Mark­ing New Mar­ket Day

Rappahannock News - - SCHOOLS & SPORTS - ARTHUR CANDENQUIS­T [email protected]

Last Thurs­day (May 15) was the 150th an­niver­sary of the Civil War’s Bat­tle of New Mar­ket, a Con­fed­er­ate vic­tory in which 247 Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary In­sti­tute (VMI) cadets played an im­por­tant role, their charge be­com­ing one of the war’s most well-known in­ci­dents (and re­cently made into a film that pre­miered in Richmond, “The Field of Lost Shoes” — as the muddy field the cadets charged across be­came known). Mod­ern-day VMI grad Doug Baum­gard­ner (left) led a brief cer­e­mony at the grave of cadet John Jett Reid at St. Paul’s Ceme­tery in Woodville, where Reid was a life­long res­i­dent. Baum­gard­ner, shown with fel­low VMI grad Wil­liam Arthur, re­cited a let­ter writ­ten in 1909 by El­iza Clinedinst Crim, who wit­nessed the bat­tle in 1864 and helped nurse the wounded and dy­ing.

May 1864

As of of the mid­dle May 1864, there was fight­ing on all fronts of the Con­fed­er­acy. In Vir­ginia, the ar­mies of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant were en­gaged in some of the most sav­age fight­ing of the war in and around Spot­syl­va­nia Court­house.

On the penin­sula south­east of Richmond, Maj. Gen. Ben­jamin But­ler’s Army of the James was mov­ing to­ward the Con­fed­er­ate cap­i­tal, fight­ing all the way. In south­west Vir­ginia, around Blacks­burg, Federal cav­alry threat­ened the im­por­tant rail­roads in the re­gion, and the im­por­tant salt in­dus­try.

In Ge­or­gia, Maj. Gen. Wil­liam Sher­man marched his ar­mies to­ward the im­por­tant rail­road cen­ter at At­lanta. Head­ing to Ge­or­gia and fight­ing along the way from Mis­sis­sippi was Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s corps of Con­fed­er­ate in­fantry and ar­tillery.

The week saw the sav­age day-long bat­tles of the Bloody An­gle at Spot­syl­va­nia, where the fight­ing was so in­tense that Con­fed­er­ate troops could not stand up to reload and fire at their foe. In­stead, they had to lay down and have reloaded ri­fles passed up from the rear while the dis­charged weapons were passed to the rear for reload­ing.

The bat­tles at Spot­syl­va­nia lasted from May 8-21. Ca­su­al­ties on both sides were enor­mous. In the Shenan­doah Val­ley, a Federal ini­tia­tive to con­trol the en­tire area came to a halt at New Mar­ket on May 15, when Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s troops en­coun­tered Maj. Gen. John Breck­in­ridge’s Con­fed­er­ates de­ter­mined to clear the Val­ley of the Union pres­ence.

Aug­mented by 247 cadets from Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary In­sti­tute in Lex­ing­ton — who marched the 80 miles to the bat­tle­ground — the Con­fed­er­ates soundly de­feated the Union troops af­ter a blind­ing thun­der­storm broke in the af­ter­noon, turn­ing part of the bat­tle­ground into a muddy quag­mire. Of the roughly 5,500 Union troops, Gen. Sigel sus­tained more than 800 ca­su­al­ties. Gen. Breck­in­ridge’s 5,000 troops had ca­su­al­ties num­ber­ing al­most 600, in­clud­ing 10 VMI cadets killed and 47 wounded. The hero­ism of the VMI cadets has made the bat­tle at New Mar­ket a leg­end.

In Ge­or­gia, Gen. Sher­man’s men and Gen. John­ston’s troops, now re­in­forced by Gen. Polk’s corps, fought a sav­age two-day bat­tle at Re­saca. Though the Fed­er­als could not dis­lodge the Con­fed­er­ates, Gen. John­ston was con­cerned about hav­ing his po­si­tion, with its back against the Ooste­naula River, flanked by Union troops.

Be­low Richmond on the penin­sula, Gen. But­ler’s army at­tacked Fort Dar­ling at Drewry’s Bluff on May 16 in an at­tempt to dis­lodge the Con­fed­er­ates com­manded by Gen. Pierre G.T. Beau­re­gard, who had been brought north from Charleston, S.C. In a heavy rain­storm, the Con­fed­er­ates proved to be too much and Gen. But­ler with­drew his Union troops back to Ber­muda Hun­dred.

Had he pressed his ad­van­tage only a lit­tle more, the in­ef­fec­tive Gen. But­ler could have taken Fort Dar­ling, which might have spelled the end for both Richmond and Peters­burg, and also of Gen. Lee’s en­tire army, had the Army of the James linked with the Army of the Po­tomac at Spot­syl­va­nia.

Gen. Beau­re­gard moved his troops into po­si­tion to keep Gen. But­ler from ad­vanc­ing again on the Con­fed­er­ate cap­i­tal, and the Union com­man­der found him­self pinned be­tween the James River on the north and the Ap­po­mat­tox River on the south. The Richmond news­pa­pers, be­liev­ing Gen. But­ler’s po­si­tion to “be­ing corked in a bot­tle” at Ber­muda Hun­dred, re­joiced in the news that a se­ri­ous threat to the cap­i­tal had been stopped.

By May 21, the bloody fight­ing at Spot­syl­va­nia Court­house was over, and the ca­su­al­ties were stag­ger­ing. The North­ern press was call­ing Gen. Grant a butcher. At this point, se­ri­ously con­cerned about the safety of the Con­fed­er­ate cap­i­tal, Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis warned Gen. Lee not to ex­pose him­self to en­emy fire: “The coun­try could not bear of the loss of you.”


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