Battle of New Market: “Died on the Field of Honor, Sir”

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175px-Vmiflag Today in Military History – May 15, 1864 Today being Armed Forces Day, I searched my “archives” of likely battle candidates about which to compose an appropriate blog post. It didn’t take me long, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think of this battle on my own. As many of you know, my natural historical inclinations lean toward the ancient and mediaeval conflicts. I am making an exception today; I am highlighting one of the minor battles of the “Great Unpleasantness,” aka the American Civil War. The Battle of New Market only involved about 11,000 soldiers, but the participation of the Corps of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) of Lexington, VA has elevated this skirmish into the pantheon of incredible victories. Every year on its anniversary, this battle is celebrated at VMI by a moving ceremony that should be attended by anyone and everyone who admires courage, honor and devotion to duty. It is also reenacted on the very site of the battle each year since 1965. 300px-New_Market_svg Background to the Battle The American Civil War was in its fourth year, still with no end in sight. With the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as the commanding general of all Union forces, a new strategy began to emerge. Grant led the Army of the Potomac in batter Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into submission. At the same time, William Sherman’s forces marched from Chattanooga to Atlanta to take out the breadbasket of the South and its only other major industrial city. As a sideshow to the fight in northern Virginia, Grant directed Major General Franz Sigel to march down the Shenandoah Valley, to secure the Valley and threaten Lee’s flank. Despite the lack of manpower, Sigel devised a plan to threaten Lee’s western communications and commissary in the Shenandoah. Two major Union attacks would threaten Wytheville, VA and the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad at Dublin, VA, while Sigel and 11,000 men would demonstrate down the Valley itself, pinning any Confederate forces that might be used against the Union attacks further west. The first two attacks got underway in late April of 1864, but did not achieve their full objectives. Therefore, Sigel decided to move further down the Valley than he had first anticipated. As he did so, he attracted the attention of the Confederate commander in the Valley, Major General John C. Breckinridge. Breckinridge had anticipated the Union moves. Hamstrung by the lack of available manpower, Breckinridge spent the first few months in his new job begging, borrowing and nearly stealing any and all available units he could to reinforce his command. He even managed to get local Valley farmers to hand over to him any foodstuffs that were once sent directly to Richmond. Further, Breckinridge even found the wherewithal to provide compensation to the Shenandoah growers, despite the growing fiscal crisis in the Confederacy. With reports indicating the southward movement of Sigel’s troops, Breckinridge moved to intercept them and drive them out of the Valley. The Antagonists: Major General Franz Sigel, USA; Major General John C. Breckinridge, CSA 150px-Franz_Sigel Franz Sigel was a German immigrant, a former revolutionary in Europe who immigrated to America in 1852. He was not a terribly good soldier, but he was responsible for more German immigrants joining the Union cause than any other man in the North. [A well-known ditty of the time was entitled, “I’m going to fight mit Sigel.”] He had seen action at the battles of Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and 2nd Manassas, as well as during Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862. Sigel was removed from command of the Union XI Corps in February, 1863 and shunted to various “paper-pushing jobs” in the War Department until March 10, 1864. At that time, President Lincoln directed Secretary of War Stanton to appoint Sigel to command of the newly created Department of West Virginia. 205px-General_John_C_Breckinridge John Breckinridge was a truly remarkable individual. Born in 1821 in Lexington, KY, he served in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and was Vice President of the United States under James Buchanan. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, he entered the service of the Confederacy, leading a brigade of Kentucky troops nicknamed the “Orphan Brigade” because his home state remained loyal to the Union. He fought at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. He was brought east and put in charge of the Rebel forces in the Shenandoah Valley, with the mission to guard Lee’s flank and preserve Confederate control of the Valley. Orders of Battle – Battle of New Market [I promise I will not make a habit of listing orders of battle for many of the battles about which I post; however, New Market was a relatively small battle. Therefore, a listing of the participating units may be interesting to the readers, especially the fragmented nature of the Union force, and the fairly consistent Virginia make-up of the Confederate force, with the exception of the “foreigners” from Maryland and Missouri.] Union Order of Battle First Infantry Division – Brigadier General Jeremiah C. Sullivan 1st Brigade – Colonel Augustus Moor 18th Connecticut Infantry – Major Henry Peale 28th Ohio Infantry – Lieutenant Colonel Gottfried Becker 116th Ohio Infantry – Col. James Washburn 123rd Ohio Infantry – Major Horace Kellogg 2nd Brigade – Col Joseph Thoburn 1st West Virginia Infantry – Lt. Col. Jacob Weddle 12th West Virginia Infantry – Col. William B. Curtis 34th Massachusetts Infantry – Col. George W. Wells 54th Pennsylvania Infantry – Col. Jacob M. Campbell First Cavalry Division – Major Gen. Julius Stahel 1st Brigade – Col. William B. Tibbitts 1st New York Cavalry (Veteran) – Col. Robert F. Taylor 1st New York Cavalry (Lincoln) – Lt. Col. Alonzo W. Adams 1st Maryland Cavalry (detachment ) (Potomac Home) – Major J.T. Daniel 21st West Virginia Cavalry – Major Charles C. Otis 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry – Captain Ashbel F. Duncan 2d Brigade – Col. John E. Wynkoop 15th New York Cavalry – Major H. Roessler 20th Pennsylvania Cavalry – Major R.B. Douglas 22nd Pennsylvania Cavalry (detachment) – 1st Lt. Caleb McNulty 120px-CW_Arty_M1857_Napoleon_front Artillery Battery B, Maryland Light (6 3” rifle) – Capt. Alonzo Snow 30th Battery, New York (5 12-lb. Napoleons) – Capt. Albert von Kleiser Battery D, 1st West Virginia Light (? 