May 15, 1864 (Sunday)
While General Grant threw the Army of the Potomac south toward General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, two other armies were in motion. Up the Virginia Peninsula at Bermuda Hundred was Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, poised to threaten Richmond. To the west, in the Shenandoah Valley was Franz Sigel and his unnamed army from the Department of West Virginia. Eventually, they would claim the moniker of the Army of the Shenandoah.
According to Grant’s original strategy, Sigel “was to advance up the valley, covering the North from an invasion through that channel as well while advancing as by remaining near Harper’s Ferry. Every mile he advanced also gave us possession of stores on which Lee relied.”
With 10,000 men, Sigel was to move south, “up the valley,” to Lynchburg, where he was to fall upon the Confederate railroad. Sigel was convinced that there was no large Confederate force in the Shenandoah Valley south of Stanton. In this light, he devised a plan to meet up with another Federal column working its way east from West Virginia. Though Grant cautioned Sigel from moving south of Strasburg, Sigel decided to ignore the advice.
From Winchester, Sigel marched on May 9th, his troops newly supplied with fresh uniforms. Samuel Clarke Farrar, a cavalier from the 22nd Pennsylvania remembered: “This large cavalcade of well-dressed troops – infantry, cavalry and artillery – bands playing and color flying, marching out together through that open level country, where the eye could take in miles of the landscape at a glance, was an imposing sight.”
They marched in high spirits, feeling as if this year would finally end the war. “They had heard reports that a great battle had been fought between Grant’s and Lee’s armies,” continued Farrar, “and that our army had the advantage.” And they did not advance without opposition. Along the way, elements of Rebel cavalry fired upon them from hills, and even some artillery joined the running fight.
On the 12th, Sigel’s force arrived wet and tired at Woodstock. The weather had turned rough and the skirmishing had increased. But it was there he learned of John C. Breckinridge, who had cobbled together all the Confederate troops he could, finally coming up with around 5,000, all of whom were now at Staunton. Sigel was in a tight spot.
To his rear, and playing upon his supply lines was the partisan ranger, John Singleton Mosby. To his flanks were random detachments of Rebel cavalry. And to his front was now Breckinridge, though still over sixty miles away. The Federal column coming from West Virginia remained little more than a mystery, as Sigel had not heard from it in over a week.
“My forces are insufficient for offensive operations in the country where the enemy is continually on my flank and rear,” wrote Sigel from Woodstock. “My intention, therefore, is not to advance farther than this place with my main force, but have sent out strong parties in every direction. Skirmishing is going on every day. If Breckenridge should advance against us I will resist him at some convenient position.”
Over the next day or so, Sigel rested and waited. He had finally heard from the wayward West Virginia column that the had arrived in Lewisburg, about 100 miles southwest of Breckinridge’s position at Staunton.
On the 14th, about a regiment’s worth of Federal cavalry had marked a path south, battling here and there with their Rebel counterparts under General John Imboden. Seeing this, Sigel ordered his cavalry commander, Julius Stahel, to be ready to move out at 5am on the 15th. “They will be prepared for action and will march in the direction of Mount Jackson.”
Through these days, Confederate General Breckinridge had gathered his troops at Staunton. His force was small, and he was compelled to call to him 247 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. Imboden had sent out the call the week before to have them at the ready. Now they were needed.
Breckinridge had no real plan as of yet. With his numbers, a plan was a luxiory. General Lee had bade him only to hold Staunton, which he had already accomplished. But Breckinridge was feeling bold. While he was at Staunton, Imboden was north, skirmishing with the vanguard of Sigel’s little army. He could either join Imboden or have Imboden fall back to meet him. By the 13th, Breckinridge’s troops, including the cadets, were just south of Harrisonburg. The day following, they were within seven miles of New Market. Though the night, Breckinridge selected his ground and waited for Sigel to attack.
To the Rebel front was not yet infantry. Only a brigade of infantry and Stahel’s cavalry was arrayed on an elevation northwest of New Market. The remainder of Sigel’s force was strung out along the Valley Pike, slowly creeping their way south. And in truth, Sigel no longer commanded 10,000. Through detachments sent to keep his flanks and rear from the Rebels, his number was much closer to 6,000.
