May 15, 1864 – Major General John C. Breckinridge led a makeshift Confederate army in trying to stop the Federal drive up Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Major General Franz Sigel, commanding the Federal Army of West Virginia, had been assigned to deprive the Confederate armies of the vital foodstuffs produced in the fertile Valley. By this time, his troops had moved south to Woodstock, but his force had shrunk from 10,000 to 6,500 men because he had to detach units to guard his lengthening supply line.
Breckinridge’s Confederates left Staunton on the morning of the 13th to join forces with Brigadier General John D. Imboden’s cavalry at New Market. Imboden dispersed Federal cavalry commands at Front Royal and New Market, inflicting about 150 casualties and putting 800 enemy troopers out of action in the two combined engagements.
Sigel continued south from Woodstock on the 14th to Mount Jackson, a farming center at the terminus of the Manassas Gap Railroad, about seven miles north of New Market. Imboden’s Confederates skirmished with the Federal vanguard and exchanged artillery fire before heavy rain stopped the fighting for the night.
During this time, Imboden’s cavalry joined Breckinridge’s main force, which now numbered close to 5,000 men. Breckinridge established a defensive line at New Market with Brigadier General Gabriel C. Wharton’s brigade on the left (west) and Brigadier General John C. Echols’s brigade on the right (east). Echols was out sick, leaving his brigade under Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of World War II General George S. Patton).
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp’s 247 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, aged 15 to 17, were held in reserve. Shipp recalled that Breckinridge “informed me that he did not wish to put the Cadets in if he could avoid it, but that should occasion require it, he would use them very freely.”
By the morning of the 15th, Sigel had two infantry brigades about a mile north of New Market. Their line was between the North Fork of the Shenandoah River to their right (west) and the Valley Turnpike to their left (east). More infantry arrived and took positions to the left of the two brigades, on either side of the turnpike. Federals in the center held Manor’s Hill.
Breckinridge used his artillery and Imboden’s cavalry to try coaxing the Federals into attacking his strong line. When that failed, he advanced his force to meet the Federals north of town. The Confederates marched through New Market amidst cheering residents and drove back the Federal pickets.
Breckinridge halted just north of town, still hopeful that the Federals would assail him first. A heavy artillery duel ensued, but the Federal infantry would not attack. Breckinridge therefore ordered his own assault. The Confederates advanced in early afternoon and pushed the Federals off Manor’s Hill.
Sigel arrived on the scene and formed a new line on Bushong’s Hill, with Federal infantry on the right and center, and Major General Julius Stahel’s cavalry on the left. Breckinridge halted his men to dress their line before resuming the advance at 2 p.m. As the Confederates closed in, 17 Federal guns opened on them. The Confederate center wavered and broke.
At 2:45, Breckinridge decided to fill this gap with the VMI cadets, saying, “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.” The cadets, called “katydids” by the veterans, charged into the center as Shipp was wounded and replaced by Captain Henry A. Wise. Shipp later wrote:
“Great gaps were made through the ranks, but the cadet, true to this discipline, would close in to the center to fill the interval and push steadily forward. The alignment of the battalion under this terrible fire, which strewed the ground with killed and wounded for more than a mile on open ground, would have been creditable even on a field day.”
During this time, Sigel directed Stahel’s cavalry to counterattack the Confederate right, but the Federals were repelled by heavy artillery fire. Federals tried another counterattack on the Confederate left, but confusion among the commanders made this ineffective, and it was repulsed as well.
The Confederate advance resumed around 3 p.m. Several VMI cadets lost their shoes while marching across a muddy field, giving it the nickname the “Field of Lost Shoes.” The Federal infantry started breaking under the pressure, prompting the artillerists to withdraw their guns. The Confederates captured five cannon, one of which was taken by the VMI troops.
Wise remembered, “Our esprit de corps made us vie with the magnificent veterans to our right and left. They yelled, we yelled with them. The onrush was irresistible.” As the Federals retreated, Breckinridge halted his men until the supply wagons could catch up.
Sigel withdrew northward and formed a rear guard on Rude’s Hill. When he received reports that the Federals were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition, he ordered a retreat to Mount Jackson, across the Shenandoah River. The Federals crossed and burned the bridge behind them, preventing Breckinridge from pursuing. When Sigel arrived at Mount Jackson, he ordered another retreat to Strasburg, 20 miles north.
The Federals sustained 831 casualties (93 killed, 482 wounded, and 256 captured or missing), while the Confederates lost 577 (42 killed, 522 wounded, and 13 missing). The VMI contingent lost 10 killed (including a descendant of Thomas Jefferson) and 47 wounded, or 23 percent of their total. They played a relatively small role in the battle, but their brave performance made them heroes in the South.
After this resounding Confederate victory, Breckinridge’s men cheered “such as had not been heard in the Valley since Stonewall Jackson had led them” in 1862. Breckinridge praised his troops, “particularly the cadets, who, though mere youths, had fought with the steadiness of veterans.” This ensured that the Valley would continue feeding the Confederate armies in Virginia and elsewhere.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, initially suggested that Breckinridge pursue Sigel all the way down the Valley and invade Maryland, but the rivers were too swollen and supply lines too long for this to be feasible. Instead, Lee urged Breckinridge to hurry his command east to Hanover Junction, where he could reinforce Lee’s army.
Sigel’s army had been routed but not destroyed. This embarrassing setback enraged the Federal high command; Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck told Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, “Sigel is in full retreat on Strasburg. He will do nothing but run; never did anything else.” Grant had little faith in Sigel as a commander before this battle, and now he was convinced that Sigel must be replaced.
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