The Battle of New Market, which unfolded on May 15, 1864, stands out in U.S. history as the only instance where a student body was utilized as an organized combat unit. Confederate General and former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckenridge summoned the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) cadets, effectively thwarting Union attempts to clear the Shenandoah Valley.
Today, the New Market battlefield, nestled in the Southern Shenandoah Valley of Shenandoah County, is a State Historic Park, with sections preserved by the American Battlefield Trust. Prominent landmarks include the Bushong Farm and the Virginia Museum of the Civil War.
This battle is among the more renowned engagements of the Shenandoah Valley, marking the inaugural skirmish of the 1864 Valley Campaign, also known as the Lynchburg Campaign. One of General Ulysses S. Grant’s strategic wartime objectives was to purge the Shenandoah Valley once and for all, which would deprive the Confederacy of its breadbasket and block its invasion route to the North. If executed effectively, it could also potentially endanger General Robert E. Lee’s left flank.
Union General Franz Sigel, a German immigrant with an inconsistent wartime record, was appointed by the Lincoln administration to fulfill this task. Sigel’s appointment was a strategic move designed to secure the votes of German immigrants in the upcoming presidential election.
Sigel’s mission was to guide his 10,000-strong force south and seize the critical rail hub at Staunton, effectively severing the Confederate capital of Richmond from supplies sourced from the west.
Meanwhile, Confederate General John C. Breckenridge amassed an army at Staunton, albeit only half the size of Sigel’s force. A segment of his force included the 247-strong cadet corps from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington.
While Confederate cavalry led by John Imboden hindered the Federal advance down the Valley Turnpike, Breckenridge resolved to confront the vanguard of the enemy, advancing north on May 13, 1864. Clashes ensued on the outskirts of New Market village, just west of the Massanutten Mountain, on May 13-14, 1864.
Upon learning of the proximity of a segment of Sigel’s Union force just north of New Market, Breckenridge orchestrated a pre-dawn march at 1 am on May 15, 1864, hoping to trap and annihilate this Union advance force against the banks of the Shenandoah River.
The two armies clashed mid-morning on May 15, 1864, just south of New Market village. The Confederate advance, commanded by Colonel George S. Patton Sr., grandfather of the renowned WWII General George S. Patton Jr., proceeded along the Valley Turnpike.
After failing to ensnare the Union forces in a trap, Breckenridge initiated an attack at noon. The Confederate advance drove the Union line off Manor Hill, and established their position north of the Bushong Farm on Bushong Hill.
However, the Confederate center faltered under intense Union fire, causing a segment of their right flank to retreat in disarray. As the Confederate line stalled, Breckenridge reluctantly called upon the VMI cadets to fill the central gap in their line at Bushong Farm.
The Confederate line, dressed in gray, surged forward past the Bushong orchard, repelling several Union counterattacks. After 3 pm, the line advanced again, with many VMI cadets losing their shoes in the muddy fields beyond the Bushong orchard, an area later known as the Field of Lost Shoes.
With the Shenandoah River swollen from rains, the Confederate cavalry couldn’t cross the river to destroy the bridge and cut off the retreating Federals. The Union army, however, managed to retreat, set fire to the bridge, and escape.
This Confederate triumph came at a cost of 500 casualties but inflicted nearly twice as many losses on the Union army. With Sigel’s significant retreat and the Shenandoah Valley temporarily secured, Breckenridge was free to join Robert E. Lee to the east just in time for the Battle of Cold Harbor.