But Sigel arrived in the morning, which was now leaning toward noon, and formed his lines across the pike. But he did not attack. The armies had massed and were arrayed, each eyeing the other across a valley held open by two low ridges, the small village of New Market between them. “The sky was overcast all day,” remembered VMI Captain Henry J. Wise after the war, “and there were several hard showers, and a heavy, damp atmosphere all day.”
The gray clouds hung low and the air was thick. But splitting this thickness, the artillery, both North and South, opened. At the same time, a line of Confederate skirmishers advanced. The town of New Market was held by some Union cavalry, but they were dispatched and pulled back to the main line as the Rebels moved forward their thin line.
Breckinridge, in turn, advanced his entire line though the town, halting on its northern end. Both side’s artillery opened anew, “pouring a steady fire into the enemy,” as one Rebel put it. “They were enveloped in smoke, and made lots of noise.” Still wishing to recieve an attack rather than launch one, Breckinridge held back. With the VMI Cadets on his mind, he approached their professor, Lt. Col. Scott Shipp. “He informed me,” wrote Shipp, “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.” As the general rode along the lines, he told the cadets that he hoped he wouldn’t have to feed them into the coming battle.
But since Sigel would not attack, it was Breckinridge who would have to open the ball. He formed his command into two lines, with the cadets placed behind the second.
“The roads and fields were very wet, the ploughed fields almost miry,” recalled Henry Wise, “so that to march across the fields even at slow time was hard work, and at double time was exhausting.” Sigel had now decided to reform his lines about 400 yards behind his initial position. This required much shifting, but was completed before Breckinridge launched his main assault, around 2pm.
His lines were now where Sigel’s had been not long before, and the Federal artillery played upon them with deadly resolve, even scattering two regiments in the center as they advanced. At the same time, and possibly by accident, Imboden’s cavalry raced forward on the right and flanked the Union left, held by Stahel’s cavalry. With his flank turned, Sigel would have to react.
And with the the Confederate middle agape, Breckinridge was forced to order the VMI cadets to fill the gap. As they came, Lt. Col. Shipp was wounded and Captain Henry Wise took command. “Great gaps were made through the ranks,” wrote Shipp after the battle, “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 grown with killed and wounded for more than a mile on open ground, would have been creditable even on a field day.
“It seemed impossible for any living creature could escape; and here we sustained our heaviest loss, a great many being wounded and numbers knocked down, stunned, and temporarily disabled.” It was here that Shipp was wounded and Wise took command. “He gallantly pressed onward,” continued Shipp.
Sigel was reeling to be sure, and his left flank was turned, but for a moment, the Rebel advance was halted. “Our front fire was heavy,” wrote a Union officer after the battle, “and the artillery had an enfilading fire, under which their first line went down. They staggered, went back, and their whole advance halted. Their fire ceased to be effective. A cheer ran along our line, and the first success was ours. I gave the order to ‘cease firing.'”
Soon came the order to charge, but it was too little and poorly coordinated. “As we neared the rest of the hill,” wrote another Federal officer, “we met the entire rebel force advancing and firing.” And with that, they melted away, back toward the main lines and beyond. There was now no time to recover. Breckinridge continued his advance, the VMI cadets in the center, Lt. Col. Henry Wise at their front.
“Our esprit de corps made us vie with the magnificent veterans to our right and left,” wrote Wise. “They yelled, we yelled with them. The onrush was irresistible.”
Sigel was in full retreat. He tried to reestablish his lines on a hill to the north, but it was no use. Breckinridge followed, but not far, while Sigel made time for Cedar Creek, passing even Strasburg, thirty miles north.
The day following, Henry Halleck wired Grant: “Sigel is in full retreat on Strasburg. He will do nothing but run; never did anything else.” The Federals suffered 96 killed, 520 wounded, and 225 captured or missing, while Breckinridge lost 43 killed, 474 wounded, and 3 missing. Included in the latter were ten VMI cadets, killed with 47 additional wounded. For the foreseeable future, the Shenandoah and its bounty would remain in Confederate hands, and soon General Sigel would be replace.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 1, p84, 89-90, 446-447; The New Market Campaign by Edward Raymond Turner; The Battle of New Market and the Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute by Preston Cocke; The Twenty-second Pennsylvania Cavalry and the Ringgold Battalion, 1861-1865 by Samuel Clarke Farrar; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant. [↩]