“Those are cadet uniforms,” I thought while sorting through thumbnail files of digitized Civil War images on Library of Congress’s website. It was not at all what I was looking for at the moment, but I bookmarked the page to come back after work hours.
Where they Virginia Military Institute (VMI) uniforms or another military academy? And who was the girl? I didn’t remember seeing the photos when I had been looking for photos for Call Out The Cadets, so I couldn’t wait to find out if they were “New Market Cadets.”
According to the records the cadets were from VMI, and they are Cadet Privates John James Audubon Powell and Van Franklin Garrett. They marched in Company B of the Corps of Cadets, and both were on the field at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864.
John James Audubon Powell, born on September 23, 1846, was seventeen at the time of the battle and grew up in Henrico County, near Yellow Tavern. Prior to his enrollment at VMI, Powell had attended Roanoke College and volunteered to guard New River Bridge which was an important point on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. He arrived at VMI on February 19, 1864 and stayed with the corps of cadets until February 22, 1865. Powell joined Mosby’s Rangers for the final weeks of the Civil War. In the post-war years, he practiced law and eventually became mayor of Wytheville, Virginia. Powell married Annie S. Jones in 1871 and had six children. He died on October 24, 1930.
Van Franklin Garrett arrived at VMI on April 22, 1863, joining his older brother, Henry Winder Garrett, at the military academy. Van Franklin was born on July 31, 1846, and grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia. He stayed with the Corps of Cadets until his resignation on January 25, 1865, when he left to join a Confederate field unit. After the war, Garrett studied medicine and natural sciences, working as a doctor and later teaching chemistry at the College of William and Mary until his death on November 19, 1932. He married Harriet Guion and they had four children.
In the popular battle primary sources, Powell and Garrett’s names don’t appear conspicuously, though Henry Garrett (older brother) was credited with saving Cadet Hanna’s life. They seem to have escape New Market without wounds, or at least with unreported injuries.
Garrett left a mention of New Market and Confederate General John C. Breckinridge in a 1909 letter:
And when I passed through Greensboro, N.C. [after the fall of Richmond in 1865], I hear that President Davis and General Breckinridge had their headquarters there. And I called on General Breckinridge to ask his advice and assistance as to what I should do. When I told him that I was a cadet and had been under his command at New Market, he was very kind and fatherly to me, and in parting with me said, “give my thanks to your fellow-cadets wherever you meet them and tell them from me that they won the day for us at New Market.”
So the young men are cadets in VMI uniforms, and they fought at the Battle of New Market. It’s probably that their portrait was created in 1864. But who is the girl?
She is listed as unidentified in the library’s notes. I think she might be the sister of the cadet on the left? There’s a similarity in their facial features that looks like they might be family.
According to the 1860 Census, Powell had a sister named Blanche who would have been about fifteen in 1864. I would guess that the girl is in her mid-teens, so there’s some possibility there.
The Garrett brothers had some sisters, too. Charlotte, Mary, and Susan are listed on the 1860 census, and in 1864, they would have been around fifteen, thirteen, and eleven, respectively. Could it be Charlotte?
Of course, there’s no indication or guarantee that the girl is one of the cadets’ sisters. It might be a cousin or a sweetheart. I’ve tried searching both fifteen-year-old sisters on Ancestry.com to see if other photos came up easily. No luck thus far and with the time I had to invest in the project at the moment.
I’m thrilled to find an image with two more identified cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market and a little disappointed I missed them until now. (Maybe it’s the search algorithm in that searchable catalog.) The unidentified young woman reminds me of the constant challenge of researching civilians. Parts of the young men’s stories are traceable, but even her name is still unknown.
It’s a little reminder that everyone has a name and story. We just might not know the details yet.
Couper, Col. William. edited by Col. Keith E. Gibson. The Corps Forward: Biographical Sketches of the VMI Cadets who Fought in the Battle of New Market. The Virginia Military Institute Museum, 2005.