The Battle of New Market was a battle fought on May 15, 1864, in Virginia during Valley Campaigns of 1864 in the American Civil War. Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) fought alongside the Confederate Army and forced Union General Franz Sigel and his army out of the Shenandoah Valley.
In the spring of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant set in motion a grand strategy designed to press the Confederacy into submission. "My primary mission," reasoned Grant, "is to ... bring pressure to bear on the Confederacy so no longer could it take advantage of interior lines." Control of the strategically important and agriculturally rich Shenandoah Valley was a key element in General Grant's plans. While he confronted General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the eastern part of the state, Grant ordered Major General Franz Sigel's army of 10,000 to secure the Valley and threaten Lee's flank, starting the Valley Campaigns of 1864.
Receiving word that the Union Army had entered the Valley, Confederate General John C. Breckinridge pulled together all available forces to repulse the latest threat. The VMI Cadet Corps, over half of whom were first year students, or "Rats", were called to join Breckinridge and his army of 4,500 veterans. The cadets, under the direction of VMI Commandant of Cadets Lt. Col. Scott Ship, marched 81 miles (130 km) in four days to meet up with General Breckinridge's Confederate force. The cadets were intended to be a reserve and employed in battle only under the most dire circumstances. The two armies met at New Market on May 15, 1864. "I shall advance on him", the aggressive Breckinridge declared. "We can attack and whip them here and we will do it!" As the general rode by the cadets he shouted, "Gentlemen, I trust I will not need your services today; but if I do, I know you will do your duty."
In drenching rain, Union artillery located in town fired upon the Confederate line as it began its advance from the south. After brushing aside Union skirmishers located west of town, the Confederate infantry line came within rifle range of Federals positioned along a ridge north of the farm owned by Jacob and Sara Bushong.
Cadet John Howard saw a badly wounded Confederate officer lying on his side waving his sword to inspire the gray line forward. "Another shell exploded and he was cut down for a second time ... What effect that waving sword had on anyone else, I do not know, but I know there was no giving back as we passed forward through the storm."
"The bursting of shells about us was incessant," recalled cadet Gideon Davenport, "One of these passing directly through our colors ... about thus time we passed a group of wounded soldiers who cheered us, but a shell, intended for us, burst in their midst, and they fell silent. Suddenly there was a crack in our front—a gap appeared in our ranks, and First Sergeant Cabell, Privates Wheelwright, Crockett, and Jones fell dead, and others were wounded. The opening was immediately closed, and the line went forward in the best of order. Nothing could have been finer done." Still in the reserve line, the cadets had to part as they marched around the Bushong farmhouse; companies A and B to the right, companies C and D to the left.
The front rank of the Confederate line paused at the split rail fence separating Jacob Bushong's orchard and wheatfield. Receiving massed fire from the Federal muskets and artillery, the right flank of the 51st Virginia Infantry regiment, the 30th Virginia, and the left flank of the 62nd Virginia melted away. Noting the confusion in the Confederate line, Sigel ordered an attack. Breckenridge knew he must quickly fill the 350-foot gap in the center of his line or abandon the field. One of his staff suggested sending in the untried cadets. "I will not do it," Breckinridge replied. "General, you have no choice," responded the desperate officer. "Put the boys in," Breckinridge ordered, "and may God forgive me for the order ..."
Col. Ship, aged 24, and his 257 VMI cadets, aged 15 to 21,  stepped into the gap along the fence just as the 34th Massachusetts started its attack. Ship was knocked unconscious and feared mortally wounded by an artillery explosion shortly after moving the cadets into the gap and ordering the cadets to "fix bayonets," and command fell to Captain Henry Wise. Along the orchard fence line, cadet John Howard recalled, "It was an ordinary rail fence, about four feet high but as I surmounted to topmost rail it felt at least ten feet up in the air and the subject of hostile aim. But in clearing this obstruction I was leaving all thought of individuality behind," The cadets met the Union charge and turned it back. Col. Ship awoke to see the entire Confederate line sweep forward over the rain-soaked and recently plowed wheatfield. This field would later be dubbed the "Field of Lost Shoes" by the cadets because of the many pieces of footwear that were pulled off the cadet's feet by the suction of the mud as the Corps charged forward.
Meanwhile Sigel's infantry lurched forward awkwardly and ineffectively, then fell back across the blood-drenched mud. Anticipating the results of his failed charge, Sigel began to withdraw his artillery. Only a few yards separated the armies when the Federal line broke and the Confederates swept through. The VMI cadets led the charge, capturing a cannon and many men from the 34th Massachusetts. Cadet O. P. Evans climbed atop the gun and victoriously waved the Institute Flag. General Breckinridge rode by, doffed his hat, and shouted "Well done!"
The battle was not without its cost to the VMI Cadet Corps. Forty eight cadets were wounded. The following ten cadets were killed outright or died later of wounds:
|Cadet ||Hometown||Rank and Company||note|
|Samuel Francis Atwill ‘66||Atwillton, Virginia|| Cadet Corporal|
|Died 66 days after the battle|
|William Henry Cabell ‘65||Richmond, Virginia|| Cadet First Sergeant|
|Killed in action|
|Charles Gay Crockett ‘67||Virginia|| Cadet Private|
|Killed in action|
|Alva Curtis Hartsfield ‘66||Wake County, North Carolina|| Cadet Private|
|Died 42 days after the battle|
|Luther Cary Haynes ‘67||Virginia|| Cadet Private|
|Died one month after the battle|
| Thomas Garland Jefferson ‘67|
(a descendant of Thomas Jefferson)
|Amelia County, Virginia|| Cadet Private|
|Died 3 days after the battle|
|Henry Jenner Jones ‘67||King William County, Virginia|| Cadet Private|
|Killed in action|
| William Hugh McDowell ‘67|
(The Ghost Cadet by Elaine Marie Alphin)
|Beattie's Ford, North Carolina|| Cadet Private|
|Killed in action|
|Jaqueline Beverly Stanard ‘67||Orange, Virginia|| Cadet Private|
|Killed in action|
|Joseph Christopher Wheelwright ‘67||Westmoreland County, Virginia|| Cadet Private|
|Died 18 days after the battle|
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, and six of the ten cadets who died are buried at this site. The ceremony features the roll call of the names of the cadets who lost their lives at New Market, 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 culiminate this ceremony, the entire Corps passes "Virginia Mourning Her Dead" in review.
Annually, the newly matriculated Rat Mass travels to the New Market Battlefield and recreates the infamous charge of the VMI Cadets across the "Field of Lost Shoes", usually on a weekend. Four days prior to that, a march team consisting of first classmen (seniors) representing all companies and cadet government organizations depart from the Institute in Lexington, Virginia, and march 81 miles to the New Market battlefield in honor of the grueling pace the VMI Corps set in May of 1864.
The service of the Corps of Cadets during the 1864 Battle of New Market marks the only time in the nation's history when an entire student body fought as a unit in pitched battle. That service entitles VMI cadets to parade with fixed bayonets.
- Davis, William C., The Battle of New Market, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1993, ISBN 0-8117-0576-5.
- Knight, Charles, Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market, New York: Savas Beatie, 2010, ISBN 978-1-932714-80-7.
- Pancake, John, "Virginia Reveres Civil War Bravery", Washington Post, November 26, 2008.
- Battle of New Market — U.S. Army Self-Guided Tour
- New Market Battlefield website
- Virginia Military Institute
- VMI Museum
- VMI Archives