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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

The Battle of New Market

When Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of all Federal armies in March 1864, he endeavored to strategize a cohesive war effort. While Grant’s main objective was defeating Robert E. Lee, he coordinated simultaneous campaigns across multiple fronts to exploit the Confederacy’s lack of manpower. General William Tecumseh Sherman levied his Military Division of the Mississippi against Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in Georgia while three major Union forces operated in Virginia: Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac shadowed Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler’s Army of the James threatened Richmond and Petersburg from Fort Monroe, and Major General Franz Sigel’s Department of West Virginia invaded the Shenandoah Valley. Sigel’s assignment was largely diversionary but nonetheless strategic, as control of the Valley would deprive the Confederacy of its most crucial agricultural producer and provide Union raiders opportunity to strike against lead and salt mines in southwest Virginia.



On April 29, Sigel mobilized his 10,000-man army from Martinsburg, West Virginia, into the Shenandoah Valley. His force consisted of one infantry division under Brigadier General Jeremiah Sullivan, one cavalry division under Major General Julius Stahel, and five artillery batteries totaling 48 guns. Union troops faced little opposition during their initial procession up the valley, although torrential rains impeded their advance. On May 1, Sigel reached Winchester, Virginia, where his army remained for more than a week. During that time, Sigel routinely drilled his army and pitched mock battles in full view of Confederate scouts.


Major General John C. Breckinridge was charged by General Lee to protect the Shenandoah Valley’s assets and resources. Despite having no formal army command, Breckinridge consolidated several capable brigades to challenge Sigel’s advance: General John D. Imboden’s Valley District Cavalry, two infantry battalions under Gabriel Wharton and John Echols, and three batteries totaling sixteen cannons. The ragtag rebel army mustered in Staunton, numbering just over 4,000 troops. Acutely undermanned, Breckinridge summoned the Virginia Military Institute’s Corps of Cadets—257 students (aged 15 – 24 years) under command of Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp—to assist in the Valley’s defense.


On May 5, Captain John McNeill’s Confederate partisans raided the B&O Railroad stations at Piedmont and Bloomington, West Virginia, destroying several locomotives, machine shops, and nearly sixty railcars. Sigel responded by sending five hundred troopers of the 15th New York and 22nd Pennsylvania cavalries under Colonel Jacob Higgins to retaliate against the southern agitators. McNeill’s guerillas were scattered after a brief skirmish at Moorefield on May 8; however, the Union horsemen were ambushed the following day by Imboden’s 18th and 23rd Virginia cavalries at Lost River Gap—a running engagement that effectively dispelled Higgins’s division from Sigel’s Valley Campaign.


On May 11, Sigel’s army occupied the town of Woodstock. There, Union operatives intercepted several telegraph messages detailing Breckinridge’s strength and whereabouts. Despite this valuable intelligence, the pedantic Sigel proceeded with caution. He dispatched Colonel William Henry Boyd, who commanded two hundred men of the 1st New York Cavalry, to scout Massanutten Mountain and secure Luray Gap—the only direct route connecting central Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley—before rejoining the main army at New Market.


When Boyd’s command crested Massanutten Mountain on May 13, they witnessed a large military presence holding the Valley Turnpike below. Boyd precipitously concluded that they belonged to Sigel’s army; however, given their antithetical defensive positions—facing north rather than south—several of Boyd’s subordinates expressed reasonable skepticism. To quell any concerns, the reluctant cavalry chief sent out a scouting party led by Lieutenant Edwin A. New to discover who exactly occupied the Valley.



What Boyd had observed was, in fact, General Imboden’s Brigade, whose pickets easily spotted the Union column ambling about Massanutten Mountain. The Confederates concealed themselves around Smith’s Creek and waylaid New’s detachment as they approached. The unwary New Yorkers hastily withdrew up the mountain, only to encounter Boyd’s remaining command descending its slope. As the Federal cavalry’s full strength emerged from the woods, Captain John McClanahan’s Confederate artillery unleashed a terrible canister volley that decimated Boyd’s regiment. The 1st New York lost 125 men while the rebels recorded only 29 casualties during this fatal confrontation. Over the course of five days, Imboden had eradicated one-third of Sigel’s cavalry, crippling the reconnaissance capabilities of the Union army. Boyd’s failed detail was an exemplification of several reckless detachments authorized during Sigel’s campaign that ultimately reduced Federal manpower by nearly three thousand troops.


