Cadets in the Fray
The most celebrated schoolboy performance of the war was the baptism of fire of the Virginia Military Institute Cadet Corps at the Battle of New Market, Virginia-the only such instance in the war. The action took place in the Shenandoah Valley outside the village of New Market, in rolling country between a fork of the Shenandoah River and the flank of Massanutten Mountain. It was fought May 15, 1864, between a Federal force of some 6,500 under General Franz Sigel and Confederates about 4,500 strong, under General John C. Breckinridge.
The Cadets had marched in from Lexington, leaving the younger ones on their campus disconsolate, feeling disgraced at missing the opportunity to fight. The corps was 215 strong when it reached New Market, and was put into the opening battle on Sunday morning. They were eighteen or under, some of them sixteen, and reputedly even younger. (Tradition has it that some were only fourteen.)
They marched behind their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp, twenty-four, who rode a dappled gray horse. The boy soldiers heard their first cheering near the front, as General Breckinridge rode by "like the Cid," in the words of young John Wise, son of a Virginia governor.
Boys in an artillery battery recognized friends among the cadets as they passed, and called gibes:
"Here come the wagon dogs! . . . Ho, bombproofs, get outa them good clothes."
Some cadets wanted to fight for their honor on the spot, but were herded on. John Wise and three others were left behind as a baggage guard, but he made a dramatic speech to his crew and they deserted the post, leaving a Negro driver in charge of the wagon; they joined the cadet column.
Henry Wise, another of Governor Wise's sons, was one of their captains; the night before he had chided the boy soldiers for cursing, and for chicken stealing, but had later eaten some cold fowl in camp with them.
About noon, when a black thundercloud hung over the valley, the cadets joined the Confederate line of battle in the center -the place of honor, the history conscious among them thought. They came to a hill crest, passed their own little battery in action, and went down a slope into the open.
They heard musket fire and artillery, but nothing seemed close until a clap burst overhead. Five men went down in C Company: Captain Govan Hill, and Merritt, Read, Woodlief, and John Wise. just before he lost consciousness Wise saw Sergeant Cabell look at him with a pitying expression.
"Close up, men," Cabell said.
The line reached a ravine within 300 yards of a busy Federal battery-the six fine guns of the 30th New York, under Captain Albert von Kleiser. The ravine gave cover from the cannon, which fired from a crest studded with young cedars. The ditch was filled with cedar scrub, briers, stones, and stumps, and the cadets were a few minutes in passing through; even so, they were out before the older veterans on their flank, the 62nd Virginia.
Once the cadets halted under heavy fire while the file straightened, and the advanced flanks came even with the center. A dwelling, the Bushong House, split their line, and by companies they passed on either side, marking time beyond, restoring the line once more.
Colonel Shipp halted them. "Fix bayonets," he said. Almost immediately he was struck by a shell fragment, and fell. Several cadets were wounded at this moment, and the file lay down. Someone yelled an order to fall back on the next Confederate unit, but Cadet Pizzini of B Company swore and said he would shoot the first man who moved backward.
Captain Henry Wise got to his feet and shouted for a charge on the guns, and the line went up after him.
A Federal Signal Corps captain, Franklin E. Town, on the hill beside Von Kleiser's battery, watched the cadets come on with such fascination that it did not occur to him that he might be captured. The big guns had already changed from shrapnel to canister and then double canister, so that the air was filled with murderous small iron balls. The cadet corps did not falter, and in these last yards lost most of its dead and wounded.
Captain Town saw:
"They came on steadily up the slope. ...Their line was as perfectly preserved as if on dress parade. ....Our gunners loaded at the last without stopping to sponge, and I think it would have been impossible to eject from six guns more missiles than these boys faced in their wild charge up that hill."
The cadets were soon among the Federal gunners with bayonets. Lieutenant Hanna felled one with his dress sword, and Winder Garrett caught one with his bayonet. One cadet found Lieutenant Colonel W.S. Lincoln of the 34th Massachusetts on the ground, pinned by his fallen horse, but still defiant, and ready to shoot with a cocked pistol; the cadet subdued him with a bayonet.
With wild yells the cadets greeted the sight of the Institute flag over the guns, waved by their tall ensign, Evans, and celebrated their victory on the hilltop while the rainstorm broke.
Of John Wise's disobedient baggage guard of four, one was dead and two were wounded. The corps had eight dead and forty-four wounded, all told.
The 62nd Virginia, charging beside them, had seven of its ten captains shot down, four dead, and a total of 241 killed and wounded.
The chase went on for three miles as Sigel's force withdrew to Rude's Hill and beyond, and there was fighting, especially by artillery, after dark.
The next day, when he passed the VMI battery at the roadside, General Breckinridge stopped to pass compliments:
"Boys, the work you did yesterday will make you famous."
Dave Pierce, a boy soldier not too young to understand military life, called back: "Fame's all right, General, but for God's sake where's your commissary wagon?"
An impressive ceremony still a part of VMI life today celebrates May 15 on the Lexington campus. Selected cadets at roll call snap their replies as the names of the New Market casualties are called: "Dead on the field of honor, sir."
Source: Part of a larger piece entitled "How Young They Were" from the book "The Civil War, Strange and Fascinating Facts" by Burke Davis
This Page last updated 02/07/02