Remember what you ate for breakfast on Wednesday two weeks ago? And if you remember the meal, what time did you pour the cereal, turn on the stove, or place your order? Memory and remembering can be challenging. However, it is a crucial part of history and the creation of historiography. The history of New Market’s battle and different units’ roles in the fight became the subjects of debate and some emphatic wars of words as veterans tried to remember what really happened on that rainy May 15, 1864.
The retelling of the battle of New Market began nearly after the battle ended. On May 17, Union general Franz Sigel hastily composed his first detailed account of the fight in his report for his superiors. Quick to avoid reporting the entire truth, Sigel’s version of the battle still did not save his army command or reputation.
In the following weeks and months, other officers on both sides wrote their reports of the battle, including John C. Breckinridge. When the Official Records of the War Between the States were compiled and published, multiple reports from New Market appeared, along with a stack of official correspondence between the commanders, their subordinates, and their superiors. With the official records set and printed, the battle of New Market could have slipped into the pages of history and simply remained an important, but small scale battle—like many others in Civil War history.
However, New Market had storytellers like no others. The battle had made significant impact on the Virginia Military Institute Cadets who had been called out to join Confederate General John C. Breckinridge’s army. They never forgot the fight, and they wanted their descendants and others who would remember and study Civil War history to know the role they had played in the Southern victory at New Market. Many believed that without the cadets’ charge and ability to fill the gap in Breckinridge’s line, the Confederates would not have won that victory.
By the 1890’s, the boys who had been cadets during the battle of New Market were middle-age men. That era saw a growth of interest in the past conflict as a spirit of revived reconciliation and revered remembrances swept through the country and gained strength in the South. Monuments sprang up as attempts to immortalize Confederate leaders or promote more sinister agendas. In 1893, a publication known as the Confederate Veteran Magazine started and continued its original distribution until 1932. The magazine featured articles about the Confederacy, battles, commanders, fundraising for statues, political reminiscences or advice, and debates about what really happened at important points during the conflict. By 1900, over 20,000 subscribers read the magazine, and many were active in various efforts to remember their part in the Civil War.
The battle of New Market appeared on the pages of the Confederate Veteran Magazine, and it did not take long for former cadets to enter a debate concerning how many cannons they actually captured, how long they remained under fire, and a host of other important questions for the history record.
Realizing that the Confederate Veteran Magazine could not devote itself as a regular column of New Market related debates, Benjamin Colonna—called “Duck” by his comrades in his cadet days—started reaching out to all the veteran cadets he could contact, asking them to write to him with their memories of the battle. Additionally, Colonna who had worked as a civil engineer spent hours working on a comprehensive map of the battle with important landmarks and troop positions. Colonna continued his efforts for years, corresponding with veteran cadets, then reaching out to brigade commanders, regimental officers, and common soldiers who had stood on both sides of the field at New Market. He asked them to help clarify details about the battle. He asked them to identify their unit’s position and to correct his map. He asked if they remembered what time key moments at New Market occurred.
Colonna’s correspondence—much of it addressed to “my dear captain”, his cadet rank during the battle—created files of primary source documents about the battle. Certainly, some of the writers had difficulty remembering the precise details, yet most genuinely cared about the attempt to set a clear historical record.
Veteran reunions at New Market for monument dedications and battle anniversary commemorations offered further opportunities to keep the story of the VMI Cadets and their charge into history alive. Some of the veterans flirted with exaggeration as they remembered that pivotal moment in their lives and gloried in the memory. Others relentlessly pursued the truth of the battle.
In 1912, Edward Raymond Turner published a book about the campaign and battle of New Market. This history professor from University of Michigan desired to present the battle with accuracy and accomplished his mission quite well with the resources available to him. He had corresponded with Colonna and other veterans about the fight and tried to do justice to the bravery on both sides.
Unfortunately, Turner and his book got a cold shoulder from the VMI veterans after they read the printed copies. Somehow in their memories, their part in the battle was certainly more than Turner had credited. Ruffled, they went on the letter writing rampage, seeking to clarify their narrative and ensure that their role would never be devalued or forgotten.
Partly in response to Turner’s work, Jennings C. Wise’s volumes The Military History of the Virginia Military Institute from 1839 to 1865 hit the shelves in 1915 with an introduction filled with unveiled hinting that a certain professor from up north had little business distorting the story of VMI and its cadets during the Civil War.
The veteran cadets fought on, trying to ensure that their achievements would always be properly recognized and remembered. Their efforts, the letters they sent to each other, the articles they wrote for the magazines, and the collection of archival material they produced ensured that their memories and their voices would be remembered.
Since VMI continues as a military academy steeped in tradition and well-aware of the 1864 cadets’ actions, the Corps of Cadets have their place in New Market history. VMI and its alumni have worked tirelessly to preserve portions of the battlefield as both a memorial and point of inspiration for each new class of cadets.
In some ways, it can be argued that the veteran cadets won the memory war. Their academy holds the keys to prime tracts of the battlefield and the large archival collection related to the battle. In other ways, that exact memory war stated by Confederate veterans and expanded as the years went on to include Yankees and a certain professor who had made a truly noble effort to explain New Market created a victory of information. In the archives at VMI, fading inked and penciled words record the remembrances of the men who wore gray, blue, and cadet gray at the battle. The boxes and files of letters, sketches, map drafts, and essays are memories of that conflict.
Just as it is difficult to remember the details of breakfast two weeks ago, sometimes these battle accounts need to be inspected carefully, compared against each other, checked on the topography, and considered objectively. Memories fade or aspects of truth can become overemphasized as time goes on, and these must be accounted for when working with war reminiscence written decades after the conflict. Still, there is nothing like studying a battle in the words of the soldiers who were really there.
Two particular reasons the battle of New Market did not slip into obscurity: VMI continued as a military school, proud of its tradition and heritage, and the cadet veterans wanted to define and remember the battle that changed their lives. Through those reasons, the history of the battle had to be remembered, recorded, and known. As the battle participants—in their older years—made hearty and successful efforts to immortalize their school and their comrades, they also brought other voices into the chorus, ensuring even their enemies from 1864 also had a say in the history.
The confusion, the rain, the falling comrades, and the moments of realized victory come through clearly in the stacks of primary sources collected through the memory war.