On May 14, Colonel Augustus Moor—commanding 2,300 soldiers of Sigel’s advance guard—encountered Imboden’s defenses at Mt. Jackson. Though heavily outnumbered, the Confederates delivered pressing resistance as they tactically retreated four miles south into New Market. Imboden maintained possession of the town until midnight, then withdrew to reconvene with the main Confederate army at Shirley’s Hill. Moor’s Federals promptly occupied New Market, established fieldworks on nearby Manor’s Hill, and anxiously awaited reinforcements.


THE BATTLE OF NEW MARKET: MAY 15, 1864


“The Yankee gunners had gotten the exact range…with fearful accuracy. Great gaps were made through

the ranks, but the cadet, true to his discipline, would…fill the interval and push steadily forward.”


– Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp, commander of the VMI Corps of Cadets


Dueling artillery fire emulated the sounds of approaching thunderclouds as piecemeal Federal forces streamed into New Market. While the accumulating Union army exhibited little inclination to attack, Breckinridge embraced the offensive. At 11 am, three lines of Confederate infantry advanced in echelon towards Manor’s Hill. The first waves dashed down Shirley’s Hill and avoided much of the Federal artillery fire. The inexperienced VMI cadets, in contrast, part of Breckinridge’s reserve guard, marched down the hillside in drill-field formation, providing an opportune target for Union gunners. Five cadets were wounded by shrapnel during this preliminary action.


When General Sigel arrived on the field shortly after noon, the Confederates had pushed Moor’s comingled regiments off of Manor’s Hill. The Union commander hastily established a new defensive line on Bushong Hill (about one mile north of Moor’s original position), where his flanks were protected by the Shenandoah River and swells of Smith’s Creek. Moor’s command disengaged and expeditiously withdrew, capitulating New Market to the Confederates.



By 2 pm, the Confederate advance had stalled against Sigel’s newly established line. Breckinridge’s center—manned by the 30th and 51st Virginia infantry battalions—was especially devastated by concentrated artillery, creating a sizeable gap between his flanks. With all other regiments fully engaged, Breckinridge reluctantly ordered the VMI Corps of Cadets to the frontlines. As the cadets approached the Bushong House, they were subjected to “a terrible fire of artillery,” resulting in dozens of casualties, including several deaths. Undaunted by the brutality of war, the cadets closed their ranks and pressed onward, reforming their lines approximately three hundred yards from the Federal artillery. They bunkered down behind a fence and exchanged fire with Union soldiers for nearly fifteen minutes, during which time Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp was severely wounded and Captain Henry A. Wise took command.


Sensing confusion and discomfiture from the Confederate line, Sigel ordered a counterattack; however, his orders were vaguely dictated and poorly executed by his subordinates. Instead of assaulting the imperiled Confederate center, Union skirmishers mobilized against Breckinridge’s strong right flank in lumbering fashion. Stahel’s Federal cavalry were the first to engage. Canister shot from Southern cannons inflicted significant casualties among their ranks, effectively eliminating Stahel’s command for the remainder of the battle. Sigel’s infantry—the 54th Pennsylvania, 34th Massachusetts, and 1st West Virginia—lurched forward around 3 pm, only to be rebuffed by unrelenting rebel gunfire.


Sigel began withdrawing his artillery after witnessing his failed counterattack. Breckinridge—recognizing the shift in momentum—ordered a general advance. The VMI cadets and 62nd Virginia infantry carried the Confederate center. With fixed bayonets, the Virginians ferociously pressed forward through muddy wheat fields and assailed the guns of Captain Alfred von Kleiser’s 30th New York Battery, seizing one cannon and capturing eighty prisoners.


The overwhelming Confederate charge forced Sigel to retreat, which nearly turned into a rout as Federal soldiers fled for safety along the Valley Pike. As the Union line collapsed, rear elements of Sigel’s army began to arrive. Captain Henry A. DuPont’s Battery of the 5th U.S. Artillery deployed itself on Rude’s Hill (two miles north of New Market) and successfully slowed the Confederate press, allowing Sigel to safely withdraw across the Shenandoah River to Mt. Jackson. DuPont’s troops subsequently burned the bridge after crossing around 7 pm, thus ending any chance of a timely Confederate counteroffensive. Official casualty figures from the confrontation report 841 Union and 531 Confederate dead, wounded, and missing.