3” rifle) – Capt. John Carlin Battery G, 1st West Virginia Light (? 3” rifle) – Capt. Chatham T. Ewing Battery B, 5th United States (6 3” rifle) – Capt. Henry A. DuPont Confederate Order of Battle Infantry Division 1st Brigade – Brig. Gen. John Echols 22nd Virginia Infantry – Col. George S. Patton 23rd Virginia Battalion – Lt. Col. Clarence Derrick 26th Virginia Battalion – Lt. Col. George M. Edgar 2nd Brigade – Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton 30th Virginia Battalion – Lt. Col. J. Lyle Clark 51st Virginia Infantry – Lt. Col. John P. Wolfe 62nd Virginia Infantry (Mounted) – Col. George H. Smith Co. A, 1st Missouri Cavalry (fought as dismounted infantry) – Capt. Charles Woodson 23rd Virginia Cavalry (fought as dismounted infantry) – Col. Robert White VMI Cadets – Lt. Col. Scott Shipp Cavalry, Valley District – Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden 18th Virginia Cavalry – Col. George W. Imboden 2nd Maryland Battalion – Maj. Harry W. Gilmor 43rd Virginia Partisans – Lt. Col. John S. Mosby McNeill’s Company, Partisans – Capt. John H. McNeill Artillery – Major William McLaughlin Chapman’s (Virginia) Battery (4 howitzers, 2 rifle) – Capt. George B. Chapman Jackson’s (Virginia Battery (1 rifle, 3 12-lb. Napoleons) – 1st Lt. Randolph H. Blain McClanahan’s (Virginia) Battery (2 howitzers, 4 rifle) – Capt. John McClanahan VMI Section (2 rifle) – Cadet Capt. C.H. Minge Total Effectives: Union Infantry 5245 (approximately 3750 engaged) Cavalry 3035 (approximately 2000 engaged) Artillery (22 guns) 660 (approximately 530 engaged) Total: 8940 (6280) Total Effectives: Confederate Infantry & dismounted cavalry 4249 (approximately 3800 engaged) Cavalry 735 (all engaged) Artillery (18 guns) 341 (all engaged) Total: 5325 (4876) The Battle Gen. Sigel had begun moving down the Valley on May 10, again hoping to keep Confederate forces from moving westward. Both of Sigel’s main attacks had been blunted – though he did not know this – so his “stately passage up the Valley” (as described by a U.S. Army history of the battle) became the de facto main attack, and the focus of Gen. Breckinridge’s actions. For the next four days, the two forces encountered each other by way of cavalry actions, and Breckinridge began concentrating his forces south of the village of New Market. On May 14 Union units began to move into the town, and met some Confederate resistance. However, Sigel’s orders were vague, sometimes contradictory, and there was little indication that the Union forces intended to actually attack the Confederate forces. Finally, on the morning of the 15th Breckinridge decided to become the aggressor, saying to his staff, “I shall advance on him. We can attack and whip them here, and I'll do it.” Confederate artillery began to bombard the Federal line, as the Rebels arranged their small force to look larger. Three echeloned lines of men made a great show of force to confuse their enemy. In addition, a tremendous rainstorm with thunder and lightning raged throughout the day – it had been raining for at least the previous two days – and added to the confusion. The first Rebel attack began at 11 am, pushing in a line of Federal skirmishers. The Union line fell back through the town, receiving piecemeal reinforcements over the next few hours. 120px-CW_Arty_3in_Ordnance_front Unit histories of the battle and personal letters of the surviving participants are filled with descriptions of the tremendous artillery fire and musket fire. Union artillery also played a role in the entry of the VMI cadets into the battle. On May 10, Gen. Breckinridge had contacted Lt. Col. Scott Shipp, commandant of VMI, that the services of the Corps of Cadets would be needed to face the Union advance down the Shenandoah Valley. Over the next four days the Corps of Cadets marched 85 miles to join the Confederate forces. They were told that they would be held in reserve, unless needed in an extreme circumstance. The 257 cadets were formed into four companies, and their average age was 18 years old. Gen. Breckinridge had told the cadets prior to the fight, “Gentlemen, I trust I will not need your services today; but if I do, I know you will do your duty.” At about 2:30 pm, the Confederate advance had pushed the Union force back through the village, with the Rebel left settled around the Bushong farm. Union artillery was making mincemeat of two Virginia regiments and a 350-yard gap opened in the Rebel line. As detailed in the U.S. Army publication: Farther west, the 30th and 51st Virginia were having an equally bad time. The men had forged their way forward against the Federal fire through the Bushong property to a fence on its north side. The intense fire proved too much for many of them and they began to drift back to the greater shelter offered on the south side of the Bushong buildings. General Breckinridge noticed this and ordered his aide, Maj. Charles Semple, to go over and restore order. Semple pointed to the cadets standing in reserve … and asked, "General, why don't you put the cadets in line? They will fight as well as our men." Breckinridge replied, "No, Charley, this will not do, they are only children and I cannot expose them to such a fire as our center will