Battle of New Market: Confederate Force, Including VMI Cadets, Defeat Federals in Shenandoah Valley; "Died on the Field of Honor, Sir"

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Battle of New Market: Confederate Force, Including VMI Cadets, Defeat Federals in Shenandoah Valley; "Died on the Field of Honor, Sir"

"Cadets at New Market" by Harry C. Edwards (c. 1903)
Engraving from textbook "A School History of the United States"
[Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia]

Today in Military History – May 15, 1864

[Today's post is an updated version to one originally published in 2010.]

Today; I am highlighting one of the battles of the "Great Unpleasantness," aka the American Civil War. While it only involved about 11,000 soldiers, the participation of the Corps of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) of Lexington, VA made its mark, demonstrating the devotion to courage, duty, and honor demonstrated by these young men.


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 order to batter Lee's Army of Northern Virginia into submission. At the same time, Gen. William Sherman's forces marched from Chattanooga, TN into Georgia to take out the breadbasket of the South and disable Atlanta, the Confederacy's 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.

Prelude to the Battle

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.

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 Confederates. Finally, late in the evening of May 14 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."

The Antagonists: Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, USA vs. Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, CSA

Gen. Franz Sigel, c. 1861, photographer unknown; [Photograph courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC]
Gen. Franz Sigel, c. 1861, photographer unknown
[Photograph courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division,
Library of Congress, Washington DC]

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 Second 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.

Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, c. 1862; Photographer unknown [Image courtesy of]
Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, c. 1862
Photographer unknown
[Image courtesy of]

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. He was one of three Democratic candidates in the 1860 presidential election. Breckinridge received 851,000 votes, carried 10 states and received 72 electoral votes. 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.

The Opposing Armies

Both the forces engaged were provisional, assembled from scattered forces operating for the most part on security and anti-guerrilla missions. The Federals had been gathered from numerous isolated posts over the six weeks preceding the battle. Few of the units had performed before in standard brigade and division operations. General Sigel had completed assembling his forces at Martinsburg and Winchester on 29 April. He developed his organizational structure during his slow movement south.

Sigel's force was composed of units from Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the newborn state of West Virginia (whose admission to the Union was not recognized by the Confederacy).

Total Effectives: Union
Infantry: 5245 (approximately 3750 engaged)
Cavalry: 3035 (approximately 2000 engaged)
Artillery: 660 (22 guns) (approximately 530 engaged)
Total: 8940 (6280)

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 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.

Even more immediately, the Confederate forces were gathered as the Federal plan revealed itself. General Breckinridge began to consolidate his forces on 7 May, completing his new arrangement at Staunton on 12 May, three days before the battle. The vast majority of his small army was composed of native Virginians, with the exception of a company of Missouri cavalry, a company of Maryland cavalry and an independent battalion of cavalry from Maryland. A number of Confederate cavalry units were dismounted and used as infantry.

On May 10, Gen. Breckinridge contacted Lt. Col. Scott Shipp, commandant of VMI, that the services of the Corps of Cadets would be needed to face the Union advance. 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.

Total Effectives: Confederate
Infantry & dismounted cavalry: 4249 (approximately 3800 engaged)
Cavalry: 735 (all engaged)
Artillery; 341 (18 guns) (all engaged)
Total: 5325 (4876)

[Anyone interested in seeing the actual orders of battle of the two armies may go here battle_New_Market_CSA_OOB and here battle_New_Market_USA_OOB.]

The Battle of New Market

The two forces made contact south of New Market about mid-morning, with the main Union line west of the town near the North Fork of the Shenandoah River; Colonel Augustus Moore initially commanded the Union forces present on the battlefield at this time, which consisted of his infantry brigade and part of John E. Wynkoop's cavalry brigade. Additional Union regiments arrived throughout the morning and deployed between the North Fork and the Valley Turnpike, with the main line centered on Manor's Hill.

Breckinridge deployed Wharton's brigade on the Confederate left west of the Valley Turnpike and Echols' brigade on the right along the Pike (Echols was ill that morning, so his brigade was commanded by Colonel George S. Patton). The VMI cadet battalion was kept in reserve, while Imboden's cavalry was east of the turnpike. Breckinridge attempted to lure the Federals into attacking him using cavalry and artillery but Moore refused to move from his position. Three echeloned lines of Confederates 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.

Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864
Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864

About 11:00 a.m., Breckinridge decided to launch an attack on Moore using his infantry, while Imboden's cavalry brigade crossed Smith's Creek east of New Market, rode north, and recrossed the stream behind the Union lines. Union cavalry commander Gen. Julius Stahel (an ex-European revolutionary like Sigel) arrived at New Market at this time with additional troops, followed shortly afterwards by Sigel himself.

Breckinridge launched his infantry attack near noon, slowly pushing Moore's infantry brigade off of Manor's Hill and northward towards the rest of Sigel's army, which was deploying on a hill north of Jacob Bushong's farm. Once past the town of New Market, the Confederates halted to dress ranks, shift units along the line, and reposition their artillery units.

