By Josette Keelor
Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge is remembered 150 years after the Battle of New Market for an order that sent 257 young cadets to war.
"Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order," he famously said.
It was a tough decision that drew ridicule from combat veterans, said Maj. Troy D. Marshall, site director of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, part of Virginia Military Institute museum system. Veterans offered cadets sugar cloths as baby pacifiers. The youngest was 15, the oldest 25, and no one thought they would come back alive.
"It's the story of the underdog," Marshall said.
At a desperate time, in a desperate hour, on a desperate day they risked their lives for their homeland, Marshall said, and for that, every year, cadets at VMI still honor what happened on May 15, 1864.
"It's a tradition that has no time," Marshall said. "Their memory is very short for the loss of these cadets."
They left as boys and returned as heroes. Breckinridge welcomed them as men.
On Thursday morning, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Market will begin at the battlefield museum with two special public showings of the film "Field of Lost Shoes," starring actor Jason Isaacs as Breckinridge and Tom Skerritt as Ulysses S. Grant, before the world premier Monday at the GI Film Festival in Alexandria and Washington.
Free with park admission, seats for the showings at 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. are first come, first serve in the 130-seat theater.
Battle tours will take place Thursday, but most anniversary events start Friday with programs like the all-day Living History: At the Bushong Farm, an open gun salute at 11 a.m. with spectator viewing at the Days Inn, a book signing and author talk by New York Times best-selling author Jeff Shaara from 1 to 2 p.m. and the reenactment "Thunder Along Smith Creek" at 3:30 p.m.
Reenactments over the weekend will be "The Opening Engagement" at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and "Battle of New Market" at 2 p.m. Sunday.
"We're very excited and have been planning this event for truly 16, 17 months," Marshall said.
Anticipating the anniversary, museum staff sent out more than 1,000 letters to descendents of those who fought in the battle, about a third of which he said had no knowledge of their connection to the battlefield.
This year's events will have double the re-enactors, with civilian re-enactors explaining the story of the home front that Marshall said makes understanding the war a lot easier.
"It's a small battle, but it's very, very important," he said. Had Union soldiers taken control of the valley in May, they would have affected the year's crop harvest, he said. On top of that, Gen. Robert E. Lee had no troops to spare for New Market.
Breckinridge considered all this before making his decision.
"It goes back to what makes a cadet special today," Marshall said. "Duty sometimes is hard."
The 150th Anniversary Battle of New Market Reenactment will be from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday at 8895 George Collins Drive, New Market. Tickets are $10 for ages 10 and older and free to others. For a full schedule of events, call 866-515-1864 or visit www2.vmi.edu/museum/nm/reenactment/reen%20announce.htm
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org