Virginia is the home of many “firsts” in the history of this nation. First settlement, Jamestown; first president, George Washington, and so forth, but there is one occurrence that is not only first, but is the only time in history this event has taken place. The Battle of New Market in May 1864 marks the only time in the history of the United States that an entire student body of a college has gone to war, engaged in fierce battle and as a unit, contributed significantly to the outcome of the battle. It is a sobering event when you think of the age of the participants, 16 to 24 years old.
On May 15th of this year, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) will celebrate the 152nd anniversary of the part the Corps of Cadets played in the Battle of New Market, Virginia. New Market is a sleepy little village located in the Shenandoah Valley astride today’s US Rt. 11 which in 1864 was the main north south route traversing the Valley of Virginia. People there were predominantly farmers providing Virginia and the Confederate army with much of the food and fodder they needed. This is a story of pride, honor and duty in defense of homeland.
In the spring of 1864, The Confederate Army, decimated by four years of battle with a much larger and better supplied force, was in a death struggle with the Union Army of the Potomac about 50 miles west of Essex County and the Northern Neck. The new commanding general of the Union troops was U.S. Grant. He had never been in battle against General R.E. Lee but that was about to change.
Grant informed President Lincoln that he intended to press to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. He would engage Lee at the Rapidan River in central Virginia and push him back into Richmond. To make a long story short, each time Grant engaged Lee, he was stopped. But as mentioned earlier, Grant was not used to losing. His battle plan for the Overland Campaign was if he was stopped in an attack, he would withdraw and move to Lee’s right flank closer to Richmond and engage again. Previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac simply withdrew and waited for another chance elsewhere. This plan was devastating to Lee as he was running out of soldiers. As causalities mounted Lee had no replacements. Grant’s battle of attrition was working.
To draw even more of Lee’s troops out of the defenses around Richmond, Grant decided to strike the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” the bountiful Shenandoah Valley. He instructed Major General (MG)Frantz General Siegel to push into the valley and destroy crops, burn barns and confiscate livestock denying Virginia a source of food and forage.
With approximately 8000 infantry and cavalry, Siegel marched through Winchester into the valley intending to capture the railroad hub in Staunton. The limited Confederate forces in the valley were hastily being pulled together from other fronts to meet this threat. Earlier, as a result of a mass meeting of VMI personnel, General Francis Smith, Superintendent, wrote a letter to General Robert E. Lee, Commanding Officer of the Army of Virginia, informing him of the readiness of the cadets for service. Lee responded by asking them to remain in Lexington and protect the arsenal there, and he would notify him if they would be needed. Further up the Valley near Southwest Virginia, MG John Breckenridge, former vice-president of the United States and now a Confederate general, assumed command of the entire Valley and began moving his 4000 troops north from the southern parts of Virginia. They were to all converge in Staunton to defend the railroads.
During the night of May 9th, the orders came to mobilize all reserve and militia units in the Valley. General Smith also received orders to alert the Battalion of Cadets and prepare them for immediate deployment. Early in the morning of May 11th, the Corps, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Scott Ship, himself an 1859 graduate of VMI and now an instructor at the Institute, began the march down the Valley Turnpike to join MG Breckenridge’s army near Staunton. The march was plagued by a steady rain that fell most of the way. However, the Corps was able to cover the distance to Staunton arriving on May 13th where they joined with MG Breckinridge’s Confederate forces. On May 14th, the Corps completed the 72-mile march to New Market.
MG Siegel had divided the Union troops into three groups. One just east of New Market at the foot of the Massanutten mountains, one on the west along the north fork of the Shenandoah River and one in an area outside the town, known as Bushong’s Farm. Breckinridge, realizing the Union forces were not going to attack him, decided to attack. Breckinridge launched his attack about 1:00 p.m. on the center of the Union line. The early stages of the battle consisted of attacks and counterattacks. When a gap opened in the center of the Confederate line, MG Breckinridge realized the VMI Cadet Corps was one of only two force available. They had been held in reserve in Bushong’s apple orchard. Now, reluctantly, he turned to an aid and said, “Put the boys in, and may God have mercy on me for the order.” The order was given and the cadets formed in battle line to begin the march to fill the gap. As they crossed a split-rail fence and reached the wheat field 247 cadets advanced with the other units toward a Union battery of artillery.
Overnight, there had been a steady rain. The line of battle moved forward into the soggy field and as the Corps began their final push across the field, the muddy soil from the rains sucked the shoes off the feet of many of the young soldiers. The wheat field they had just crossed became known, even to this day, as the “Field of Lost Shoes”. Maintaining strict battle formation, the cadets overran an Union artillery battery. They joined with the other regular army units and continued to press the attack until they succeeded in routing the Union troops. Siegel retreated across the Shenandoah River and burnt the bridge behind them.
