge. He could not, however, cross the swollen creek and, as a result, the Confederate cavalry and the four guns of McClannahan's Battery were effectively eliminated from the battle. For a time, however, they did direct an enfilading fire on the Federal flank.
The cadets were now near the center of the Confederate line. At the extreme left, the 51st Virginia Infantry advanced along the river and the 26th Virginia Battalion followed, but soon had to fall back because of the angle at which the river cuts eastward at that narrow part of the passageway. They finally surged forward to drive the Federals from their position on the heights and to capture three artillery pieces.
The Confederate center line advanced on comparatively level ground several hundred yards behind the Bushong farm. The Federals were positioned about 500 yards beyond that, protected by 18 guns on their right flank and 4 on their left. The corps was now not only under the fire of Union artillery, but they had come within range of the Federal muskets. Here, Cadets Cabell, Crockett and Jones "fell dead from the explosion of one shell," and a few moments later McDowell fell, pierced through the heart by a rifle ball. As other casualties occurred, the cadets preserved their alignment and closed in to fill the gaps with that precision which has wrung such high praise from their adversaries.
The corps passed the Bushong House, two companies going to each side, and beyond as they re-formed they found themselves in an orchard in advance of the adjacent regiments. Not only were they now in the front line, they were beyond it. Shortly after they entered the orchard, the Commandant Colonel Scott Shipp was wounded and had to retire from the field. Most of the cadet casualties occurred here in the orchard as the Federals literally swept the orchard with shells, grape and canister.
Few Confederates remained on the extreme right, mostly men from the 23rd Virginia Battalion, part of the 22nd Virginia Regiment and fourteen of McLaughlin's guns (including the cadet cannon). Together they successfully staved off the assault made by the remaining two infantry regiments, the 18th Connecticut and the 123rd Ohio.
At about 3:00 in the afternoon, the corps began to fire on the enemy. Three infantry regiments ( the 54th Pennsylvania, the 1st West Virginia and the 34th Massachusetts) were beyond a wheat field in front of them. A black thundercloud burst over the shot-torn wheat field and deepened the already seemingly impassable sea of mud, now so think it literally pulled the shoes from feet. The 62nd Virginia on the corps' right had been repulsed with terrible loss and the 51st Virginia on the left were being hurled back as well. The critical point of the battle was well upon them and things happened rapidly.
Captain Henry Wise had assumed command after the wounded Colonel Shipp was removed from the field, and it was clear to him that the cadets could not endure at the fence line; they must either fall back or move forward. So, Wise ordered them to charge. The color bearer ran well to the front, and despite the incessant fire, the cadets sprang forward. They surged onward and upward in an irresistible, wild drive which carried through a maelstrom of mud, overshot with flying metal, up to the very mouths of Von Kleiser's cannon. The cadets dashed in between the cannon and with fixed bayonets, in hand-to-hand combat captured one (and some claim two) of the cannon. The frantic Union cannoneers were driven from their guns, and the cadet standard-bearer mounted one of the caissons and waved on the charging cadets. They captured prisoners and successfully drove the now rapidly retreating Federal force before them. One cadet alone brought in 23 prisoners.
The battle, as such, was over. The enemy was fleeing northward. The infantry, now much fatigued continued the pursuit as far as Rude's Hill, and the artillery, including the cadet section, continued about five miles beyond and camped that night at Mt. Airy Farm along the Shenandoah River. For the cadets, the Battle of New Market was the triumph of the Spirit of Youth. There can be little doubt about it because their numbers were almost insignificant and their arms utterly inferior to those of their opponents. The unshaved and unshod cadets were young men engaged that afternoon in their first pitched battle, after marching three days through rain and mud, and they had been up and on the march since one o'clock in the morning. The ramrods of their Austrian rifles were so swollen by rains that some cadets could not draw them, and whenever possible they used captured rifles. Ten days later they were issued Enfields - too late for battle use - and even their battle flag was late in arriving for the one sent for their special use did not reach Lexington until two days after the corps had left.
Cadet casualties at New Market were twenty-three percent: 10 killed, 47 wounded. Cadets sent to fight at New Market totaled 247: 6 officers, 209 cadets in infantry and 32 cadets in artillery.
What became of the members of that gallant VMI Corps when the war was over and they went forth on their individual paths into the world? A study of their careers has produced some amazing facts. Fifty-seven of these men became lawyers and fourteen became distinguished jurists; five New Market cadets became ministers of the Christian church. In the group we find sixteen physicians and surgeons, three college presidents, masters of the palette and chisel, toilers of the plow, counting houses and markets of the world, in fact, representatives of almost every vocation.
And what does all this mean to the men of today's Corps of Cadets? The cadet bravery and success at New Market means that "you have achieved something money cannot buy. Remember this - a reputation is an achievement of yesterday, to be lived today and guarded tomorrow." This is the challenge to today's corps. To this day, every year on the 15th of May, the VMI cadets march in full dress parade and honor their comrades, their brothers who gave their lives in the Battle of New Market.