This book by Charles R. Knight covers the events surrounding the Battle of New Market. It’s hard to believe, with all the legend and lore about the VMI cadets who participated in it surrounding the battle, but it’s been the subject of comparatively few works. William C. “Jack” Davis wrote about it in 1975 in the first modern treatment of the battle, and since then there has been no monograph on the battle until this book.
As the Introduction tells us, “If one believed popular myth, some 250 teenage boys almost singlehandedly whipped a much larger Yankee army and captured several pieces of artillery in the process. In reality, thousands of Confederate troops fought at New Market, but seared into the popular consciousness is the idea that they played only a supporting role while the cadets carried the day. A Virginia Department of Historic Resources highway marker placed alongside the old Valley Pike decades ago to commemorate the battle did nothing to dispel this popular notion. In fact, it had the opposite effect: ‘On the hills to the north took place the Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864. The Union Army, under General Franz Sigel, faced southwest. John C. Breckinridge, once Vice-President of the United States, commanded the Confederates. Colonel Scott Shipp [sic] commanded the Cadet Corps of the Virginia Military Institute, which distinguished itself, capturing a battery. The battle ended in Sigel’s retreat northward.’ Even the entry for the battlefield in the Virginia Landmarks Register contains faulty information: ‘The VMI cadets … distinguished themselves with the capture of a battery and an enemy flag.’ The Cadets captured one gun, not ‘a battery,’ and they did not capture any enemy flags.” [pp. xii-xiii]
The battle was surrounded by myth and legend almost from the beginning, and there were arguments about who did what at the battle, with some participants not even recognizing what they read about it. “In the years following the war, accounts of the engagements began to appear in larger quantities. Most of the cadets left some memoir of that day, be it a published account or a letter to a former comrade-in-arms. Nearly to a man, the cadets believed that May 15, 1864, was a turning point in their lives. And indeed it was and rightly should have been. What was overlooked was that for most of the other men in blue and in gray, May 15th was simply another date in a list of bloody dates. Around the turn of the century articles on the battle–some of them quite acidic in tone–appeared in Confederate Veteran. As with most postwar accounts, the writers disagreed about many things, including which regiment could rightly lay claim to captured artillery, which regiment broke first under fire, and in some instances even where a particular unit was on the field (in some cases this latter issue remains cloudy even today). Even the senior officers at New Market disagreed about how the various pieces of the battle puzzle fit together. George H. Smith, commander of the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, and George M. Edgar, commander of the 26tth Virginia Battalion, spent years compiling material on the battle. In writing to Edgar more than four decades after the fight, Smith confessed, ‘I thought I knew something about the battle of New Market at its conclusion, but have been so much mystified by the various accounts given of the affair that I have come to realize that I know nothing of it.’ ” [pp. xiv-xv]
Knight puts the battle into historical perspective. Franz Sigel was the Union department commander, thanks to his political clout and Lincoln’s wanting support from German immigrants. “Sigel’s instructions for the upcoming campaign arrived at the end of March. They were delivered by Major General Edward O. C. Ord, a favorite of Grant’s from their days together fighting in the Western Theater. The offensive in West Virginia that Grant had in mind for Sigel consisted of a two-pronged assault. One column, under Brigadier General George Crook, would advance from West Virginia against the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. Crook’s thrust was essentially a large-scale replication of Averell’s previous winter raid that promised better results. A second column, approximately 10,000 men under Ord, would advance simultaneously with Crook, but operate farther north. In its original form, Grant’s plan left little for Sigel to do beyond organizing and resupplying the columns from his headquarters in Cumberland. Grant further minimized Sigel’s role as chief quartermaster for Ord’s operation by specifically stating that Ord’s troops were to live off the land. By all appearances Grant recognized Sigel’s shortcomings as a field commander, and he was doing everything he could to limit the German officer’s direct involvement without provoking a national political firestorm. After rethinking the logistics involved, however, Grant changed his mind. The General-in-chief informed Sigel to be prepared to move up the Valley from Martinsburg with a large wagon train to meet and re-supply Ord and Crook, with all three columns meeting at Staunton.” [pp. 27-28] Grant didn’t expect Sigel to accomplish much, but he felt Sigel could keep confederate troops in the Valley busy and prevent them from reinforcing Lee. “As is often the case in military operations, a clash of personalities erupted before the operation even got underway. Simply put, Sigel and Ord never really hit it off and relations between the two were considerably strained almost from the outset. … Ord was probably Grant’s choice for departmental command, but Sigel was forced upon him by the Lincoln administration, leaving Ord in a subordinate role. Sigel seems to have realized this, and may have been jealous of the warm relations–and likely influence–Ord had with Grant. Ord had assumed command of Major General John McClernand’s XIII Corps in Grant’s army at Vicksburg and when Grant came east that winter, Ord was one of only three western officers who accompanied him–a sure sign of the confidence Grant had in Ord’s abilities.” [p. 29]
Sigel’s incompetence was apparent early on. “Although the potential situation in the Shenandoah Valley was precarious for Southern arms, Sigel and his commanders gave the Confederates an unexpected gift: the time to organize and prepare to meet them. After taking Winchester, any sense of urgency drained out of Sigel’s schedule.” [p. 61]
Knight does an outstanding job in detailing the actions leading up to the battle, including the march of the cadets from VMI to the New Market area. His description of the battle itself is clear, with terrific detail. And he gives us the aftermath of the battle and goes into how the battle has been remembered and memorialized. This book is now the standard for studying the Battle of New Market. I highly recommend it.