Burying Their Friends: The VMI Cadets at New Market on May 17, 1864

Cadet William Cabell (VMI Archives Photographs Collection, 0002776)

It is quiet. The whispering hour of sunset fading into twilight. The traffic hums along on the adjacent Valley Pike, but the graveyard is silent. The dead I’ve come to remember aren’t actually here. Their bodies rest elsewhere—four in the shadow of Virginia Mourning Her Dead on the Virginia Military Institute Campus, the others in family plots and cemeteries. I’ve come alone to this place for those who still lived after the battle and for those that they brought to this burial place. It’s part of the story of the Battle of New Market that I haven’t found a way to talk about without breaking down. And so I didn’t talk about during the tours in the earlier hours in the warm sunlight. Only in the gathering twilight and solitude do I find a way to strip away my mask and confront the realities of battle that break my heart:

They buried their friends. One buried his brother.

It is a fact repeated, repeated, repeated across so many battlefields of the American Civil War (and other conflicts, too). This is not an isolated incident. Nor is it a solitary event where boys—many not yet to their majority—face the price of war and military victory. By focusing on this moment in the aftermath of New Market, I do not mean to neglect or de-emphasize similar scenes on other fighting fields. However, the documentation surrounding these deaths and burials at New Market forces one to look at the loss literally in the face and realize the cost and haunting tragedy behind the casualty numbers and the blue and red lines on the map.

Sergeant William H. Cabell. Private Charles G. Crockett. Private Henry J. Jones. Private William H. McDowell. Private “Jack” B. Stanard. Private Thomas G. Jefferson. These six young men from the Virginia Institute Corps of Cadets were buried in St. Matthew Lutheran Cemetery in New Market, Virginia, following the battle of New Market. They were among the price paid in blood and death for the “hour of glory” on May 15, 1864.

The Corps of Cadets had come under fire and later directly engaged in the fight. There had been the scene of discipline when the corps had marched down Shirley’s Hill in formation and at parade step. Later, the rushed sequence in response to Confederate General John C. Breckinridge’s order to “Put in the boys” which sent the 15 to 25 year-old military school students in the thick of the battle. A determined charge had resulted in the capture of a cannon and moment cemented in the minds of the youthful participants and older veterans who witnessed it. Ultimately, ten cadets died—instantaneously, of mortal wounds, or campaign illness as a result of the action in the crossroads community in the Shenandoah Valley. Six were found and later buried by their own comrades in New Market.

Captain Frank Preston, one of the corps’ “tactical officers” (not a cadet officer) recalled the advance near the Bushong House as the unit went into their battle position. “When within four hundred yards of their (the Federal) line three of our boys fell dead from the explosion of one shell, Cabell, Jones, and Crockett; and fifty yards further on McDowell, from my company fell pierced through the heart with a bullet.”[i] As the cadets passed around the Bushong House and through the orchard, several others fell mortally wounded, including Stanard and Jefferson.

Following the famous charge across the “Field of Lost Shoes” which helped to push the Federal forces commanded by General Franz Sigel into their final retreat from the fighting fields that day, the cadets were pulled out of the pursuit by Breckinridge’s orders. Some went to retrieve their lost footwear from the mud, others scavenged for something to eat. All had to block out or process the combat experience their had just gone through.

Sixteen-year-old Robert Cabell’s main concern was finding his older brother. Tracing the steps backwards across the fields where the corps had charged, passing the Bushong Farm, and ascending the sloop (near where the Virginia Museum of the Civil War stands today), Robert trudged with a “sad, foreboding heart…. He found him dead in the path of the charge, his head pierced and torn by the fragment of a shell.”[ii] Another cadet remembered that William Cabell’s lifeless body lay near the prone figures of Cadets Crockett and Jones, and all were “awfully mangled by the canister.”[iii] Lying face skyward, Cabell’s outstretched hands had pulled up clumps of grass, and “his face as hard as flint, with staring, glassy eyes” evidenced the pain of his final moments, dying unsupported and unattended on the field that would later be called honorable.

