When I first set foot on the parade field at Virginia Military Institute two days after my fourteenth birthday, I had no idea that one day I would have the privilege to write about the Civil War era cadets who had marched the same fields and walked the same streets of Lexington. But on that trip, I fell in love with the Shenandoah Valley. Little did I know that the day in Lexington and the drive to Staunton (then east to Rockfish Gap and Monticello beyond) would instill a need to return.
It took years. And in some of those later years, I studied more about the Civil War in this region. I needed to go back and see Jackson and Sheridan’s battlegrounds. To find the house where Dr. McGuire grew up. It was on that long awaited trip in 2016 that I stumbled to New Market and discovered a new place and history that claimed my attention.
I knew I wanted to stop at New Market Battlefield, but I wasn’t really sure what I would find. It had been overcast and kind of rainy (it always seems to rain in my important “New Market moments” whether I’m in VA or CA), so I spent time in the museum – watching the documentary and checking out the displays. I was also trying to learn about the battle since I had arrived without much background knowledge on the fight. Somewhere, deep in my suitcase in the rental car, I had a copy of William C. Davis’s battle book, but I hadn’t had time to read it on the trip.
The skies cleared and armed with some battle knowledge and a touring map, I headed out into the hot, muggy afternoon. It was glorious! I think I was the only person out there that day, and I started across the fields toward the Bushong House.
By the time, I reached the split-rail fence at the north side of the orchard – which marks the VMI Cadets’ battle line position – I was getting a little emotional. Do you know the feeling of a hot summer’s day on a battlefield when you’re alone and you start choking? You not quite sure if it’s the heat or emotion, until your eyes are wet?
I crossed the field and examined the “gold cannon.” I wanted to climb on it. (I still want to climb on it.) But I didn’t want to get in trouble! So I looked and noticed and studied the field. No longer sad, but inspired. What had made the Cadets charge across this field and attack a battery? I climbed Bushong Hill to check out the other Union artillery guns, but missed the river overlooks which should be a must-see for battlefield visitors. Heading back, I found Woodson’s Missouri marker…and had to leave all too soon since the park was closing.
I left with more questions than answers. Who were the men who fought here? What were their personal stories? I needed details. I didn’t just want to know who died there, but who survived and how New Market changed them. I could sense that New Market was a place of change, maybe even a place of destiny.
I had plenty of time to think it over several days later when I spent about five hours on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. I had a lot on my mind that day and finally some quiet to think it all through. It had been quite a summer… One of my brothers had joined the military a few weeks earlier. We were very close, and I still adjusting to him being far away. I’d had an emotionally full summer of saying good-bye, watching him get on the bus for basic training, the lonely silent drive back to California, and writing letters to him before arriving in Virginia.
He was nineteen that year. The same age as some of the VMI Cadets at New Market on that fateful day in 1864. The same age as Jack Stanard who didn’t survive the battle. That was hard to process along with everything else that summer.
On the flight home from Virginia, I read Davis’s book about New Market. “If I was going to write another book…” kept running through my mind. Chris Mackowski had told me to think about writing one for the ECW Series, and I had protested that I lived to far away. But, I found myself planning research trips back to New Market…
I weighed the project, the work, the consequences, the rewards. In the end, I wrote a letter to myself. It ended with the words: “I will do it.” The following morning I signed the contract, asking for the next New Market book to go forward into the research and manuscript process at Savas Beatie with my name attached.
The last two and half years have been a journey. In some ways, it was not as hard as I had feared. In other ways, it pushed me to new limits. I do not regret the project for one moment and am so grateful to the wonderful historians who have encouraged and challenged me.
As I read and wrote about the cadets and other young soldiers who fought at New Market, photographs of my two brothers hung on the wall in front of my desk. When I felt lost or overwhelmed, I thought about the boys I knew so well. I thought about their modern courage and the leadership roles that they skillfully maneuvered through in these last years. There were similarities and differences between the Bierle boys and the Civil War boys, but in the end, the history helped me understand duty, courage, and letting go while my brothers helped me better understand the soldiers and cadets of ’64 and the Battle of New Market.
(You can bet that when the boxes of books arrived, I called my cadet brother at the United States Air Force Academy and then offered to take my youngest brother who’s still at home out for ice cream.)