NEW MARKET – There were mixed opinions over whether to allow military school cadets to fight as soldiers in the Civil War.
About a third of the cadets at Virginia Military Institute in 1864 were there to get officer training, said Lt. Col. Troy D. Marshall, director of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market.
The other two-thirds, he said, “were your kid brother who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
These 257 cadets are being remembered this weekend along with 4,086 Confederate soldiers under John C. Breckinridge and 6,275 Union soldiers under Franz Sigel who engaged in battle at New Market on May 15, 1864.
The 155th anniversary of the Battle of New Market Reenactment will take place Saturday and Sunday on the historic battlefield.
One of the oldest continual reenactments in the U.S., the two-day event offers a chance for visitors to experience Civil War soldier life, witness ongoing demonstrations and living history presentations, and “walk in history’s footsteps,” according to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s website, http://www.shenandoahatwar.org/history/battle-of-new-market.
Food will be available from vendors, and souvenir tables will be set up along Sutler Row.
Admission is $10 for anyone 10 and older. Younger visitors get in free. Advance tickets are available by phone at 540-740-4545.
“It very much is a family type event,” Marshall said.
The reenactment remembers, in particular, the sacrifice made by the 841 soldiers and 10 young cadets who died fighting off Union forces to protect the region’s resources.
Union troops had been marching south with a goal of destroying the railroad and canal complex at Lynchburg. The Battle of New Market was one of the last major Confederate victories in the Shenandoah Valley.
It was also “the only instance in American history where a student body – the VMI Corps of Cadets – participated in a pitched battle,” the foundation reports on its website.
Cadets from VMI were ordered to join Breckinridge’s troops at Staunton and continue on to New Market, the VMI website reports at https://www.vmi.edu/archives/civil-war-and-new-market/battle-of-new-market. They marched 84 miles, arriving in New Market on May 15, 1864. Cannon fire from Union troops had left a hole in the Confederate army’s front line, so the cadets filled that space to help secure a Confederate win.
The cadets’ involvement inflated the army’s ranks, Marshall explained. They charged and successfully captured a Union cannon. Ten young men died in battle or later succumbed to their injuries. Another 45 were wounded. The youngest participating cadet was 15 and the oldest 25.
“For them, it shouldn’t have been this way,” Marshall said.
The hope for all VMI cadets is that they will never see battle, he said. But life sometimes requires the sort of “personal courage and integrity” demonstrated by the brave cadets who marched on New Market.
Now, 155 years later, their story is still recalled each year to incoming VMI cadets during summer orientation.
The Civil War cadets will also be remembered this weekend among 1,600 reenactors – a number Marshall said is unusually large.
Five years ago, for the 150th anniversary, he said there were about 1,300 reenactors.
The tradition of New Market “sham battles” began in 1914. That year, they had 28 Civil War cadet veterans and 6,000 spectators in attendance. Their next big reenactment in 1923 brought 100,000 spectators.
Reenactments are basically a “living map,” said Marshall, a veteran of the Coast Guard. “I’m a visual learner, so I enjoy a reenactment.”
It’s also good for the town of New Market, he said, attracting thousands to the area and encouraging more business at area stores and restaurants.
In particular, Marshall finds the Civil War reenactments interesting because of how the war ended.
The South lost to the North, he said, but the result was that the two sides united (however forcefully) into one United States.
Civil wars don’t usually go too well, he said.
“We’re telling this story, our greatest national drama, to the world.”