Have you seen The Horse Soldiers? Have you seen the movie Field of Lost Shoes? Those are two common questions I get when I’m speaking about the Battle of New Market and my book, Call Out The Cadets. The answers are: yes and yes. Then the questioner usually tells me his or her opinion of the film or wants to know mine.
I figured out quickly in the research process that there are elements of New Market’s history that have been heavily influenced by these portrayals on the big screen, and this blog series offers a chance to reflect on the films and how they help or hinder the telling of the battle (and cadets’) actual history.
Released in 1959, this John Ford movie stars John Wayne, William Holden, and Constance Towers and is loosely based on Grierson’s Raid in Mississippi. Don’t take your history of Grierson’s Raid from this movie! But it’s an adventure story written for the screen, and I do find it entertaining and with some positive moments for a Civil War movie.
There’s a scene toward the end of The Horse Soldiers which depicts young cadets leaving “Jefferson Military Academy,” marching across an open field, and driving off John Wayne and his Yankees. The uniforms and holding a parade-type formation in battle certainly give a nod to the Virginia Military Institute Cadets, and I’ve had numerous people reference the scene as their impression of what happened at New Market.
Okay, let’s start with one of my major problems with the sequence: the cadets in The Horse Soldiers are very young. The oldest who is supposed to be the cadet commander is said to be sixteen. The others look like they are twelve-ish. Now, a movie director can do whatever he wants with ages and stories, but as a historian, I get problematic questions and interpretations because folks who’ve seen this and think it’s supposed to be the VMI Cadets already have the idea that there were a bunch of ten to fourteen-year-olds on Shirley’s Hill and in the Bushong Orchard. Erase that, please.
Just not true… The average age of a cadet at New Market was seventeen. The youngest (and there were only a handful) were fifteen while the oldest guys were in the early twenties. It doesn’t change the facts that these were young cadets or that their families thought they were safe and far from danger, but it does refocus the narrative when we realize that these young men were mostly in the range of soldier ages for Civil War armies. It helps us to better understand General Breckinridge’s difficult (but I believe correct) decision to put a young, trained military force into battle to stabilize his line.
I will give kudos to The Horse Soldiers for being an over-all entertaining film and for attempting to show pieces of cadet history, but honestly—at the core—the film sequence for the cadets reflects very little of that actual VMI or other Civil War military academy history. I don’t recommend it for perspective or interpretation on New Market or the Corps of Cadets.
I’ll just start by saying I like this film. Yes, I’ve been roasted by others within ECW for that opinion, but I’m still sticking by it. Here’s why:
Field of Lost Shoes (movie, not to be confused with an excellent documentary by the same name) offers a theatrical introduction to the Battle of New Market and the story of the VMI Cadets. And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s a movie that I have gifted to family and friends who are trying to figure out what I studied and wrote a book about, but who might not be interested in actually reading nonfiction pages. Some of the volunteers at New Market battlefield will tell you that they get visitors to the historic site because they saw the film and wanted to come see the place and learn more.
Yes, I watch the movie and get mad at a few things that gloss the historical account or just don’t portray the whole story very well. But, I still argue that the essence of the story of the cadets at New Market is well-depicted. Many of the scenes are based on John Wise’s writings about cadet life and the battle which is also an interesting take on the history.
I have some points that I would criticize the film, especially on the CGI topography which I find a little confusing when compared to the actual fields and a very-one sided portrayal of Union General Franz Sigel. But…I will grant that the movie is not about Sigel. Yes, there’s the danger of believing the cadets single-handedly won the Battle of New Market, but it’s also a film about those young men and mostly from their perspective. And then we could get really picky and list some other problems…
But, Field of Lost Shoes is a Civil War movie that I choose to watch and still enjoy. I may roll my eyes a couple of times, but I’ll chuckle at the funny parts and get a little choked-up in the scene when Breckinridge chats with the cadets—which is a brilliantly written scene, even if it never happened. And when my new friends (who are trying to figure out what I do as a historian and the type of stories I research) ask about New Market, this is the movie I will offer to loan them…with an offer for a follow-up discussion or trip to the battlefield to tell the parts of the history that didn’t make it in the movie.
If you haven’t seen either of these Civil War films, they are worth adding to your list for entertainment. And I think we all know: don’t take your history from movies! 😉 Books and archives still have a purpose.