receive." Semple ran over and found the situation irretrievable. He came back to Breckinridge and said, "General, it is too late. The Federals are right on us. If the cadets are ordered up we can close the gap in our center." Breckinridge then ordered: "Major, order them up and God forgive me for the order." The cadets moved up to fill the gap, marching in close order as if on the parade ground instead of the more usual open order. A Union artillery shell hit them, causing their first casualties. In addition, a spent artillery shell struck Lt. Col. Shipp, knocking him down. Fearing their commander dead, the cadets continued their advance. Marching through the Bushong farm, two VMI companies went to the north of the farmhouse as two went to the south. They crossed over a split rail fence, then went prone to begin an exchange of fire with the Federal troops 300 yards away. bushong At about 2:45 pm, the entire Union line began an uncoordinated advance on the Rebel front. Some units only advanced 100 yards or so, then gave up. A Federal cavalry unit began to charge a Confederate artillery emplacement, only to be decimated by accurate cannon fire and musket volleys from hidden Rebel infantry. Confederate fire on the Union artillery was so effective that General Sigel ordered the artillery to withdraw. Seeing this retrograde motion, Gen. Breckinridge ordered a general advance of his entire force shortly after 3 pm. The entire Confederate line charged the struggling, disordered Federal lines. In addition, Confederate cavalry had moved around the left flank of the Union line, threatening its rear. 09battlesite The VMI cadets, taking a great deal of fire, fixed bayonets and joined the attack. They crossed a recently plowed wheatfield, many of the boys losing their shoes to the suction of the mud; this area became known as the “Field of Lost Shoes.” The cadets, still in parade-ground formation, led the charge. At one point, both ends of the line of cadets got ahead of the rest. The order “Mark time!” was given; as the body of their line caught up with the ends, they continued to charge. They contacted portions of the 34th Massachusetts, capturing several Union combatants and an artillery piece from von Kleiser’s battery. Cadet O.P. Evans jumped upon the cannon, waving the VMI colors. At about this time, with the Union force in full retreat, Gen. Breckinridge rode by them and shouted, “Well done, Virginians; well done, men!” At about 6 pm, seeing his army’s rear threatened by Rebel cavalry, Gen. Sigel ordered a withdrawal. Most of his army managed to retreat over the Shenandoah River by 7 pm, followed an hour later by the U.S. artillery battery commanded by Capt. DuPont which covered their retreat. A Union cavalry unit managed to burn the bridge, slowing the Confederate pursuit. The battle of New Market was over. Total Union casualties amounted to 96 killed, 520 wounded and 225 missing or captured, for a total of 841. Confederate casualties totaled 43 killed, 474 wounded and 3 missing or captured for a total of 520 (amazingly, the percentage of casualties for both sides amounted to 13 percent). Sigel’s force retreated back up the Valley, marching all that night and through the next day before stopping. Footnote #1: Sigel was relieved of his command shortly thereafter for a “lack of aggression.” He held no significant command for the remainder of the war. His Chief of Staff, Col. David H. Strother, said of him, "There is no trace of cowardice in Gen. Sigel, as there was certainly none of generalship…We can afford to lose such a battle as New Market to get rid of such a mistake as Gen. Sigel." After the war, he worked as a journalist and newspaper editor, held various political jobs, and died in 1902. 01de751d-14a3-442d-97be-136258ab778a Footnote #2: Five VMI cadets died at New Market, while five more died of their wounds over the next 66 days. Forty were wounded. The New Market Day ceremony is an annual observance held at VMI in front of the monument "Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” a memorial to the New Market Corps. The names of all of the cadets in the Corps of 1864 are inscribed on the monument. Six of the ten cadets who died at New Market are also buried at this site. The ceremony features a roll call of the names of the cadets who lost their lives in the battle, a custom that began in 1887. The name of each cadet who died is called, and a representative from the same company in today's Corps answers, "Died on the Field of Honor, Sir." A 3-volley salute is then carried out by a cadet honor guard, followed by an echoing, solemn version of Taps played over the parade ground. To culminate this ceremony, the entire Corps passes "Virginia Mourning Her Dead" in review. In addition to the May 15 ceremony, a VMI march team each year stages a march from Lexington to New Market. Footnote #3: The honored dead of the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets Cadet Corporal Samuel Atwill, Company A, Class of 1866, died of wounds 66 days later Cadet Private Luther Haynes, Company B, Class of 1867, died of wound 30 days later Cadet Private William McDowell, Company B, Class of 1867, killed in action Cadet Private Jaqueline Stanard, Company B, Class of 1867, killed in action Cadet Private Thomas G. Jefferson, Company B, Class of 1867, died of wounds 3 days later Cadet Private Joseph Wheelwright, Company C, Class of 1867, died of wounds 18 days later Cadet 1st Sergeant William Cabel, Company D, Class of 1865, killed in action Cadet Private Charles Crockett, Company D, Class of 1867, killed in action Cadet Private Alva Hartsfield, Company D, Class of 1866, died of wounds 42 days later Cadet Private Henry Jones, Company D, Class of 1867, killed in action
Posted in Uncategorized, top stories | 9 comments
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You are correct in the emotion the 15 May ceremony at Lexington carries - very moving indeed.

