On this day in 1864, students from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington participate in the Battle of New Market, Virginia, part of the multipronged Union offensive in the spring of 1864 designed to take Virginia out of the war. Central to this campaign was Ulysses S. Grant’s epic struggle with Robert E. Lee around Richmond.
Union General Franz Sigel had been sent to apply pressure on a key agricultural region, the Shenandoah Valley. He marched south out of Winchester in early May to neutralize the valley, which was always a threat to the North. The Shenandoah was not only a breadbasket that supplied Southern armies, it also led to the Potomac north of Washington. The Confederates had used the valley very effectively in 1862, when Stonewall Jackson kept three Federal armies occupied while keeping pressure off of Richmond.
But the Confederates were hard pressed to offer any opposition to Sigel’s 6,500 troops. Lee was struggling against Grant and was badly outnumbered. He instructed John Breckinridge to drive Sigel from the valley but could offer him little in the way of troops to do the job. Breckinridge mustered a force of regular troops and militia units and pulled together 5,300 men. They included 247 cadets from nearby VMI, some of whom were just 15 years old.
On May 15, Breckinridge attacked Sigel’s troops at New Market. Sigel fell back a half mile, reformed his lines, and began to shell the Confederate center. It was at this juncture that Breckinridge reluctantly sent the VMI cadets into battle. The young students were part of an attack that captured two Yankee guns. Nine of the cadets were killed and 48 were wounded, but Sigel suffered a humiliating defeat and began to withdraw from the valley.
The courage of the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market became legendary, and the pressure was temporarily off of the Rebels in the Shenandoah Valley. Breckinridge was able to send part of his force east to reinforce Lee.