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Home   >   Old Newspaper Articles   >   The VMI Cadets at the Battle of New Market

 


Richmond Times Dispatch                    May 14, 1939


 

 

 

 

The Cadets at New Market

By John G. Hundley

 

Seventy-five years ago . . . .   And today there is only one survivor of the battle in which a small band of V. M. I. cadets fought shoulder to shoulder with veteran troops to repell an invasion of the Shenandoah Valley on May 15 of 1864. That sole survivor, William M. Wood, was but a lad of 19 when he marched the 82 miles from Lexington to New Market to participate in the battle in which the cadet corps contributed materially to the Confederate victory.

Tomorrow, he will be present in Lexington to present the corps with a blue and gray distinguished service pennant, which will be affixed to the regimental colors. This pennant, bearing the simple inscription, "New Market," is being awarded in recognition of the valor shown by Wood and his schoolmates in that battle.

Seventy-five years after, Wood alone remains to tell of the hardships the cadets endured on the march, of the charge they made in the face of a withering fire, and of those who "died on the field of valor."

William M. Wood, V.M.I. class of '67, last survivor of the New Market charge

 

*          *          *

 

In May of 1864, Grant was locked in deadly combat with Lee at the Wilderness. While it was necessary that Lee should concentrate the strength of his thinned gray ranks in order to oppose the overwhelming force that faced him, Grant could out of the superfluity of his numbers harass his adversary from other points, as well.

It was in an effort to disturb Lee's rear by destroying his communications and base of supplies that General Franz Sigel, German-born immigrant in command of the Department of West Virginia, was ordered to invade the Shenandoah Valley.

General John C. Breckinridge was sent by Lee to reinforce General Imboden's brigade, which had occupied the valley all winter, and to check Sigel's advance with all possible haste. Breckinridge left his headquarters in Southwest Virginia and, by forced marches, arrived at Staunton on May 8. On the following day, the cadet corps of the Virginia Military Institute was summoned.

During the three long years of the war, the cadets had craved a chance to take active part in some campaign. Although they had once appeared with Jackson in the valley as reserve troops and had on several occasions been ordered out to chase small detachments of Yankees in the mountains near Lexington and Lynchburg, they had never participated in battle.

As the sun dipped below House Mountain on May 10 and the cadet corps stood retreat in the cool twilight, a messenger bearing Breckinridge's order to General Francis H. Smith, superintendent of V. M. I., was on his way to Lexington. The realization of the corps' fondest hope was at hand.

The crimson sky in the West fused into the purple and a gentle peacefulness, all out of accord with the clamor of battle so near, settled over Lexington and V. M. I.   By midnight, all lamps save that in the guard room had been extinguished.

Suddenly, there reverberated through barracks the roll of the drum -- the long roll. The cadets grumblingly dressed and hurried into ranks expecting the usual checkup for block runners.

Several officers were gathered near the statue of Washington intent over several sheets of orders. The adjutant called the battalion to attention and, by lantern light, read the message from Breckinridge which General Smith had now received. The cadet corps was instructed to march to Staunton and there join the main body of the Confederate army.

After orders were read, the adjutant barked: "Dismissed," and cheers rent the midnight air as the cadets broke ranks and hurried to their rooms to prepare for the march.

Breakfasting by candlelight, the corps filled their haversacks with food from the mess hall tables. In the gray of the morning, before sunup, that small band of fledglings numbering nearly 250 wound down the hill from barracks to the old covered bridge spanning North River and headed up the valley pike toward Staunton.

With horses borrowed in Lexington, the cadet battery of three-inch rifle guns rumbled in the wake of the corps. Rain poured steadily during the two days' march to Staunton, and roads were slowly turned to mud.

Having collected all the available man-power of the surrounding country, Breckinridge decided not to await the enemy's arrival. So on the next day, the march was resumed from Staunton. Mount Crawford was reached by nightfall of the 13th, and on the evening of the 14th, camp was made in the rain-soaked woods of Lacey's Spring. The cadets, footsore and fatigued, dried their clothes and warmed themselves around the bivouac fires which dotted the valley.

Sleep came easily, but during the night every one was awakened and ordered forward. They were marched through rain and darkness into position on Shirley's Hill a little to the south of New Market. They were very near the enemy lines, extending from the town westward along a heavy stone fence, against which the confederates planned to deliver an attack during the late morning.

A steady downpour preceded the artillery duel during the morning of Sunday, May 15. Breckinridge displayed great skill in handling his troops numbering less than 5,000. After marching and countermarching them to increase their numbers in the eyes of the enemy, he arranged them in three echelons, the cadet corps being placed in the rear echelon as reserves.

In the morning skirmishes, the advance Federal troops were dislodged and forced to take up a new and stronger position on the narrow neck between the Shenandoah River and Smith's Creek about a mile north of New Market. Before the afternoon's encounter, Sigel was able to bring up most of his men.

The skies were still overcast when the Confederates began their advance at 2 o'clock. The whole line went forward. Federal artillery caught the exact range of the cadets who were still being held as reserves. Here they received their baptism of blood as shells burst among them causing several casualties. Great gaps were torn in their ranks, but discipline was maintained as they closed in to the center to fill the vacant files. They preserved their perfect alignment for more than half a mile, until they halted at the bottom of a hill while the veteran troops assaulted the enemy lines.

