NEW MARKET – A crowd gathered at St. Matthew’s Cemetery on Wednesday to remember and honor those who died in the Battle of New Market 155 years ago.
On May 15, 1864, 841 Union troops and 531 Confederate troops died during the conflict – one of the last major victories for the Confederacy in the Shenandoah Valley.
The battle is remembered today in large part as the only time in American history that military school cadets were included in combat. After marching 84 miles from Lexington to New Market, 221 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute made the difference for Confederate Gen. John C. Breckinridge in his attempt to prevent Union troops from reaching their goal of destroying the railroad and canal complex at Lynchburg.
“It’s something to remember,” said Lt. Col. Troy D. Marshall, director of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market, who attended as Wednesday’s guest speaker. “It was that defining moment in their life.”
As a result, five cadets lost their lives that day, another five died from their injuries, and 45 were wounded. The youngest participating cadet was 15, and the oldest 25, VMI reports at its website https://www.vmi.edu/archives/civil-war-and-new-market/battle-of-new-market.
On Wednesday, The Women’s Memorial Society organized its 152nd-anniversary memorial ceremony for dozens of attendees.
“As guardians of the past,” Society President Barbara Blakey welcomed attendees to the cemetery, where fallen cadets and other soldiers were buried after the battle.
“Their legacy lives on and the memories are cherished,” she said.
To most people, the date of May 15 is just another day, she told the crowd. To her, though, “It is a date to reflect on the sacrifices made.”
The yearly memorial service is held at the cemetery’s Confederate Memorial, honoring 142 soldiers from four different cemeteries.
Without this ceremony, Blakey said, these soldiers might be forgotten. “We, as the keepers of their history, must continue to speak to the future.”
The ceremony included an invocation and benediction by the Rev. Bass Mitchell, readings of poems by Karen Whetzel and Teresa Minnick, the presentation of colors by a VMI honor guard, and a performance of “Taps” by Lord Fairfax Community College student Isaiah Wolverton.
Anna Lamma presented a memorial wreath in front of the Confederate Memorial, Elizabeth Whitaker and Josephine Ruth Fawley presented memorial flowers, and Stonewall Jackson High School freshman Daniel Walker performed a solo with guitar accompaniment of the song “Oh, Shenandoah.”
As the guest speaker, Marshall spoke of the “untried and untested corps of cadets” who made the difference between success and defeat for Breckinridge’s army.
Fallen cadets once buried at St. Matthew’s have since been returned to a resting place at VMI, which he called “a family reunion of sorts.”
St. Matthew’s Cemetery is also the site of the Shell-Struck Post, a wooden post with a 3-inch rifle shell fired at the Battle of New Market. The original post has been replaced over the years by replicas to keep it standing in spite of continued attacks from the elements.
On Wednesday the women’s society dedicated a new “exact replica.” Blakey said this is at least the fourth post to stand on that site, though records don’t indicate for sure if there were more. The new post was constructed by carpenter Gerald Sellers.
Blakey said she doesn’t know when the women’s society began its stewardship over the post.
The original post dates at least to 1864, Blakey said. A new one was erected in 1890. Then there’s the one that was replaced on Wednesday.
“I joined in 1983, and we were doing it then,” she said.