Seventeen-year-old Thomas Garland Jefferson died of a wound suffered at the battle of New Market. Shot in the lungs on May 15, 1864, the Virginia Military Institute cadet lingered for hours, dying a couple of days later. Jefferson’s story has been told and retold many times in primary source letters, secondary source books, fiction stories, and even movies.
However, before Jefferson fell with his fatal wound, he actually saved one of his comrade’s lives—and not by taking a bullet. It’s one of the lesser-known stories connected to the popular vignettes of the battle of New Market. A story of life woven into Jefferson’s tragic end.
The story probably started on August 1, 1863, when Jefferson arrived at the castled walls of Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. A great-nephew of Thomas Jefferson who authored the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Garland Jefferson arrived from his family’s home near Amelia Court House. That same day James David Darden also matriculated. He had grown up in Southhampton County, Virginia, which is on the North Carolina border, west of Norfolk and south of Petersburg. The boys mustered into Company B of the Corps of Cadets. Though Darden was older by about 20 months, entering VMI on the same day and going into the same company probably formed some sort of bond. The boys likely went through some forms of barrack’s hazing — possibly together, possibly separately, but as some of the newbies they likely found a few things in common, at least to commiserate about.
Darden and Jefferson numbered among the cadets who had been at VMI less than a year, when orders arrived on May 10, 1864. Confederate General John C. Breckinridge summoned the Corps to join his gathering army at Staunton, Virginia, to help defend the Shenandoah Valley against Union General Franz Sigel’s army which was creeping through the lower (northern) part of the valley. Along with their later-to-be-famous comrades in Company B, Darden and Jefferson joined the eager column. A chance to get away from Lexington and the classroom had come! The opportunity to be real soldiers hung in the near future as they slogged their way north for four days, first to Staunton, then on toward New Market.
On May 15, 1864, Breckinridge waited until near mid-day, inviting the Federals to attack his strong position on Shirley’s Hill. Then, he committed his troops to battle and sent a long line of infantry sweeping forward, ultimately pushing the Union soldiers through two defensive positions and into their final line on Bushong Hill. The Corps of Cadets followed as reserves, though they came under fire for the first time on their descent from Shirley’s Hill; the young men’s ability to reform and march steadily under fire impressed the veteran troops. As the fighting see-sawed back and forth at the regimental level along the Bushong lines, a gap opened in the Confederate position. With an uncertain battle hanging in the balance, Breckinridge reluctantly ordered the cadets into the fight to fill the gap in his lines.
Moving from their reserve position, the VMI cadets rush toward the battle lines, hurrying along a downward slope and aiming their route to the white structures of the Bushong Farm. An artillery projectile killed and wounded some cadets as they moved toward the farm houses. Reaching the yard and houses, the corps split — two companies going to the left, the other two to the right of the Bushong House. According to cadet accounts, it seems that their unit came under rifle/musket fire around the Bushong house and certainly in the orchard as they rushed to their position along the north orchard fence.
Probably somewhere near the house or in the orchard, Cadet James Darden “was shot through the left thigh, falling from the shock, but immediately arose and though bleeding profusely, followed his gallant comrades, when he was again wounded in the left arm, the ball severing the arteries, causing such exhaustion from loss of blood that he was unable to proceed.”
Cadet Thomas Jefferson noticed Darden’s stumble. Perhaps they were side by side in the formation. Or perhaps Darden called out to him. Those details are not clearly known. Whatever the exact details, Jefferson saw fast flowing blood from his comrade’s arm. He “improvised a bandage from his canteen strap and bound it securely around the arm, which undoubtedly saved his life.”
It sounds like Jefferson created an improvised tourniquet, though maybe lacking the actual torsion of a tourniquet. Could the cadets have had some sort of medical training? It doesn’t seem to have been something included in their curriculum or military training at the Institute. Perhaps Jefferson just employed some common sense. Perhaps he had heard stories or even made previous inquires about wounds or bleeding. There was a war, and it could’ve been a conversation topic, especially since quite a few wounded officers arrived at VMI to teach during their recuperations.
After improvising the bandage for Darden, Jefferson continued forward. He had broken the discipline rules about not stopping to aid fallen comrades during battle, but he had carried out a key principle of combat. Comrades can save comrades. In many wars, including the American Civil War, the very first medical aid often came from the soldier immediately near the wounded. It might be just applying pressure or a bandage until a doctor or corpsman arrives, or it might be something more complex. A lot of Civil War wounded primary sources reference a comrade helping to fix the first bandage, taking them to the rear, or some other simple, life saving action.
Cadet Darden still bled and fainted from loss of blood, shock, or pain. “He was found after the battle in an unconscious condition by Dr. Newman of Harrisonburg, Va., who conveyed him to his own residence, where he was wooed back to life by the skill of the Doctor, and the gentle ministrations of his wife and daughter. A few weeks after, his father, also a Confederate soldier, had him transported on a couch, by devious and tortious ways, to his home in Southhampton.”
After some longer recovery, Darden, he headed West and served in the Confederate commissary, still struggling with “broken strength.” He paroled with General Johnston’s army after the surrender at Bennett’s Place in 1865. He married in 1875, had three children, and died in 1899. He lived 35 years longer, thanks to Jefferson’s quick actions. Assuming the account is correct about his bleeding artery at New Market, he would’ve died within minutes without the canteen strap tightened to slow the blood.
While Cadet Jefferson paused to save a life, he did not leave New Market alive. Mortally wounded, Jefferson was also give medical attention by comrades, doctors, and civilians, but his injuries were beyond their skills at that time. He died in the early morning hours of May 18, 1864.
Today, the story of Cadet Jefferson’s death is used in history, memory, and symbolism. He is mostly remembered for the tragic scenes around his death bed. Though the narrative of his suffering and death story does not need to be forgotten or diminished, the vignette moments before his wounding is worth remembering, too. Somehow, Jefferson had the presence of mind under fire and the quick skill to slow the blood gushing from his comrade cadet’s arm and ultimately took the early action that saved Darden’s life.
William Couper, edited by Keith E. Gibson, The Corps Forward: Biographical Sketches of the VMI Cadets who Fought in the Battle of New Market. (Buena Vista, Mariner Publishing, 2005). See biographies “Darden” and “Jefferson.”
Bierle’s research files – New Market, Medical Care in Shenandoah Valley.