The Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864

James N.

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Part I - The Battle Opens
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The battle that took place at New Market in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley on May 15, 1864, was a part of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's spring Overland Campaign. Grant intended to put pressure simultaneously on Confederate forces all across the Virginia front, from Fredericksburg in the east all the way to the Alleghenies in the west; in the Shenandoah Valley that meant sending a force southward to tie down any Confederate forces here so as to prevent them from sending any relief to the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee in the Wilderness between Culpeper and Fredericksburg.

The little town of New Market became the focus of the campaign because of the eponymous gap in the Massanutten Mountain, seen above from the opposite side of the gap near Luray. The mountain divides the Shenandoah lengthwise for a distance of some forty miles with only this single gap providing communication between the main, or Shenandoah, valley and the smaller Luray Valley to the east. A small body of 500 Union horsemen began the battle here when they were surprised and routed by Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Imboden when they emerged through the gap.

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The marker above is one of those placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1920's throughout the state to mark significant battle sites, here in the midst of what has become New Market Battlefield State Historical Park. The battle began in this vicinity when the at first outnumbered Union forces withdrew to the north of the town when they were also threatened by Imboden's Confederate cavalry supported by unexpected infantry.

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The battle soon degenerated into a frontal slugfest fought in driving rain because both small armies fought on narrow frontages with both flanks securely anchored on natural obstacles. To the west, there is a sharp drop-off to the North Fork of the Shenandoah River ( below ) as seen from the overlook above; the eastern flanks of both armies rested on Smith's Creek, swollen from the rain.

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The battle developed in the center along the Valley Turnpike, now U. S. 11, marked above by historical signage placed during the Civil War Centennial. Near here the main Union line rested, with infantry supported by artillery to the west with their cavalry to the east across the road. The leading brigade of Col. Augustus Moor was joined here around noon by Federal commander Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel with most of Joseph Thoburn's brigade. Hungarian-born Brig. Gen. Julius Stahel commanded Sigel's cavalry.

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A key terrain feature on this, the eastern side of the battlefield became known as the Bloody Cedars when late in the fighting the 54th Pennsylvania, whose monument is seen above, was savaged here by concentrated Confederate fire, forcing it to withdraw.

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The open ground above was between the Union left held by the Pennsylvanians and Stahel's cavalry and the Confederate right flank consisting of two regiments of Virginia troops led by Brig. Gen. John Echols. Stahel ordered his men forward in a charge that was shattered when they were simultaneously fired into by Echols' men from the front and raked by Imboden's Confederate artillery from across Smith's Creek on their left. When the cavalry went forward, so too did two infantry regiments; as they crested the hill on which the monument now stands, they were surprised to see Echols' men standing in the ravine visible in the middle of this field who met them with a withering fire. As Stahel's troopers turned and fled, the infantry was left without support and was also forced back to the cedars in the background.

Next, Part II - The Bushong House and farm.
 
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James N.

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Part II - The Bushong House, Garden, and Farmstead
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At the center of the battlefield stood the home and farm belonging to Jacob Bushong, head one of the many families of German descent that had populated the Shenandoah Valley in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. It now became the focus of the battle as the Confederate commander, former U. S. Vice President and 1860 Presidential candidate Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, decided to attack, hopefully before all of Sigel's forces arrived on the field. The view above shows the farm as Breckinridge's Confederate infantry saw it as they advanced across open fields under Federal fire.

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The Bushong farmhouse was surrounded by fences and outbuildings that broke up the Confederate advance; the battalion of Virginia Military Academy cadets Breckinridge had reluctantly added to the center of his line to plug a gap was forced to divide with companies going to the right and left around the house.

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The interior of the original 1825 house has been furnished on the lower floor with a parlor above reflecting happier times that might've been celebrated by a prosperous valley farm family. Across the hall, another parlor represents the use of the building as a field hospital during and following the battle. There was an 1852 addition to the house that remains closed off, as is the original ca. 1818 house that stands behind this one.

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After taking casualties crossing the open ground the VMI cadets, along with the other units of Breckinridge's small army, sought shelter behind a Virginia worm fence like the one below that stood between them and the Union center; here they drew their breaths and prepared for the assault that they hoped would decide the issue.

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Next, The Field of Lost Shoes and Confederate victory!
 
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James N.

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Part III - The Field of Lost Shoes
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Breckinridge's infantry stopped briefly along the fence that separated the Bushong house and its dependencies from what became known as the Field of Lost Shoes which lay between them and the main Union line on the rise to the north. Below along the fence is a postwar memorial erected by probably the most unusual unit from either side that fought here, Woodson's Missouri Cavalry ( Dismounted ), a company-sized group of some 40 men that had been captured in the western theater but exchanged in Virginia and had no homes to return to and no way to get there even if they did! They were attached to a Virginia unit and fought here as dismounted cavalry (infantry, really); their monument reads,

This mystic pile
The simple tale will tell;
It marks the spot
Where Woodson's Heroes fell.


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Most of the field can be seen in the photo below taken from the high ground next to the Shenandoah River where two Union batteries were posted; the main line ran from here gradually downhill to the east toward Massanutten Mountain in the background. The Field of Lost Shoes crossed by the Confederates at the height of the battle can be seen between here and the orchard in middle distance. After days of soaking rain it was a quagmire that sucked shoes and socks off the feet of the VMI cadets and others during the attack, hence the name it was given. As can be seen the field was in a low spot almost like a shallow bowl; it's no wonder it was a sump!

