Battle of New Market

An engraving shows cadets defending a cannon in a Civil War battle.
"Cadets at New Market" engraving by H.C. Edwards, 1903

"A School History of the United States," 1903

“We were severely whipt… The battle was a disgraceful affair at best.”

L.J. Alleman, 1st New York Veteran Cavalry

In May 1864, US Gen. Franz Sigel moved his army up the Shenandoah Valley to seize rail lines used by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate Gen. John C. Breckenridge pulled together nearby units and cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to defeat Sigel at the Battle of New Market on May 15. Failing to cut the Confederates' supply line, Sigel retreated.

New Market Battlefield

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Sigel's Second Chance

At about the same time Gen. Ulysses S. Grant took overall command of US armies, Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel took command of the Federal Department of West Virginia. Sigel was a 39-year-old German immigrant with significant military experience, but little success in combat. Nevertheless, Sigel was popular in the German-American community and eager to get another chance to command. 

After about six weeks of training and preparing his army of approximately 6,300 soldiers, Sigel marched his men south out of Martinsburg, West Virginia, on April 29, 1864. The force consisted of one infantry division under Brig. Gen. Jeremiah Sullivan, one cavalry division under Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel, and five artillery batteries totaling 48 guns. Both the infantry and cavalry divisions had two brigades. Gen. Grant’s objectives for Sigel were clear: destroy any Confederate forces encountered in the Valley, threaten Lee’s left flank, and capture the railroad hub in Staunton, Virginia. 

Unfortunately for Sigel and his men, Confederate cavalry and partisan rangers reported the Federal movements to the Confederate commander in the Valley, Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge. Although Breckinridge had no real army to command, the intelligence from his horsemen gave him time to gather scattered brigades in the region that were led by capable officers. Sending one brigade to face another Federal threat from the west, Breckinridge summoned the infantry brigades of Brigadier Generals Gabriel Wharton and John Echols, along with the cavalry brigade under Brig. Gen. John Imboden to block Sigel’s advance. He also collected 16 cannons from three batteries. Soon, other reinforcements arrived including a battalion of 257 cadets and an artillery section (two guns) from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). The cadets were full of enthusiasm but had never seen combat. In all, Breckinridge would face Sigel with approximately 4,100 soldiers. 

If he had marched south along the Valley Turnpike quicker, Sigel might have caught the Confederates unprepared for battle, but harassment from Confederate cavalry and heavy rains from May 11 to 15 slowed the Federal convoy. Meanwhile, Breckinridge and his Rebels slogged north, through the rain, hoping to repel the invaders. As the two forces drew closer, skirmishing and small cavalry actions increased. In one particularly noteworthy cavalry firefight, troopers from Imboden’s Confederate cavalry intercepted a Federal cavalry force riding southwest, down from Massanutten Mountain, toward New Market on 13 May. Led by Col. William Boyd, the Federal cavalrymen rode into an ambush and tried to retreat into the cover of trees and rocks at the mountain’s base. Many Federal troopers and horses were killed and wounded when the Confederates employed artillery. Although about half managed to escape, the other Federals became casualties or prisoners. Losing these horsemen from the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry cost Sigel many of his “eyes and ears.” 

Despite the difficulties, Sigel’s army trudged south, deeper into the Valley. Small cavalry actions and infantry skirmishing continued as advance elements of each army pushed toward New Market. Confederates under Imboden took control of Shirley’s Hill, just west of the town, while Federal troops occupied somewhat smaller Manor’s Hill approximately one mile north. Just north of Manor’s Hill was a large farm owned by the Bushong family. Sigel ordered three infantry regiments under Col. Augustus Moor, the 34th Massachusetts, 1st West Virginia, and 123rd Ohio forward to chase Rebels out of New Market and secure the ground around Manor’s Hill and the Bushong Farm. 

Meanwhile, Gen. Breckinridge and most of the Confederate infantry approached New Market from the south through rain and drizzle. An artillery duel broke out as both armies tried to get into position on May 14. Breckinridge ordered Imboden to “hold New Market at all hazards” until the infantry arrived, which he did. The combat-experienced Confederates were quiet and reserved about the coming battle while many of the VMI cadets were anxious to fight.  

