New Market, Virginia is still a small Valley town. It has a population of 1,859 as of July 2009. The town bills itself as the historic heart of the Shenandoah Valley with a preserved downtown on VSH 11. New Market is located at exit 264 on I-81, the main north-south highway in the Valley. I-81 bisects the town with the business district to the east and the battlefield to the west. The entrance to the battlefield is on the right side as your heading west on 211.
The battlefield part is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the Virginia Military Institute. The main buildings are about a mile off the road. You will pass a museum that is not part of the battlefield site before you reach the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. Park and enter to pay your admission fee of $10 before your self-guided tour of the museum and battlefield site itself. The museum supplies an annotated map of the entire battlefield with drawings and explanations of significant parts of the battle. The Hall of Valor Civil War Museum is well-done, informative and chock-full of Civil War memorabilia, particularly from Virginia. There is an excellent movie about the VMI cadets’ part in the battle called Field of Lost Shoes.
The Jacob Bushong Farm about a half mile northeast of the museum is accessible by either a walking trail or driving. In fact, there is an extensive walking trail that will take you to all of the main sites of the park. The farm with a number of outbuildings is well-preserved and informative with both audio and written descriptions of farm life in the mid-19th century. The cellar of the farmhouse where the Bushong family took refuge during the battle is accessible to the public as are rooms on the first and second floors. You are also able to visit a number of outbuildings surrounding the main house. The wheelwright building and the blacksmith building have audio explanations of each craft. The Bushongs used both of these buildings to fashion wagon wheels and metal tools and equipment. The open fields to the west and north are probably like they were in 1864.
They are a number of cannons located around the field indicating the locations of different batteries during the battle. The battlefield is bisected north and south by I-81. If you wish to visit the east side of the battlefield you can either drive over or if you’re walking go through the tunnel on the highway. The only significant site on this side of the battlefield is a large monument dedicated to the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry. This regiment had a 45% casualty rate in the battle with 32 men killed, 180 wounded and 42 captured.
You should allow two to three hours for you visit to the New Market Battlefield in order to explore the museum and the grounds. The museum shop offers many items for all ages of visitors including hats, books and a variety of memorabilia.
In honor of the VMI cadets who were killed at New Market, the Cadet Corps holds a special ceremony every May 15th at VMI. As the name of each fallen cadet is called, a cadet in the formation will answer: “Died on the Field of Honor, Sir”. The ceremony is held at VMI in Lexington, Virginia in front of the monument entitled Virginia Mourning her Dead.
The Battle of New Market took place on May 15, 1864. New Market, Virginia was a small market crossroads in the central Shenandoah Valley. By this time in the war the South was reeling from a number of shattering defeats. On the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains Ulysses S. Grant’s armies were relentlessly pursuing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
New Market was distinguished by the charge of the cadets from Virginia Military Institute. The Confederate forces, led by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, were small in numbers with between 4,000 and 4,500 men. Breckenridge needed as many men (or boys) that he could collect so he asked the Commandant at VMI to dispatch the Cadet Corps to join his army. The cadets marched some 81 miles in four days to join the Confederate forces on the eve of the battle. The Corps was led by 24-year old Col. Scott Shipp and consisted of 257 cadets, some as young as 15 years of age. Breckenridge intended to use the cadets as a reserve force behind his main line.
The Federal force was led by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel who commanded a total force of 6,500 at New Market. Grant’s original intent was to have Sigel draw off Confederate forces from Lee’s army in central Virginia by threatening the Confederate breadbasket of the Valley. Sigel was a politician who even though he was only in this country for ten years was a favorite of Lincoln’s because he could deliver votes from the German immigrant community for President Lincoln in the upcoming election.
Opposing him was Breckenridge, a Kentuckian, who had been the youngest Vice President of the United States under James Buchanan and came in second (of four) against Lincoln in the 1860 Presidential election. He also served in the House and the Senate. Breckenridge led Kentucky’s “Orphan Brigade”, a unit that could never go home since their state had remained in the Union. Breckenridge had been a commander in the Western Theater who had distinguished himself on the field of battle. He turned out that the politician was a fair commander, too. An antipathy between Braxton Bragg, the Army of Tennessee commander, and Breckenridge led to his transfer to the Eastern Theater where he was put in charge of Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley.
Sigel’s forces began their march down the Valley in early May 1864. Breckenridge began to collect his forces at Staunton, some 35 miles south of New Market. Breckenridge moved his forces north with the intention of bringing the Federal forces to battle. They met at New Market on May 15th in a drenching rain. The Confederate infantry brushed aside Federal skirmishers about a mile south of the Jacob Bushong Farm. They engaged the main Federal force with rifle and cannon fire about a mile north of the farm. The Federals using double grape and canister (essentially the cannons acted like giant shotguns) tore huge holes in the Confederate lines. At this point Breckenridge was forced to use the Cadets to plug a huge gap in his line. “Put the boys in,” Breckinridge ordered, “and may God forgive me for the order …” Col. Shipp ordered his Cadet Corps to advance. They split their force as they went to either side of the Bushong Farm, two companies to the east and two to the west. The fire was intense and cadets began to fall. They took cover to protect themselves, behind anything that would shield them from the enemy’s fire, tree stumps, rail fences, trees.
Sigel, realizing that the Confederates were disorganized, ordered a counterattack. It lurched forward and was ineffective. The counterattack failed and Sigel ordered his artillery to withdraw. The reduction of the Federal artillery fire encouraged Breckenridge. He ordered his infantry to advance against the Federal line. They moved across a rain-soaked wheat field that was later renamed the Field of Lost Shoes by one of the cadets. Many of the soldiers and cadets had the shoes literally sucked off their feet by the thick mud. The Federal line broke under the pressure and the Confederates swept over the position. General Sigel ordered his forces to retreat to Strasburg. An artillery battery commanded by Captain Henry A. DuPont covered the Federal retreat. Captain DuPont was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. On May 15th he simply saved his comrades from utter defeat.
The Battle of New Market was a small battle based on the slightly under 11,000 total soldiers engaged. Casualties totaled 1,380 total (840 Federals, 540 Confederates) killed, wounded, captured. The VMI Cadet Corps lost 10 killed, 45 wounded; a 23% casualty rate. The next month the Federals got their revenge on VMI by burning the school to the ground. It would not reopen until 1866 and it would take five years to recover.
Franz Sigel was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter as commander of the Army of the Shenandoah and the Department of West Virginia on May 21, 1864. Grant ordered Hunter to employ scorched earth tactics similar to those that would be used later in that year during Sherman’s March to the Sea; he was to move through Staunton to Charlottesville and Lynchburg, “living off the country” and destroying the Virginia Central Railroad “beyond possibility of repair for weeks.”