They were merely boys, some just old enough to shave for the first time. The youngest was 15, the oldest 24.
General John Cabell Breckenridge was adamant: the “boys” from the Virginia Military Institute would only be used as reinforcements and only, only in the most desperate of conditions.
257 young men, some hailing from the most prestigious families in the Old Dominion and the Confederacy, had marched approximately 80 miles.
On May 15, near the upper Shenandoah Valley town of New Market, the “Keydets” from VMI would, as one of their late former professors had said on another battlefield, “be heard from today.”
The Battle of New Market erupted on May 15, 1864, fought between the invading Union force, under Major General Franz Sigel and a hodgepodge force under General Breckenridge, the former vice president of the United States.
Sigel’s goal was to take the Valley; the goal of Breckenridge was to stop the latest Union thrust.
The cadets at VMI found themselves protecting home, hearth, and school.
When a gap opened in the Confederate lines, Breckenridge realized that the only force available was the VMI cadets.
He turned toward an aide and issued the following command;
“Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.”
The charge of the VMI cadets remains the most noticeable feature of the Battle of New Market. With rain pouring the cadets broke the charge of the 34th Massachusetts Regiment and then advanced themselves in attack.
When the day ended, 10 cadets had been killed and/or mortally wounded. Another 48 suffered wounds.
Now, 150 years later, you can walk the same grounds, as the cadets, as the battlefield is now a state historical park while the museum is run by VMI.
And every year, VMI cadets, come back to New Market, and learn the proud tradition, that was earned in blood on May 15, 1864.
* * *
Although a Confederate victory that forced Sigel’s forces to retire, the fighting had just begun during the 1864 campaigning season. This battle would claim another 1,300 casualties out of roughly 10,000 engaged.
A re-supplied and improved Union force, under Major General David Hunter would be the next Union force to strike up the Valley (in Shenandoah Valley geography, “down the Valley” is South and “up the Valley” is North).
One of the stops Hunter’s army would make would be at VMI; where the torch was applied to the campus on June 11th.
Hunter then marched off to his own demise, at the Battle of Lynchburg fought approximately week later.
*Special thanks to Dan Davis, who contributed graciously to this blog post*
For more information on The Battle of New Market:
“Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Campaign, May 1864” by Charles Knight
New Market State Historical Park, New Market, VA