Cadet William H. McDowell (VMI Archives Photographs Collection,
0003323)

A little further down the gently sloping ground from Cabell, Crockett, and Jones lay Cadet William McDowell, a seventeen year old North Carolinian. Several of the survivors later remembered him “lying there asleep, more fit indeed for a cradle than a grave…not large and by no means robust…. He had torn open his jacket and shirt, and even in death, lay clutching them back, exposing a fair, white breast with its red wound.”[iv]

For these four, death had come swiftly, possibly before their comrades had even reached the Bushong fence and almost certainly before the seizing of the cannon. The two other cadets who died in New Market lived longer.

Cadet Jacqueline B. Stanard (called Jack by his friends) had made it into the Bushong orchard when grapeshot shredded one of his legs, breaking bone and ripping blood vessels. Cadet Edmund Berkeley momentarily disregarded the officers’ orders to rush to the fence line, later recalling that he stopped to help Stanard “and I tried to make a turnaquet [sic] of an old towel and stop the bleeding, and he died a few minutes afterwards while I was with him.”[v] However, Berkeley may have mistaken loss of consciousness for death since two other cadets—Charles D. Walker and John S. Wise—wrote that Stanard died later in or near “an old farmhouse”—probably the Bushong House. Stanard was conscious enough to give verbal messages of affection to be sent to his family and heard victorious cheering from the battlefield. It is possible that Stanard lived a few hours beyond his wounding, then blood loss and shock likely hastened and resulted in his descent into eternity. When Cadet John Wise arrived—self-reproaching after having persuaded Stanard to leave the relatively safe role of guarding the baggage wagons—he only found his room-mate’s body, still-warm. “The warm tears of youthful friendship came welling up to the eyes…for one we had learned to love as a brother.”[vi]

Cadet Thomas Garland Jefferson

Cadet Thomas Garland Jefferson lived the longest of the six cadets who would be buried in New Market. Shot through the chest somewhere near the Bushong house or in the orchard, Jefferson was rescued from the elements, mud, and possible neglect by his room-mate Cadet Moses Ezekiel. Taken to the Clinedinst home in town, Jefferson’s injuries were examined, operated, and bandaged by a surgeon. Ezekiel and at least one other cadet consistently cared for Jefferson, assisted by the civilian women of the house. “I always hoped to save Jefferson,” Ezekiel wrote decades later. “…that last evening when he asked me to read from St. John “In my Father’s house are many mansions” & then began to wander in mind and thought I was his mother & then his sister & finally asked me to make a light, it was only then it dawned upon me that all hope was past.” Ezekiel held Jefferson, likely supporting him to ease his struggled breaths. In the dark, early hours of Wednesday, May 18th, seventeen-year-old Jefferson died in his friend and room-mate’s arms. Ezekiel prepared the body for burial, probably assisted by Lydie Clinedinst and Cadet Oliver Evans.

Perry A. Cook, a respectfully curious civilian, described what he had seen on Tuesday morning, May 17th. The cadets had removed their dead comrades to a warehouse belonging to S.D. Henkel, and there had closed the pine boxes, penciling the fallen cadet names on the coffin lids. After forming rankings and drilling under the watchful eye of Colonel Scott Shipp, the surviving cadets began the funeral. Cook specifically remembered four cadets were buried on May 17, 1864 —likely Crockett, Cabell, Jones, and McDowell. Standard had already died by that time, but telegrams exist that were sent to his family in this period regarding his death and remains, making it probable that they delayed his burial for a short time to see if the family’s wishes could be obtained. Jefferson still lived on May 17th, and the funeral procession likely rolled outside his window, passing the Clinedinst home. (It is probable that these two were interred together at a later date since they did rest with the others in St. Matthew’s Cemetery until 1866.)

“The corpses were roped on the caissons. The corpses were followed by the cadets to the St. Matthew’s Lutheran cemetery. The large grave…was dug in the northwestern corner of the old cemetery. The cadets were filed on the north side of the grave and extended east from the corner. The burial ceremony was long, and 15 or 20 cadets took part by repeating part of the ceremony. They were buried with honors of war. Three volleys were fired, when the grave was filled. Col. Shipped filed to the right. This was the last I saw of the cadets.”[vii] Cadet John S. Wise who stood in the ranks at the funeral simply stated that he and his comrades were “bowed down with grief at a victory so dearly bought.”[viii]

They buried their friends. Robert Cabell buried his brother.