The cadets were successful in their attack on the artillery. However, they sustained a number of casualties. Forty-seven cadets were wounded: ten either killed outright or died of their wounds after the battle. These ten became the face of The VMI New Market Cadets, and to this day have a place of honor and respect at VMI. Under the statue of Virginia Mourning Her Dead, sculpted by a fellow New Market Cadet and later a world renowned artist Moses Ezekiel, there are ten graves, under identical bronze markers noting their names and where they are buried if not at VMI. Cadet Ezekiel was knighted by the King of Italy. At his death, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors and recognition. He requested his headstone simply read,
Moses J. Ezekiel
Sergeant of Company C
Battalion of Cadets of the
Virginia Military Institute.
He requested this epitaph as he always boasted that Sergeant of Company C at VMI was the honor of which he was proudest.
Of the ten that died, three were from the Northern Neck and Essex County, almost thirty percent. Cadets Samuel F. Atwill and Joseph C. Wheelwright of Montross in Westmoreland County are both buried at VMI with the others under the statue. Luther C. Haynes of Dunnsville in Essex County died about two months later in a hospital in Richmond. He is buried at his family’s farm ‘Sunny Side’ in an unmarked grave.
Other cadets who were killed in the battle are: William H. Cabell of Richmond City, Charles G. Crockett of Wythe County, Alva C. Hartsfield of Wake, NC and Thomas G. Jefferson, grandson of former President Thomas Jefferson, of Amelia County. In addition, were Henry J. Jones of Aylett, Jacqueline B. Stanard of Orange and William McDowell of Beatties Ford, NC. In 1866, a detail of cadets, themselves veterans of New Market retrieved the bodies of Jones, McDowell and Jefferson. They were re-interred at VMI along with Atwill and Wheelwright. Cadet Crockett was added in 1960.
The memory of these cadets who bravely marched to their death, many in their teenage years, remains an important part of VMI tradition. The incoming class each year at VMI, called “Rats”, is taught about unity, teamwork, courage and honor. As part of their indoctrination into the VMI corps, they must memorize the names of the New Market Cadets. They must be able to recite them, on demand, when ordered so by upperclassmen. Additionally, the cadets are transported to the Bushong Farm, now owned by VMI, where they replicate the charge of their predecessors across the same wheat field, “The Field of Lost Shoes.” Once the “Rats” complete the crossing they officially sign the Roster of Cadets. This event is huge, because even though they remain “Rats”, they are recognized as a class.
This tradition continues, and each year on May 15th, New Market Day, there is a corps formation and full dress parade. During roll call at the formation, each of the ten New Market Cadets names are called and a current cadet steps forward and responds, “Died on the Field of Honor, Sir”. Many of the VMI alumni to this day can recite the names of these student soldiers.
Words such as duty, honor and country today seem from a lost era. The Battle of New Market helped turn an entire student body of boys into men. Many books and articles about this battle quote cadets who fought in that battle and say it was the turning point of their lives. To face possible death changed them. In the book The Corps Forward, by Colonel William Couper, VMI 1904, with forward by Colonel Keith Gibson, VMI 1977, list the biographies of the New Market Cadets. Many speak of how they were affected and how their lives changed. Colonel Gibson uses as an example, Cadet John Howard, VMI 1866, as he stood on the split rail fence unsure of his next move. “It was an ordinary fence about four feet high, but as I surmounted the topmost rail I felt at least 10 feet up in the air and the special object of the enemies aim. But in clearing this obstruction I was leaving all thoughts of individually behind,” said Howard. Gibson continues that, “Cadet Howard left his individuality behind, and became part of something far greater. With the order, Corps Forward, the cadets became a single body with confidence and courage drawn from a shared experience.” There is also a movie based on the cadets. Field of Lost Shoes is a 2014 American war drama film directed by Sean McNamara.
This May, the weekend of the 13th, 14th and 15th, the Battle of New Market will once again be reenacted. Demonstrations in Civil War Infantry maneuvers, Cavalry movements, period artillery and Signal Corps flag code will be presented on the original Bushong Farm, the “Field of Lost Shoes.” The Virginia Museum of the Civil War and the New Market Museum are also located on the grounds offering displays and films chronicling a soldier’s life in war as well as the action of the Corps on the nearby battlefield.
About an hour’s drive south of New Market is the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. There other excellent museums, the VMI Museum, the General George Marshall Museum and the “Stonewall” Jackson Museum, archive the lives of two famous generals with ties to VMI as well as cadet life and the New Market experience.
The Battle of New Market determined little IN the outcome of the Civil War, however generations of past cadets and the scores of future cadets find it and the associated traditions a tremendous impact on their lives as they pass from college boys and girls to responsible young men and women.
The writer and The House and Home Magazine would like to acknowledge the assistance of Colonel Keith E. Gibson, VMI 1997, director of the museums at VMI and New Market for his help researching this article. Colonel Gibson also wrote the foreword to the book, The Corps Forward, written by Colonel William Couper, VMI 1904. The book is a collection of the lives of all the surviving New Market Cadets and their lives after the end of the Civil War. Colonel Gibson’s help was invaluable and greatly appreciated.