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Opposite the Confederate center held by the cadets was Von Klieser's 30th New York Battery firing canister. The quick rush threatened to overrun the guns however, and all but one was as quickly withdrawn; the abandoned gun became a trophy of the cheering cadets. Sigel, Stahel, and several of their staff members became so excited by the turn of events they began issuing orders in German which did little to help stabilize the situation, instead creating further confusion among their native-born contingents that made up most of the Union force. Several units began to crumble and others began moving towards the rear precipitating a general retreat that threatened to dissolve into a rout. Only the timely arrival of Capt. Henry DuPont's 5th U. S. Battery on a hill to the north of the battlefield slowed Confederate pursuit and provided time for Sigel's retreat.

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Next, Reflections on the battle.
 
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James N.

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Part IV - Reflections on the Battle of New Market
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The Virginia Museum of the Civil War now stands on ground over which the small Confederate division commanded by Brig. Gen. Gabriel Wharton advanced during the battle.

If not for the charge of the VMI cadets here at New Market, and subsequent development of the area through "enhancements" like I - 81 which unfortunately bisects the battlefield (imagine if Peach Orchard Road or the Chambersburg Pike were interstates! ), it's quite likely the battle would be forgotten much like similar actions in the Valley like Cross Keys and Piedmont. In truth, Breckinridge's victory did nothing to reverse Confederate fortunes aside from giving a temporary boost to morale.

In fact, it likely made things much worse, for the main result was that Lee recalled Breckinridge and most of his troops that fought the battle to Richmond and Cold Harbor to face Grant's army, leaving only a scratch force of Imboden's and other cavalry, much of it serving dismounted, under brigadier generals William "Grumble" Jones and John Vaughan. Lee and the Confederate government expected the usual slow Union post-battle recovery and were taken by surprise when Sigel was quickly shelved and replaced by the energetic sexagenarian Maj. Gen. David "Black Dave" Hunter who immediately returned to the Valley.

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The same despised Federal force that had been defeated at New Market (now minus Sigel but still including Stahel who was to gain a Medal of Honor in the process) met and routed the trio of Confederate cavalry brigadiers at the equally decisive Battle of Piedmont near the site of Stonewall Jackson's 1862 victory at Port Republic. Jones commanding was killed outright near the spot above while trying vainly to rally his men, who turned and fled. The rout allowed Black Dave a free hand to savage the valley as far south as Lexington where his men burned the home of Virginia Governor John Letcher and all public buildings including VMI which was left a smoking ruin. It was truly a dark day for VMI, Lexington, and the Confederate cause. Other consequences resulting from this action may be considered in the link below:

http://civilwartalk.com/threads/jubal-earlys-1864-raid-on-washington-d-c.103669/

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Of course Virginia, Lexington, and VMI have all recovered; post-Reconstruction, Henry DuPont, then a U. S. Senator representing Delaware, sponsored legislation that helped repair the damage done to VMI when Hunter ordered his battery to shell it causing the fires that largely destroyed and gutted the barracks, classrooms, and other buildings. Today six of the cadets killed at New Market rest near the old chapel along with memorials to the other four fatalities, all guarded by the statue Virginia Mourning Her Dead, created by one of the cadet survivors who went on to international fame as an artist and sculptor, Sir Moses Ezekiel.

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James N.

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The scenery there is just amazing in the lower Valley. Just wish it wasn't so darn close to I 81

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I'd intended to point out that it's plainly visible at the left in the background of this photo; in fact, there's a tunnel that goes beneath it for the walking trail that connects the Bushong Farm/Field of Lost Shoes area from the eastern flank/Pennsylvania Monument! In this day of lazy travelers who lack map skills and depend on things like GPS, the Interstate here is probably a GOOD thing because it makes this battlefield so "convenient" for them, whereas we lost about an hour trying to locate the almost-unmarked Piedmont battlefield.
 

Jamieva

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Well that is true. I'm sure that proximity and the fact that you can see the museum from the interstate does draw in some people, I am just a stickler that I want as little noise pollution as possible when walking a field. Another great example for me recently was re-visiting Chancellorsville which is also next to a 4 lane road.
 

Frederick14Va

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Excellent write up.. photos effectively captured the atmosphere and lay of the ground very well...

Bushong House... the "closed off" section was an apartment for one of the resident rangers there when I was still doing programs there.... discovered this unexpectedly during one of the weekend programs... Had the Bushong House set up for our medical program... we stayed the night and slept in the house.... Ranger came home late that eve... he didn't know we were in there (with permission of course) ... we were not aware the rangers quarters was attached.... both sides deducting there were possible intruders at hand... a bit comical looking back now.... but a tense few seconds there when we ran face to face into each other in the darkness....
 

James N.

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Once again amazing photos and a great narration to accompany them. Did you see the movie "Field of Lost Shoes?" It was pretty good to view on DVD, did not shoe locally in theaters.

No, I haven't had an opportunity to get it yet, though I've seen it for sale at my local Walmart. The 30 or 40 minute film with the same title they show at the museum here is pretty good, though it suffers from the usual "starving Confederate" extras - and the actor playing Breckinridge too! The cadets themselves were good though.
 
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