Charlie Knight
author, Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864

Visiting the battle field is also very revealing, although only a portion is actually preserved. It's one of my favorite battles to consider, and one of my favorite places to visit.

Another nice article. Thanks!

Dear Siggurdsson,
You are my hero! I have been trying to discover something about Lt. Col. George M. Edgar for a project I'm working on at Florida State University. He was the first president of the Seminary West of the Suwannee - a precursor of FSU. Thanks to your excellent Web site, I now know that he was with the 26th Virginia Battalion of the Infantry.
Your description of the Battle of New Market is very engaging, even to a person as ignorant as I am about such events.
Thank you, thank you!
Zilpha Underwood

Great insights - including some exchanges (like between Maj Semple and Gen Breckinridge) that I've not seen anywhere else. Question: do you know where / when in the battle Cadets Atwills and Stanard were hit?

Mr. Kennedy:
The short answer is: no, I don't. However, perhaps you could try to contact Mr. Charlie Knight, who made the first comment on this post. He is an author and would probably have more information along those lline than I do. I hope you find the information you seek.


Could you advise when the roll is called of the honored dead. I have the day but not time ?

What are the names of the seven cadets of vmi

Paul: According to my online search (I'd give you the web address, but links apparently are not allowed), the parade and ceremony will occur between 2:30 and 3:30 pm. Look for "New Market Day Ceremony."

Wish I could be there myself.

Edward: If you look at the last 10 lines of my post, you will find the names of the ten cadets who either died on the field of battle, or died of their wounds in the weeks following the fight.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.