Prelude to the Battle
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
The Shenandoah Valley runs in a north-south direction through approximately 140 miles of western Virginia between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Because of its exceptionally fertile farmland, the valley served as the breadbasket for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. In May 1864, Sigel marched 9,000 to 10,000 Union soldiers into the valley with orders from Grant to destroy the railroad center at Lynchburg, Virginia. Sigel’s operations, known as the Lynchburg Campaign, were the first of three campaigns in the valley that year.
As Sigel advanced up the valley (to the south), Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge hastily assembled a small force of approximately 4,000 soldiers to oppose the Yankees. Among them were 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, some as young as fifteen years of age.
Clash at New Market
May 14, 1864
On Saturday, May 14, 1864, Confederate cavalrymen commanded by Brigadier General John D. Imboden engaged a detachment of Union cavalrymen northwest of New Market, Virginia. Sigel reinforced his troopers and drove Imboden back through New Market. During the night, Breckinridge arrived in the area and deployed his troops south of town.
May 15, 1864
At 10 a.m. on May 15, after an early morning artillery duel, Breckinridge ordered an attack on Sigel’s advance troops at New Market. As the Confederate infantry advanced through the pouring rain, Imboden’s cavalry flanked the Union left. Overwhelmed, the Yankees abandoned New Market.
By approximately 2 p.m., the Federal skirmishers had fallen back to Sigel’s main force, and the Union general ordered a counterattack. When a gap opened in the Confederate line, Breckinridge reluctantly ordered the VMI cadets into action, purportedly exclaiming, “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order . . .” Reinforced by the cadets, the Confederates held.
With the Union attack faltering, Breckinridge ordered a general advance. Charging across a muddy field through driving rain, the VMI cadets captured an artillery battery and some Union soldiers. Panic soon set in among the Federals, and Sigel ordered a general retreat.
Breckinridge called off his pursuit at approximately 4 p.m., and the battle ended. By 7 p.m., Sigel’s army crossed the Shenandoah River on its way to Strasburg, Virginia, leaving control of the valley in the hands of the Confederates.
Aftermath of the Battle
The victorious Confederates suffered 540 casualties, including forty-three killed at the Battle of New Market. Among the Confederates who died during and after the battle were ten of the VMI cadets. On the federal side, besides failing to wrest control of the Shenandoah Valley from the Confederates, the defeat at New Market cost the Union 840 casualties, including ninety-six killed.
Union officials soon relieved Sigel of his command and replaced him with Major General David Hunter. On June 12, Hunter ordered the burning of the Virginia Military Institute after his troops occupied Lexington, Virginia.