When firing started on the morning of May 15, fewer than half the Federal soldiers in Sigel’s force were on the battlefield. A relatively thin defensive line of three infantry regiments, perhaps ten cannons, and supporting cavalry held Manor’s Hill, facing south, from near the North Fork of the Shenandoah River extending east to just north of New Market. The rest of the Federals were marching south on the Valley Pike. The Confederates, however, were already in place, in echelon, along Shirley’s Hill and south of New Market. Although the Rebels had only one infantry regiment, they had four infantry battalions, the cadet battalion, two cavalry regiments, 18 cannons, and other small units and reserves. Ready to attack north was Wharton’s infantry brigade on the Confederate left flank at Shirley’s Hill, with Echols’ infantry brigade on the right flank facing north along the Valley Turnpike. Imboden’s cavalry was just east of Echols. Most of the Confederate artillery was on the north slope of Shirley’s Hill and the cadets were in reserve. Through the morning’s artillery duel, Breckinridge shuffled units around to make his force appear larger; it worked, many Federal troops were intimidated by what appeared to be a sizeable Confederate army.

More Federal troops reached the battlefield and Maj. Gen. Stahel took temporary command before Sigel arrived. With the weather rainy, the ground soggy and getting worse, and Federal reinforcements slowly advancing, Breckinridge decided to attack around noon. Wharton ordered his brigade and dismounted cavalry to move quickly down the open northern slope of Shirley’s Hill to avoid Federal artillery fire. At the same time, Echols’ brigade advanced north on the Valley Pike. The Confederate reserves and VMI cadets followed. The first cadet casualties occurred when Union artillery fire found them as they descended Shirley’s Hill behind Wharton’s brigade including the 51st Virginia. One cadet noted, “the Yankee gunners had gotten the exact range, and their fire began to tell on our line with fearful accuracy.” Federal skirmishers pulled back to their unit lines that were now grudgingly retreating north behind Manor’s Hill. 

Confederate pressure forced the Federal infantry units under Col. Moor into poor, soggy positions between Manor’s Hill and the Bushong Farm. The Federal artillery battery under Capt. Alfred Van Kleiser also pulled back. Confusion within the Union lines developed as Moor slowly gave up more ground to the advancing Confederates and Sigel finally arrived with reinforcements including Col. Thoburn’s exhausted brigade. Sigel established a new defensive line on slightly higher ground near Bushong’s Hill, just north of the Bushong Farm. Elements of six Federal infantry regiments along with supporting cavalry and artillery soon entered this defensive line, but other Federal units marching south with Gen. Sullivan were still miles away from the battlefield.  

Pushing north through rain, drizzle, and mushy ground, the Confederates were winning the early battle. Breckinridge established a long firing line from near the Shenandoah River on his left flank, east to Smith’s Creek on the right. Artillery supported the infantry with the VMI cadets still in reserve. Imboden’s cavalry was near Smith’s Creek prepared to attack the Union left flank. Wharton’s and Echols’ infantry had forced the Union infantry, artillery, and cavalry north to Sigel’s new defensive line near Bushong’s Hill. 

This Federal line, with four infantry regiments including the 34th Massachusetts, 1st West Virginia, 54th Pennsylvania, and 12th West Virginia in reserve, along with four artillery batteries and supporting cavalry on the left flank was reasonably strong with what normally would be good observation and fields of fire. However, on this rainy day, these advantages were minimal.

The Confederates continued their attack across the muddy, soggy ground. Wharton’s brigade on the left and Echols’ brigade along the Valley Pike pressed forward despite the Federal infantry and artillery fire. Col. George Wells, 34th Pennsylvania, remarked, “The rebels advanced in lines of battle…their yelling grew steadily nearer… the air was filled with bullets and bursting shells, and my men began to fall.”  