It is quiet. The deepening twilight begins to veil my face, hiding the emotions I could not let break in the daylight. It is not just the stories of the dead, but the stories of the living. Many of the cadets’ families did not even know they had left the barracks at Lexington by the time the battle happened, by the time some of them were dead or mortally wounded.

Memorial Marker in St. Matthew’s Cemetery

The six cadets buried in New Market and the four others who died of their injuries or illness in the following weeks are the ten whose names are repeated and most-often remembered. And what of those who would recover from wounds and those who held rank at the graveside as the funeral shots shattered into the air? But what about the 247 who survived? Fifty-seven became lawyers, 17 went into the medical profession, 19 became engineers, 5 entered the clergy, 15 served in the state or national legislative bodies, 17 taught the next generations as educators, 23 served their communities as public officials, 9 pursued the arts, and the majority of those not numbered here went on to quieter, successful adulthoods.

For Crockett, Cabell, Jones, McDowell, Stanard, and Jefferson, New Market’s soil became their resting place for the remaining Civil War years. Their lives were cut short, and they were first buried in the community where they died. But they were not buried by strangers or hired grave-diggers sent to clean-up the horrors of the battlefield. Their bodies were found and prepared for the grave by their friends. They were laid to rest with military honors. Their lives were over. But the survivors who buried them and wept over their bodies and graves ensured that memory did not die. Even as the survivors marched to other war scenes and later grappled with rebuilding their lives and broken nation, they carried the memory—later writing down the scenes of loss and grief in careful words.

And that’s why I’ve come to this place in the corner of St. Matthew’s Cemetery. A modern granite marker was placed in 2008, listing the six cadet names and the fact of their disinterment in 1866. It is the place where the living brought their dead. A marked and known place where friends buried friends. That is the reality of field of honor and youth’s hour of glory at New Market, and it reflects the same sobering scene across hundreds of other battlefields where the survivors found their fallen. Not the fallen. Their fallen. And tears evidenced hurting hearts and souls of the survivors.

Sources:

[i] Colonel William Couper. The Corps Forward: Biographical Sketches of the VMI Cadets who Fought in the Battle of New Market. (Buena Vista: Mariner Publishing, 2005) Page 52.

[ii] Ibid., 34.

[iii] John S. Wise. The End of an Era: The Story of a New Market Cadet. (1899). Page 238.

[iv] Ibid., 242.

[v] Beverly Standard. Edited y John G. Barrett and Robert K. Turner. Letters of a New Market Cadet. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961). xx

[vi] John S. Wise. The End of an Era: The Story of a New Market Cadet. (1899). Page 243.

[vii] Perry A. Cook. Battle of New Market, Civilian File. Virginia Military Institute Archives. Accessed 2018.

[viii] John S. Wise. The End of an Era: The Story of a New Market Cadet. (1899). Page 243.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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6 Responses to Burying Their Friends: The VMI Cadets at New Market on May 17, 1864

  1. Pingback: Burying Their Friends – Halfway Home: halfway between Crozet and Hampden-Sidney

  2. Christina Kilcoyne Grazer says:

    Truly eloquent narrative of this very moving moment in Civil War history. A good reminder of the thousands of untold stories that we may never be aware of. The passion exhibited by the author in the retelling this historical fact, reminds us that we should never try to erase painful chapters in our history.

  3. carsonfoardsbcglobalnet says:

    Thomas Garland Jefferson was the great grandnephew of Thomas Jefferson. A sad loss for that family. A very good book on the next generations of Jeffersons is “Peter Field Jefferson, Dark Prince of Scottsville”, combined with “Lost Jeffersons”, by Joanne L. Yeck. It also sheds light on the genesis of eugenics studies in Virginia.

  4. Dale Fishel says:

    This post was so well written and touching. My ancestry includes the branch of the McDowell clan of which William is a part. I had the privilege of visiting the battlefield and VMI about 7-8 years ago with the knowledge of my family connection and your thoughtful article rekindled the emotion I experienced walking the ground. Connections like this bring the Civil War to life; it really wasn’t all that long ago was it? Thanks for your heartfelt effort!

  5. Well written piece. As you say, those very young boys received what most Confederate did not, a marked, commemorated burial.
    Tom

  6. Bryan Wiedeman says:

    Sarah,
    Fine piece. During your research did uncover any Union Child soldiers.

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