The Battle of New Market and New Market Day at VMI



The Shenandoah Valley, or Great Valley of Virginia, is one of the most storied geographies of the American Civil War.  As noted by historian William C. Davis, the Valley was “second only to the Mississippi River in its strategic importance to the Confederacy,” and was “one of the most hotly contested areas of the war.”  It was in the Valley that the legend of “Stonewall” Jackson was born, as Confederate Major General Thomas Jonathan Jackson performed his tactical masterpiece by defeating three Unions armies – each outnumbering his own force – simultaneously.  Because of “Stonewall” the Union feared the Valley as a potential invasion route leading right up to Washington, DC.  Because of its natural bounty, the Valley has often been referred to as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” and thus was a crucial theater of the war.[1]

In May of 1864, however, the great “Stonewall” Jackson had been dead for a year, and now Union Major General Franz Siegel began marching his army of about 9,000 from Winchester, Virginia, up the Shenandoah Valley.  To the east, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were grappling one another in the grand chess match of Grant’s Overland Campaign.  To support the Union strategy, Grant assigned Siegel the objective of Staunton, Virginia, some 90 miles south of Winchester.  This would draw manpower away from the main army of Lee and destroy vital logistical support that the Valley provided.

shenval civil war map                                           520px-New_Market.svg

The challenge of stopping Siegel and defending the Valley fell to John C. Breckenridge, former Vice-President of the United States turned Confederate Major General.  Breckenridge cobbled together a force of roughly 5,000 Confederates, including 258 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, located in Lexington, Virginia, and met Siegel near the sleepy hamlet of New Market, situated about midway between Winchester and Staunton. [2]

The Battle:

On May 15, the two armies engaged one another.  Despite mismanaging his force, Siegel gained the upper hand by mid-afternoon.  As the Union artillery played upon the Confederates, a gap appeared in the center of their line, near the Bushong farmhouse, between the 62nd Virginia and 51st Virginia regiments.  A staff officer alerted Breckenridge to the danger, warning that Siegel was sure to charge and exploit the weakness.  Something had to be done.  Breckenridge’s initial response was to try to shift the line inward to close down on the gap, but as all units were heavily engaged, this was impossible.  The staff officer urged Breckenridge to send in the reserves consisting of the VMI cadets.  The general demurred, reluctant to utilize the cadet corps in such a manner because of their youth (the average age of the cadets was 18, one was as young as 15).  At last, realizing the desperation of the moment, Breckenridge relented – “Put the boys in…and may God forgive me for the order.”


The cadets rushed forward, plugging the gap, and Siegel’s infantry were repulsed.  With the momentum now decidedly shifted, the Confederates charged.  In the rain soaked field near the Bushong farmhouse, a number of Confederate soldiers and VMI cadets had their shoes sucked from their feet as they charged through the mud.  But onward they pressed, across the “Field of Lost Shoes,” and up Bushong’s Hill, driving the Union forces before them.  The cadets captured one of the cannons of Union Captain Von Kleiser’s battery, as well as at least sixty, perhaps one hundred, of their opponents in the chaos of the Union retreat.  Breckenridge’s victory was complete.

As the action slowed and the Confederates cleared the field of the fleeing Union troops, Breckenridge rode up to where the cadets were positioned.  He halted and spoke to them.  “Young gentlemen, I have to thank you for the results of today’s operations.”  He would ever after refer to the men of VMI as “his cadets.”


“Died on the Field of Honor, Sir”

Virginia Mourning Her Dead

Ten cadets died during, or from wounds sustained from, the Battle of New Market.  Each year since 1866, the VMI Corps of Cadets pays tribute to these fallen New Market Cadets in a parade that includes a solemn, moving ceremony.  Roll is called for the ten New Market Cadets, and in response a current cadet (usually a First Classman) replies, “died on the field of honor, Sir!”  A wreath is then laid at the memorial statue, Virginia Mourning Her Dead [3], situated on the VMI campus, and the VMI Chaplain recites the New Market Prayer.  A twenty-one gun salute is fired, followed by the haunting echo rendition of Taps.  The Cadet Corps then passes in review.  As a graduate of VMI, I have had the honor in marching in the New Market Day Parade four times.

The New Market Cadets, listed in alphabetical order:

Samuel F. Atwill

William H. Cabell

Charles G. Crockett

Alva C. Hartsfield

Luther C. Haynes

Thomas G. Jefferson

Henry J. Jones

William H. McDowell

J. Beverly Stanard

Joseph C. Wheelwright


May 15, 2014, marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of New Market.  It was a small engagement relative to the more famous battles of the American Civil War (Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, etc.), but New Market is significant for several reasons.  “Seldom,” wrote historian Douglas Southall Freeman, “did a small victory have so large an effect.”  It was the last Confederate victory in the Shenandoah Valley, which, having secured the 1864 harvest, enabled the Confederacy to fight on for one more year in Virginia.  The battle is also unique in that the VMI cadet corps fought as a unit – earning for the school the distinction of a battle streamer, one of the few colleges in the United States awarded such an honor.

Battle Streamer


[1] See William C. Davis, The Battle of New Market, (Doubleday & Company Inc., Garden City, NY, 1978).

[2] For more on VMI and the Battle of New Market, see the Institute’s excellent archives section on the school’s website:

[3] The statue, Virginia Mourning Her Dead, was sculpted by Sir Moses Ezekiel, VMI class of 1866 and himself a New Market Cadet.


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