The battle grew in intensity. Federal cavalry under Gen. Stahel attacked south, parallel to the Valley Pike, but was repelled by Confederate artillery and the 22nd, 23rd, and 62nd Virginia infantry regiments. In the rain and mud, the Rebels chopped up this ill-advised cavalry charge and minimalized Stahel’s horsemen for the rest of the battle. The 54th Pennsylvania also attacked south along the Valley Pike but was forced to retreat. Wharton’s and Echols’ Rebel brigades continued their attacks in the rain, mud, and confusion. Neither side made much progress, but a gap developed between Wharton’s regiments and those closer to the Valley Pike. A small unit of Missourians temporarily filled this Rebel weak point, but a larger unit was needed to plug the gap and prevent a Union breakthrough. 

Unfortunately for Gen. Breckinridge, the only significant unit left in reserve was his battalion of VMI cadets. Reluctantly, Breckinridge ordered the cadets under Lt. Col. Scott Shipp (spelled “Ship” in some sources) into battle. The advancing cadets immediately received artillery fire and sustained casualties but closed their ranks and marched on toward the Bushong House. More wounded cadets fell. Cadets McDowell, Atwill, Jefferson, Smith, and Randolph were killed or wounded. Lt. Col. Shipp was hit by a shell fragment. The cadets, along with the 51st Virginia and other Rebel regiments pressed on toward the Union lines hoping to capture the Federal artillery pieces along Bushong Hill. Counterattacking, the 34th Massachusetts and 1st West Virginia regiments, along with supporting artillery, were repulsed by Rebel fire. It was here that the 34th Massachusetts suffered its highest casualties of the day. The wounded Lt. Col. Shipp of the cadets reported, “the fire was withering…here we sustained our heaviest loss.”  

Temporarily pinned down, the cadets’ officers ordered their young troops to fix bayonets, advance toward the enemy, and capture cannons. Crouching near a rail fence, the cadets climbed the fence and pursued the retreating 34th Massachusetts and the artillery battery under Capt. Alfred von Kleiser. The cadets crossed a muddy depression that pulled off many of their shoes, thus earning the field its nickname, “the Field of Lost Shoes.” One cadet later wrote, “the mud was nearly knee deep, many of us lost our shoes in the mud.”  In hand-to-hand combat, the cadets captured one cannon, then helped drive off the 34th Massachusetts and other Union remnants. Estimates vary, but the cadets also captured approximately 80 Federal soldiers. 

Meanwhile, other Confederate units pressed their attacks. Wharton’s brigade, including the 51st Virginia, captured Bushong’s Hill while the 26th Virginia advanced just to the cadets’ left. Both the 51st and 26th Virginia claimed to have captured Union artillery pieces. Just east, near the Valley Pike, the 22nd Virginia (commanded by Col. George S. Patton, grandfather of Gen. George S. Patton of World War II fame), and the 62nd Virginia infantry attacked. What remained of the Federal defensive line collapsed. Union commander Sigel’s reserve, the 12th West Virginia, fought back but was stretched way too thin to stop the Rebel momentum. 

The battle quickly became a rout as Federal soldiers fled north through the fields toward safety, or headed east to the Valley Pike, then north. After nearly being captured, Sigel himself eventually left the battlefield, accompanied by his staff and soldiers of the 12th West Virginia. Although several Federal units retreated in reasonably good order, no amount of coaxing or threats by officers and sergeants could get the soldiers to turn around and fight for long. 

Hoping to catch the retreating Federals before they crossed the Shenandoah River bridge near Mount Jackson, Breckinridge pushed his force north minus one notable unit. Left behind, but now with plenty of combat experience, were the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute. They had suffered 59 casualties including 10 deaths and had been key in driving the Federals into retreat north of the Bushong Farm.  

Fortunately for Sigel, his rear guard, including the artillery battery under Capt. Henry DuPont, slowed the Confederate pursuit and allowed the Federals to escape across the rain-swollen Shenandoah River. The Federals then burned the bridge. After approximately 744 Union casualties and 588 Confederate, the battle of New Market was over, along with Sigel’s command. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Sigel relieved and replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter on 21 May. Hunter, too, would fail in the Shenandoah Valley and in August 1864 be replaced by Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan.

Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park

Last updated: February 1, 2023