02 October 2009


I first visited New Market in 1981 with Camper and Moleson. I had just reported to Marine Corps Base, Quantico, and they were then in the 4th and 2d grades, attending Archibald Henderson Elementary School aboard base.

Now, my late first wife was a product of Catholic Schools in Chicago. Her grasp of history left something to be desired. (“What do you expect,” she asked? “My history book was Holy Days And Holidays.”)

It was on Columbus day, when the Feds had a holiday that the rest of the Nation ignored. She asked “What are you going to do with a day off?”

“I’ll take the boys to New Market.”

“New Market? What’s that?”

Moleson looked up from his dinner. “Mom? New Market?” (Puzzled look from Mom.) “The boys of New Market?” (Not a glimmer!) “Mom—the field of lost shoes?” (Sheer exasperation.)

I stepped in to end the confusion. “It’s a Civil War battlefield.”

“Oh,” she said. “I thought it was a shopping center!” (To Moleson): “Where did you hear about this place?”

In a voice dripping with awe, he said “My teacher is a graduate of ‘the Institute.’ He’s told us all about ‘the boys of New Market.’”

The Battle of New Market, 15 May 1864, was one of the many battles fought in “the [Shenandoah] Valley.” It is remarkable because it was the only time in our nation's history that an entire student body fought as a unit in combat.

The Valley was the breadbasket of the Confederacy. In 1864, Grant ordered Major General Franz Sigel's army of 10,000 to secure the Valley. In response, General (and former Vice President of the United States) John C. Breckinridge, CSA, cobbled together all available forces to throw back the Yankees. The VMI Cadet Corps, over half of whom were first year students, were called to join Breckinridge and his army of 4,500 veterans. The 257 cadets, aged 15 to 21, under the command of Commandant of Cadets Lt. Col. Scott Ship (VMI ’59), marched 80 miles in four days to join Breckinridge's force. While the first day’s march was completed in good weather, thereafter, spring rains drenched the column as it approached the village of New Market.

As the two armies met on a farm owned by Jacob Bushong, the Union forces held a low ridge perhaps 500 yards north of the house. Massed fire from Federal units and their supporting artillery, crashed into the 51st, 30th, and 62nd Virginia infantry regiments, opening a gap of over 100 meters. Sigel then ordered an attack.

Breckenridge had to quickly restore the line or leave the field to the enemy. One of his staff asked if he should commit the cadets who were Breckenridge’s only reserve.. "I will not do it," he replied.

"General, you have no choice!"

"Put the boys in," Breckinridge ordered, "and may God forgive me for the order ..."

Col. Ship ordered the Corps to “fix bayonets” and then moved his troops into the gap just as the 34th Massachusetts started its attack. Ship was knocked unconscious and feared mortally wounded by an artillery explosion shortly afterward. (One cadet’s rifle, on display in the Visitor’s center, was struck by shrapnel. The top 18 inches of the barrel are bent at a right angle to the rest of the weapon! Although wounded, he survived, as did Col. Ship.)

Captain Henry Wise assumed command and led the cadets as they turned back the Union charge. The entire Confederate line then surged forward over the rain-soaked and recently plowed wheat field. It is known to history as the "Field of Lost Shoes" because many cadets had their shoes sucked from their feet by the mud. The Corps captured an artillery piece and sent the Union forces reeling as Sigel ordered a retreat northward to Strasburg.

The Corps of Cadets suffered 10 KIA and 47 WIA, more than 20% of the unit. One of the KIA, Cadet Private Thomas Garland Jefferson ’67, Company B, was a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson.

Today, as I drove south through the Valley en route to Chattanooga and the 6th Convocation of the New Wineskins Association of Churches, I-81 took me through the center of the battlefield. Of course I had to stop.

The Hall of Valor (Visitors Center) was as impressive as ever. Since last I was there, the original grave markers of the 6 cadets buried on the campus of Virginia Military Institute, heavily weathered, have been moved to New Market. Their graves, at the foot of the statue of “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” on the campus of the Institute, have new markers now.

Everywhere in the visitors center, we are reminded of the response to the roll call conducted on 15 May of each year at the Institute. Because they engaged in combat as a unit, the Corps is entitled to parade with bayonets fixed. As the names of the 10 cadets who were killed in action or later died of wounds are read, a current cadet from the same company steps forth and responds “Sir, First Sergeant (or Corporal or Private) ____ died on the field of honor, Sir.”

I wonder if there are any colleges in America today—other than at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, the Institute, or the Citadel—whose student body would respond as well as did the boys of New Market to “duty’s claim and Country’s call”?

1 comment:

jim_l said...

Perhaps Texas A&M should be in your list.