One of my favorite pieces of classic literature is Shakespeare’s Henry V. Not necessarily for its historical accuracy, but for the drama of leadership and the perspective on battle. I read parts of the play while I wrote Call Out The Cadets: The Battle of New Market and used a line from it on the dedication page. Something about the essence of the story and the weaving of language was particularly helpful.
Right now, I’m working on pulling together the new research about New Market that I’ve been working on. Perhaps you’ve seen the press release about the upcoming battlefield tour at New Market that is a fundraiser for Wreaths Across America? Instead of scattered through my digital and written files, all those pieces of primary sources to interpret are going into useable documents, and Jon Tracey and I will have to choose which stories we’re going to tell in our fundraiser tour on October 1, 2023.
Like most Civil War battles, New Market has intense drama when the combat accounts are woven together. Of course, the Virginia Military Institute Cadets’ charge has traditionally occupied a large place in the battle’s interpretation, and it is one of the unique, compelling stories associated with the campaign. But there are other stories, too: Woodson’s Missourians, the Yankee cavalry charge, the piecemealed assaults of Union regiments into the open fields. There’s rain, mud, and flames. There are decisions, comic communication mishaps, and leadership triumphs and failures. A divided community, the loss of a family-soldier almost at the doorstep, and bitterness evidenced after the fight. The comparatively small-scale battle is long remembered, thanks to the cadets’ efforts, civilian stories, and veterans’ attempted reconciliations in the post-war era.
But as I survey the research notes across my desk and in the digital shared files, I’m reminded about the tragedy underlying the battle and—in some ways—at the core of the reason for the upcoming tour. Approximately 50 miles away from the preserved battlefield at New Market, Union soldiers who died in the May 15 battle and aftermath are buried. Many of the “New Market graves” are marked “unknown” in Winchester National Cemetery. In 2022, I started researching why so many are “unknown,” and the answers reveal a story beyond battle. Accounts of an overwhelmed community, bitter observers, and comrades who eventually had the chance to offer a final salute to their fallen comrades. I don’t want New Market’s “unknowns” to be forgotten. I want to tell their stories that have been found, and I want to help make sure there is a visual of remembrance on their numbered graves in December: the evergreen wreaths with red ribbons.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the defeated French army makes a request to the victorious king:
I come to thee for charitable license,
That we may wander o’er this bloody field
To look our dead, and then to bury them;
New Market’s fallen soldiers are long-since buried, but almost 160 years ago, their comrades had to cross the bloody fields and lay them in temporary graves. Those in gray were later reburied in the local churchyards or Confederate Cemeteries. Years later, many of those in blue would find a final resting place in Winchester National Cemetery. Their gravestones may read “unknown,” but through research, I’ve been rediscovering their stories of final courage and connecting those accounts to the preserved battlefield land whenever possible. The tour (and the recorded virtual program!) is going to share some of this new research and explore the long-past battle day and the confused after-days. I’ve been answering my own questions about the aftermath and New Market’s memory. And I hope these stories will offer a chance to explore the battlefield in new ways, pause, and remember. It’s a chance to give a deeper meaning and background for the morning in December when wreaths will be placed on the gravestones in Winchester National Cemetery through Wreaths Across America’s program.
Consider taking a few hours in October to wander “this bloody field to look” and remember the battle and its soldiers in emerging ways with the new research. “I come to thee for charitable license” through the fundraiser to help tell these stories and lay more wreaths on Civil War soldiers’ graves.
Learn more about the battlefield tour and virtual program fundraiser here.
Post-script: I’m grateful for the partnership with the staff at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park for my research and opportunity to lead a fundraiser tour at their site. And, of course, I look forward to recording the virtual program and co-leading the tour with fellow ECW editor, Jon Tracey, who has continued to study Winchester National Cemetery and help connect my New Market research into the larger picture of post-war memory.