Breckinridge resumed his attack about 2 p.m. As the Confederate line formed near the Bushong farm, massed Union rifle and artillery fire disorganized the Confederate units in the center, forcing the right wing of the 51st Virginia Infantry and the 30th Virginia Infantry Battalion to retreat in confusion, while the rest of the Confederate line stalled.

Enter the Corps of Cadets

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 and the other two positioned themselves south of the building. They crossed over a split rail fence, then went prone to begin an exchange of fire with the Federal troops 300 yards away.

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 3:00 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.

"Field of Lost Shoes," New Market Battlefield today, looking south

The VMI cadets, taking a great deal of fire, fixed bayonets and joined the attack. They crossed a recently plowed wheatfield, some 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, forming an impromptu crescent. The order "Mark time!" was given; as soon as the body of their line caught up with the ends, the Corps of Cadets 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!"

"The Charge of the New Market Cadets" by Benjamin W. Clinedinst
Mural in the Jackson Memorial Hall on campus of Virginia Military Institute, Lexington VA
[Image courtesy of the VMI Museum and]

[At about this time during the battle, Union Gen. Sigel was excitedly consulting with some of his staff officers – Germans like himself. According to a report written by his chief of staff Col. David H. Strother, Sigel was so agitated that he began giving orders in German, which his American staff could not understand.]

At about 6:00 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 7:00 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 Shenandoah Valley, marching all that night and through the next day before stopping.

Five VMI cadets died at New Market, while five more died of their wounds over the next two months, with fifty-seven wounded.

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. 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, Sigel worked as a journalist and newspaper editor, held various political jobs, and died in 1902.

Footnote #2: John Breckinridge's force was unable to fully pursue Sigel's retiring army. His forces were transferred to the Richmond area, where they participated in the battle of Cold Harbor. Breckinridge was later appointed Secretary of War in the Confederate Cabinet. He later fled to Canada to avoid prosecution after the war's end. He returned to Kentucky in March of 1869 to take advantage of amnesty proclaimed by President Andrew Johnson. Breckinridge resumed his law practice, and eschewed any political ambitions. He died in 1875 of liver disease.

Footnote #3: After the battle, the VMI Corps of Cadets was sent to Richmond, where they were admired and saluted. President Jefferson Davis called them the "seedcorn of the Confederacy" and presented them with new uniforms and new British Enfield rifle-muskets, to replace the Austrian Lorenz and 1851 Springfield Cadet muskets they shouldered at New Market.

"Virginia Mourning Her Dead" by Moses Ezekiel, VMI Class of 1866
Located on VMI campus, focal point of New Market Day observances
[Image courtesy of]

Footnote #4: 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. This moving ceremony should be attended by anyone and everyone who admires courage, honor and devotion to duty. 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 in review before "Virginia Mourning Her Dead," a sculpture created by VMI alumnus Moses Ezekiel dedicated in 1903. In addition to the May 15 ceremony, a VMI march team each year stages a march from Lexington to New Market.

Footnote #5: The battle has been reenacted annually since 1965. This year's event – the 150th anniversary of the battle – will take place on May 16-18 in the town of New Market. New Market is also the home of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, located on the property of the Bushong Farm.

Virginia Museum of the Civil War, New Market VA [Image courtesy of www.Virginia_Museum_of_the_Civil_War]
Virginia Museum of the Civil War, New Market VA
[Image courtesy of www.Virginia_Museum_of_the_Civil_War]

Footnote #6: Visits to the New Market Battlefield play a major role in the lives of first-year VMI students or "Rats." At the conclusion of their first grueling week on campus, the entire class visits the battlefield and, after a series of tours and lectures, recreates the march of the Corps of Cadets across the Field of Lost Shoes. Afterward, the "rats" take the official Oath of Cadetship. Later in the school year, the students recreate a portion of the original march from Lexington to the battlefield, covering 23 miles from Harrisonburg to New Market.

Footnote #7: The honored dead of the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets (cadets' names in italics are buried at VMI):

Cadet Corporal Samuel Atwill, Company A, Class of 1866, died of wounds, July 20

Cadet Private Luther Haynes, Company B, Class of 1867, died of wounds, June 15
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, May 18

Cadet Private Joseph Wheelwright, Company C, Class of 1867, died of wounds, June 2

Cadet 1st Sergeant William Cabell, 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, June 26
Cadet Private Henry Jones, Company D, Class of 1867, killed in action

Cadet Private William McDowell, Class of 1867; Killed in action at New Market, May 15, 1864; Photograph taken in late 1863, at the request of his mother; [Photograph courtesy of www.civilwar.org_New_Market]
Cadet Private William McDowell, Class of 1867
Killed in action at New Market, May 15, 1864
Photograph taken in late 1863, at the request of his mother
[Photograph courtesy of www.civilwar.org_New_Market]

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