New Market At 150

Why The Battle Is Important

Posted: May 15, 2014

Before Stonewall Jackson unleashed his gray Furies at Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863, he surveyed the troops and noticed how many were from the Virginia Military Institute. “The Institute will be heard from today,” said the South’s soon-to-be-fallen champion. Three of his generals and another two dozen or so officers were VMI men.

A year later, the boys in Blue heard from the scholars from VMI again, this time on May 15, at the Battle of New Market. Today is the sesquicentenniel of the battle, which one might well know if he saw the cadets from Virgimia Military Institute march through town in their annual rite.

It was those young men who gave the small battle most of its notoriety, as battle expert Charles Knight wrote in Hallowed Ground Magazine in 2010: “The Battle of New Market is one of the most-written about minor engagements of the entire Civil War. This fascination is in large part due to the participation of the Corps of Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute.”

But the battle also opened the Yankee invaders’ Valley Campaign of 1864, as Knight wrote: “A small Federal army of about 10,000 troops under Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel was ordered to move south from Martinsburg, in what is now West Virginia, up (the Shenandoah River flows from south to north, thus, one moving south is going ‘up’ the Valley) the Shenandoah Valley to Staunton, Virginia, a vital rail link between the Confederate capital of Richmond and the Valley. At Staunton Sigel was expected to meet up with another Federal column coming from the southwestern part of Virginia, and together to move against either Lynchburg or Charlottesville. Sigel’s assignment was in large part a diversionary one designed to attract Confederate attention away from the main Union army in Virginia, the Army of the Potomac, and also to deprive the Confederacy of the supplies coming from the Shenandoah Valley.”

It didn’t quite work out as planned for the Federals that dismal Sunday. Meeting them on the field of honor were 4,500 men under the command of Maj. John C. Breckinridge. Among that contingent were the boys from VMI, who became famous for their sterling march into the teeth of artillery fire and the capture of a Federal cannon and soldiers. “They came in as a beautiful and solid a line as I ever saw go across the parade ground,” a Confederate comnander said. And “nothing could be finer than their advance,” agreed an enemy colonel from the Bay State. When the day was disposed, 57 were wounded, with 10 killed or later dying from wounds. The young men learned, Mr. Knight wrote, that war isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“To them, combat was something new and utterly terrifying — far different from the glorious images of the romance of war they had conjured up while hard at their studies in Lexington.” A wounded Cadet Nelson B. Noland recalled that “here for the first time it occurred to me that maybe we were not ‘playing soldier’ this time.” John S. Wise, son of Virginia’s former governor, who was fighting with R.E. Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia, learned how terrible war is, apropos Marse Robert’s admonition at Fredericksburg.

Recalled Wise, “[t]hen came a sound more stunning than thunder, that burst directly in my face; lightning leaped; fire flashed; the earth rocked; the sky whirled round, and I stumbled. My gun pitched forward and I fell upon my knees. ... When consciousness returned it was raining in torrents. I was lying on the ground, which all about was torn and plowed with shell.’”

Today, the battle plays an important role in the formation VMI’s cadets. After their first week on campus, they travel to New Market to learn about the battle and recreate the cadets’ march through the Field of Lost Shoes, and, of course, they march from Lexington to New Market every May.

Once again this year, the Valley heard from the Institute’s scholars. May they continue marching and remind us to hold honor, courage and sacrifice above petty concerns that amount, in the end, to nothing.