The Battle of New Market resulted in a stunning Confederate victory that momentarily neutralized Union operations in the Shenandoah Valley. General John Breckinridge’s masterful performance as a military tactician preserved the Breadbasket of the Confederacy and allowed his command to maneuver east and support Lee’s defense of Richmond. Conversely, General Franz Sigel displayed unwarranted caution, lackadaisical combat preparation, and logistical ineptitude that ultimately cost him the battle and his command. Sigel was replaced by Major General David Hunter on May 21, 1864.


While the VMI Corps of Cadets constituted one the smallest Confederate units at New Market, they suffered a disproportionately high casualty rate. Of the 257 cadets active in battle, 45 were injured while an additional ten were either killed outright or mortally wounded:


Cadet Corporal Samuel F. Atwill (Age 18) – Died of wounds July 20, 1864

Cadet First Sergeant William H. Cabell (Age 18) – Killed in action May 15, 1864

Cadet Private Charles G. Crockett (Age 17) – Killed in action May 15, 1864

Cadet Private Alva C. Hartsfield (Age 19) – Died of wounds June 26, 1864

Cadet Private Luther C. Haynes (Age 19) – Died of wounds June 15, 1864

Cadet Private Thomas G. Jefferson (Age 17) – Died of wounds May 18, 1864

Cadet Private Henry J. Jones (Age 17) – Killed in action May 15, 1864

Cadet Private William H. McDowell (Age 17) – Killed in action May 15, 1864

Cadet Private J. Beverly Stanard (Age 19) – Killed in action May 15, 1864

Cadet Private Joseph C. Wheelwright (Age 17) – Died of wounds June 2, 1864


Since 1887, VMI’s graduating class has commemorated the Battle of New Market with a solemn ceremony honoring the legacy and sacrifice of their fallen comrades. The Corps of Cadets assembles in full dress review while the school’s Commandant reads off the ten cadets killed at New Market. To each name, a student representative replies, “Died on the Field of Honor, Sir.” A three-volley salute concludes the Roll of Honor. With “Taps” playing in the background, ten wreaths are laid beneath ‘Virginia Mourning Her Dead’—a statue created by Moses Ezekiel, a world-renowned sculptor and VMI alumnus who fought at New Market—while the Corps passes by in reflective observance.


NEW MARKET BATTLEFIELD


The contemporary New Market Battlefield State Historical Park centers around Bushong Farm—the scene of the Confederacy’s decisive final charge. Guests are encouraged to first stop by the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, which houses some fascinating exhibits including the Kaminsky Civil War Firearms Gallery, Raeburn Civil War Art Gallery, and historical artifacts within the Virginia Room. Once outside, visitors may embark on the two-mile, self-guided tour of the battlefield.


The first stop is Bushong Farmstead, which miraculously survived the battle and remains one of the Shenandoah Valley’s most treasured historical landmarks. The Main House (c. 1825) belonged to three generations of the Bushong family at the time of battle and served as a field hospital immediately thereafter. Today, the house has been restored to its original mid-19th century appearance and contains several rooms depicting civilian life in the Valley and wartime medical care. There are several other outbuildings on the property to explore, including the original 1818 Farmhouse, Summer Kitchen, Wheelwright Shop, Bank Barn, and more. At the northeast corner of the property stands the Woodson Monument, which commemorates the 1st Missouri Cavalry—the only Missouri unit to serve in Virginia—which suffered 65% casualties during the battle, including the death of their commander Captain Charles Hugh Woodson. From the Bushong House, take the pedestrian tunnel underneath Interstate 81 to visit the eastern portion of the battlefield and 54th Pennsylvania Monument.



Continuing northward from the Bushong House, visitors trek through the “Field of Lost Shoes.” This epithet describes Bushong’s wheat field, so saturated with rainwater it turned into a muddy quagmire during the battle. Many cadets emerged without footwear after charging the Union line. A lone cannon marks the location of von Kleiser’s 30th New York Battery at the northern edge of the field. Several hundred yards to the left are two scenic views overlooking the North Fork Shenandoah River. In all, it should take 2-3 hours to explore the battlefield and its facilities.


The Battle of New Market distinguishes the dichotomous throes of war. The VMI Corps of Cadets answered the call to arms with dutiful enthusiasm and served with remarkable distinction on the battlefield—their gallantry lauded by Union and Confederate observers alike. However, with valor comes sacrifice. The Corps’ baptismal bloodshed washed away the glorified fervency and romanticism of war and revealed its indiscriminate, sobering consequences.



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