In the fierce fighting on the right of the Confederate line, which extended about three-quarters of a mile from flank to flank, the Federal left was gradually turned. But the Confederate left and center, behind which the cadet corps was posted as reserves, met with stiffer opposition. Again and again they charged, and each time they were repulsed. The whole left wing began to waver.

This left wing was separated from the center by a ridge. During most of the fighting, these two divisions of the Confederate line were hidden from each other's sight. The Fifty-first Virginia Regiment on the extreme left met with a galling fire and was forced to draw back. Some of the men from this regiment began to retreat in confusion and a general stampede through the Twenty-sixth Virginia Battalion, which was immediately behind the Fifty-first, threatened. Colonel Edgar, in charge of the Twenty-sixth, ordered his officers a few paces to the rear of the battalion, and there stopped the retreat.

In the meantime, just to the right of the ridge, the Confederate center -- composed of the Sixty-second Virginia Regiment, a part of the Fifty-first, the Thirtieth Virginia Battalion, and the cadet corps as reserves -- was at a standstill. The Sixty-second had charged the infantry line of the enemy, but had been repulsed. As they fell back, a gap between them and the Fifty-first developed.

Here the Federals believed that the Confederates were demoralized and too badly shaken to offer stout resistance to an advance on their part. The tide of battle seemed in their favor. Sigel ordered a countercharge. He hoped to drive a wedge in that gap between the Sixty-second and the Fifty-first.

But the Confederates were not demoralized. Instead, they had for the most part recovered from their earlier confusion and were preparing to renew the attack when the Federal countercharge began. The gap through which the wedge was to be driven did not remain open. The cadet corps in the course of a brilliant movement filled the breach. They were in the van of the front line when the Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania, the First West Virginia and the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts swept down the slope toward the Confederates.

Partially sheltered behind a worm fence, the cadets bore the brunt of the Thirty-fourth's charge and by splendid fighting helped turn the enemy back in confusion. It was at this critical point that the superb conduct of the cadets made its greatest contribution to the Confederate victory. The Thirty-fourth had charged down the slope very near to the corps' scanty protection, but the cadets had stuck to their post and poured a terrific musket fire into the enemy ranks.

Inadequately sheltered behind the fence, the corps was in a perilous position. Captain Henry Wise, who had assumed command when Colonel Scott Ship, commandant of the cadets, had fallen, realized that they must either advance or fall back. He made his decision instantly. At his command to "get up from here and give the Yankees hell," the cadets rose as a man, got over the fence, and charged through the miry fields straight toward Van Kleiser's battery in the Bushong orchard. It was here that they suffered their severest losses.

 

The painting of the cadets' charge which was done by B. West Clinedinst

 

The cadets' charge was begun about the same time as a general advance all along the Confederate line. The batteries on the Bushong hill were being limbered preparatory to withdrawal, and the retreat of the Federal troops was begun. Moving forward simultaneously from different places, the Twenty-sixth, the Fifty-first and the cadet corps converged on the site of Von Kleiser's battery which was rapidly being withdrawn.

The veteran troops pursued the fleeing infantry while the cadets disabled the horses of those guns which were not yet limbered. One of the cadets hammered a gunner over the head with his sabre while another outran a soldier and lunged his bayonet through him. The color bearer stood wildly waving the tattered colors from the top of a caisson.

It is natural that the three commands which converged on Von Kleiser's battery should claim the honor of capturing it. But the battery was not captured, because most of it escaped before the charge was made. The cadets undoubtedly took one of Von Kleiser's guns, but not all of that or any other battery, as incautious writers have stated.

Edward R. Turner, former professor of history at the University of Michigan, who worked for nearly 20 years in studying the New Market engagement and in penetrating through the vast amount of conflicting material concerning the battle stated in his book, "The New Market Campaign":

"This charge of the cadets upon the Federal position at New Market is one of the most remarkable episodes of the War Between the States, or, indeed, of any war. That a body of youths, ranging in age from 14 to 20 should conduct themselves well in battle would in itself have been sufficiently creditable. But that in the first battle in which they had ever served they should do what they did is almost beyond belief. That called from the quiet seclusion of a military school they should have endured long, fatiguing marches for three days over muddy roads and miry fields; that wearied with their journey and yet roused from their sleep on the night before the battle and sent onward they should have chafed at being held in sheltered position, and insisted on pressing forward into the front and central part of the battle; that they should have borne their part steadily; that they should have stood their ground under a withering fire when veteran regiments were hard pressed; and that finally in the crisis of the struggle they should have met the shock of the enemy unmoved; all these facts are as astounding as they are true. The Battle of New Market was a small battle, and relatively speaking, the cadet battalion was a mere handful; but what these boys did is comparable with what older troops have done n some of the most famous battles in the world. It may be that the words of incautious admirers have served to cast doubt upon their exploits. They did not rally the Confederate army, nor stem a rout, nor capture unaided a powerful battery under impossible circumstances. But at a critical moment they did conduct themselves in a manner beyond all praise, and what they did had much to do with determining the issue of the battle.

 

A view of dress parage at VMI

 

 


Entrance, V. M. I

 

 

The statue of General Stonewall Jackson overlooks the parade ground

 

 






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