I fits mit Sigel – New Market, May 15, 1864

There are certain figures in Civil War history who are always good for an easy laugh.

Braxton Bragg, on harmonious leadership.

George McClellan, concerning rapid movement.

Franz Sigel. On, well, most anything.

On May 15, 1864, Franz Sigel commanded a small Union army at the battle of New Market, Virginia. His roughly 5,000 troops faced off against a similarly sized force of Confederates under John C. Breckinridge, and by that afternoon, amidst thunderstorms and driving rain, Sigel’s Valley Army was soundly defeated. Sigel lost 841 men killed, wounded, or missing; Breckinridge’s total loss came to 531. Sigel’s men were driven from the field, falling back to Strasburg Virginia. The defeat cost Sigel his job. He was replaced by Union General David Hunter four days later, and assigned a rear-area command.

On the face of it, this seemed a fitting end. Sigel was widely considered a “political general,” owing his rank only to his influence among his fellow German immigrants, who earlier in the war flocked to German-American regiments in order to “fights mit Sigel.”

All that is true. But it is also worth noting that of all the generals assigned to operations in the Shenandoah Valley that summer, designed to support Union commander Ulysses S. Grant’s spring offensive against Lee, Sigel tried hardest to fulfill the objectives assigned him, and in many ways, accomplished exactly what Grant intended.

How can that be?

Grant’s plan of operations called for Sigel to lead a force south from Winchester Virginia in support of two other columns of Federals headed into the Shenandoah. The largest column, and the primary expedition into the Valley, was headed by George Crook. Crook’s column, nearly 15,000 infantry and cavalry, was ordered to march from West Virginia towards Saltville and Dublin, Virginia, and the New River Bridge. By striking at Saltville and destroying the bridge, Grant hoped Crook could cripple Robert E. Lee’s logistics. Crook was then to march north towards Lexington and Staunton, inflicting further damage. At Staunton, Crook was supposed to rendez-vous with another column under E. O. C. Ord, coming from Beverly, West Virginia; and Sigel’s column, which was supposed to resupply all forces.

General Crook

Grant breezily assumed that Sigel would have little more to do than tramp south along the Valley Turnpike, with Crook and Ord – both West Pointers and professionals – doing all the fighting. But Grant’s plan failed before it even got started when Ord, unhappy at serving under Sigel and dubious of the quality of the troops assigned him, hastily asked for a transfer on the eve of the campaign’s kick-off. Oddly, Grant acceded, though the departure threw all of the Department’s plans into disarray.

Major General Edward Ord (Library of Congress)

Despite the setback, Sigel combined Ord’s men into his own column and prepared to set off in early May. Crook also set out, and met with initial success at Cloyd’s Mountain, where he defeated a scratch Confederate force. A cavalry strike at Saltville failed, however, and when Crook found he could do little real damage against the New River Bridge, he lost his nerve. Fueled by reports that Lee had defeated Grant in the Wilderness, Crook abandoned the move down the Valley and retreated back into West Virginia – unbeknownst to Franz Sigel.

Early in the campaign, Sigel accomplished all that was expected of him, pushing his re-supply column south as far as Cedar Creek and drawing virtually all of the scant Confederate forces available in the Valley to oppose him – leaving a free hand for Crook to move on Staunton, had that officer not turned away.

On May 14, Sigel pushed farther south, as far as New Market, with an advanced guard. However, the German never intended to fight at New Market; he was still trying to draw Confederate General John C. Breckinridge farther north and farther away from Breckinridge’s own base and reinforcements.

That plan failed on May 15, when Sigel’s advanced guard commander, Col. Augustus Moor, disobeyed his instructions and gave battle. At mid-morning, Sigel sent his chief of staff and cavalry commander, Julius Stahel, to New Market bearing orders for the whole force to retreat. Since Breckinridge spent the morning trying to provoke Moor into attacking him, full battle had not yet been joined, and such a retreat was still possible – but Stahel also ignored Sigel’s orders. The result was the battle of New Market.

Sigel arrived on the field only after that action had begun, and his own efforts to withdraw his advanced line proved ineffective. Though the combatants were evenly matched, Federal mistakes handed the victory to Breckinridge, who clinched his triumph with a final charge that included the Cadet Battalion of the Virginia Military Institute, thereby enshrining the cadets in Civil War history.

Sigel was not an unacknowledged military genius. He certainly made his share of mistakes. But he also accomplished everything Grant intended for him, drawing Breckinridge 80 miles north of Staunton and leaving the path to that strategic town open for Crook’s larger force, had that officer not suddenly turned away. Ord’s unsoldierly behavior was even worse, throwing the entire plan into confusion at the last minute, fleeing responsibility lest any hint of blame for what he regarded as an impending disaster cling to him personally.

For his efforts, Sigel was relegated to a backwater, and ultimately resigned. Crook and Ord both went on to more significant commands in the last year of the war, their own contributions to the Valley Campaign’s failure glossed over or ignored outright.

Today New Market is a state park, and the VMI Corps of Cadets honors their fallen every year on May 15. I marched in four of those parades, which first sparked my own interest in the battle.

9 Responses to I fits mit Sigel – New Market, May 15, 1864

    1. Seconded. I’ve only skimmed thus far but have seen enough to conclude it will add significantly to the literature.

  1. Didn’t Crook actually burn the New River Bridge? The issue, in terms of long-term impact, was that the masonry piers could not be toppled, so it was possible to rebuild the bridge in about three weeks.

  2. I just watched a video of the annual VMI ceremony honoring the fallen at New Market “A Field of Honor” and found it to be an awesome event. I can’t imagine the feeling of history that a cadet must experience when he walks the halls of VMI. Thanks for sharing the story of Sigel.

  3. Great post, but I especially enjoyed your lead. Pulled me right in and gave me a chuckle, too.

  4. I enjoyed reading your post. I have great interest in General Ord since Im a docent at the Mission San Juan Bautista in California and he once visited the mission with W.T. Sherman before the Civil War. I think the post is very informative.

  5. Both this and the following blog on Sigel are excellent. FYI for those who haven’t seen it, “Field of Lost Shoes” about the battle from the perspective of the VMI students. I believe is still available on Netflix. Not the best CW film ever, but entertaining enough.

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