Symposium Spotlight: New Market Campaign

Welcome back to another entry in our continuing Symposium Spotlight series. Over the last several weeks our presenters have shared some of their research, themes, and insight into the “Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War” that they will be exploring. This week Sarah Kay Briele gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the forgotten aspects of the New Market Campaign.

You’ve read about the Battle of New Market and heard the stories about the Virginia Military Institute Cadets’ famous charge in the fight. But do you know how Union General Franz Sigel and Confederate General John Breckinridge struggled to get their armies to that fateful battlefield?

New Market’s result had far reaching effects, beyond the lives of the soldiers and the local history. The battle fit into the overall campaign and strategy that General U.S. Grant had prepared for the Union armies that year. The Union march into the Valley and raid through West Virginia that spring of 1864 unfolded at the same time as the Overland Campaign and other coordinated campaigns. However, the campaign and the pre-New Market battles, skirmishes, and maneuvers are usually glossed over in history texts which unfortunately fails to recognize the far-reaching implications of the failed Union campaign and final decisive Confederate victory in the Shenandoah Valley.

Union General Franz Sigel (Courtesy LOC)

It’s a generally accepted narrative that Union General Franz Sigel – a German American immigrant – inherited his new command almost by default since President Lincoln needed ethnic voters in the 1864 elections, but the cause and effects went deeper in the new Union leadership plans for the year. Though doubtful, Grant willingly gave Sigel a chance to prove his command worth.

Trouble began almost immediately when Sigel took command of the Department of West Virginia. Political wrangling, chain of command disasters, new brigade officers and staff, and unfamiliarity with war in the Shenandoah Valley presented plenty of challenges for the “Yankee Dutchman” even before the first Confederate raid.

Confederate General John D. Imboden’s cavalry, McNeil’s Partisans, and Mosby’s Raiders watched in glee as Sigel started his campaign confidently at the beginning of May and allowed his supply trains to extend unprotected across the lower valley. Conflicts erupted as Confederates probed, skirmished, and retreated around Sigel’s columns, creating trouble long before the army ever approached New Market Gap. The Southern tactics and weather delayed Sigel’s campaign long enough for General John C. Breckinridge to piecemeal a defensive army at Staunton and devise a strategy.

By May 13th and 14th, cavalries clashed near New Market, followed by infantry in a forgotten battle that set the stage for the dramatic moments in the “actual” Battle of New Market. For both sides the campaign and preliminary skirmishes shaped their tactics and strategy in Virginia in that immediate time and long term as commanders learned and revised their ways of fighting in the Shenandoah Valley.

Though New Market’s result and famous charge is well-known, the details, skirmishes, and campaigns effects have received less attention. Sarah Kay Bierle’s presentation at the 2019 Symposium will delve into the military campaign and actions prior to the arrival of the armies at New Market, fitting this Shenandoah Valley Campaign into the larger strategic picture of the Civil War in spring 1864 and helping to bring a series of lesser-known skirmishes and battles into accurate perspective.

You can find out more information about the 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium by clicking here. Don’t forget to take advantage of our special rate for hotel accommodations in the area!

2 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: New Market Campaign

  1. Having graduated from Centre College of Kentucky, Breckinridge’s alma mater, and gone on to Washington & Lee law in Lexington, home to VMI, I love this little campaign. Cannot wait to hear Sarah discuss it! It’s a shame Sigel just didn’t stick to the artillery, he actually showed what he could do with it at Pea Ridge.

  2. Other commitments will prevent me from attending the Symposium this year, which is too bad, since I would love to hear Sarah’s take on New Market.

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