The battle of New Market took place on May 15, 1864. A Confederate General and former U.S. Vice President will call up the V.M.I. Cadets and thwart Union efforts to clear the Valley. It is remembered as the only time in U.S. history when a student body was used as an organized combat unit.
Located in the Southern Shenandoah Valley in Shenandoah County, the New Market battlefield is today a State Historic Park with portions preserved by the American Battlefield Trust. Notable sites include the Bushong Farm and the Virginia Museum of the Civil War.
This is one of the better-known battles of the Shenandoah Valley and the first battle of the 1864 Valley Campaign, also known as the Lynchburg Campaign. Part of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s overall wartime strategy was to clear the Shenandoah Valley once and for all, which would eliminate the breadbasket of the Confederacy and invasion route of the North. If effective, it will also threaten Gen. Robert E. Lee’s left flank.
The Lincoln administration will turn to Union General Franz Sigel for the task to clear the Valley. A German immigrant with a spotty wartime record, Sigel was a political appointee to try to win German immigrant votes for President Lincoln in the upcoming election.
Sigel’s objective was to march his force of 10,000 men south and take the vital rail hub at Staunton which would cut supplies from out west from reaching the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Meanwhile, Confederate Gen. John C. Breckenridge, a former U.S. Vice President, would concentrate his hardscrabble army half the size of his opponent at Staunton.
Part of his force would include the cadet corps from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington which numbered 247 cadets.
While the Confederate cavalry under John Imboden slowed the lumbering Federal advance down the Valley Turnpike, Gen. Breckenridge decided to take the fight against the vanguard of the enemy and moved north on May 13, 1864.
The advance guard cavalry from both sides would clash outside of the village of New Market just west of the Massanutten Mountain on May 13-14, 1864.
Hearing that part of Gen. Sigel’s Union force was just north of the village of New Market, Gen. Breckenridge will march his army at 1 am on May 15, 1864. His hope was to trap and destroy this Union advance force with their backs against the Shenandoah River.
Both armies would clash mid-morning on May 15, 1864, just south of the village of New Market. The Confederate axis of advance would go along the Valley Turnpike with Col. George S. Patton Sr. (the grandfather of famous WWII General George S. Patton Jr.) in command of the right wing.
After Gen. Breckenridge failed to lure Union forces into a trap, he went on the attack at noon. The Confederate advance would push the Union battle line off of Manor Hill and would take up a position north of the Bushong Farm on Bushong Hill.
Heavy concentrated Union fire against the Confederate center would unhinge it causing part of their right flank to withdraw in confusion. While the Confederate battle line stalled, Gen. Breckenridge will reluctantly call out the cadets of VMI to fill in the center gap in their line at the Bushong Farm.
The Confederate line of gray would surge forward past the Bushong orchard and blunt several Union counterattacks attempts. The Confederate line would surge again after 3 pm and many VMI cadets will lose their shoes in the muddy fields beyond the Bushong orchard; later called the Field of Lost Shoes.
With the Shenandoah River swollen, Confederate cavalries were unable to cross and destroy the bridge behind the Federals, cutting them off. The Union army managed to retreat, burn the bridge, and get away.
This Confederate victory would cost 500 casualties while inflicting nearly twice that number against the Union army. With Gen. Sigel’s major withdrawal and the Valley momentarily safe once again, it will allow Gen. Breckenridge to join Robert E. Lee to the east just before the battle of Cold Harbor.
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