The Battle of New Market, fought on May 15, 1864, was part of Union
general Franz Sigel's attempt to
sweep the Shenandoah
Valley of Confederate troops in conjunction with General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign during the
American Civil War (1861–1865).
While Grant battled Confederate general Robert E. Lee at the Wilderness and then at Spotsylvania Court House, he sent Sigel into the Valley to prevent the
Confederates there from reinforcing Lee. Confederate general John C. Breckinridge
quickly cobbled together two brigades of infantry, some cavalry, even a couple of hundred cadets from
the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, and confronted Union
forces at the village of New Market. There, he attacked Sigel and was beaten back,
but Sigel's counteradvance wavered. At about three o'clock in the afternoon, in a
driving rainstorm, Breckinridge
called for the cadets—"May God forgive me," he reportedly said—and ordered them and
the rest of his men to charge. Sigel was forced to retreat across the Shenandoah River, burning the
bridge behind him. Forty-seven VMI cadets were wounded and ten killed in the action,
but Breckinridge's forces were now free to reinforce Lee north of Richmond. MORE...
On May 2, 1864, Sigel marched south from
Winchester with 9,000 men.
Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant, who understood the Valley's importance in
sustaining Lee's army through men and supplies, directed Sigel to clear the area
of Confederates. Lee gave the responsibility of confronting Sigel to a former
United States senator from Kentucky and vice president under James Buchanan who,
as a proslavery, states'-rights moderate, had come in second behind Abraham Lincoln in the U.S. presidential
election of 1860. Breckinridge lacked formal military training but had
acquitted himself well in the Western Theater at Shiloh in 1862 and Chickamauga in
1863. Now, however, he was outnumbered and forced to muster hastily whatever
forces he could find. His skeletal army that spring numbered only about 5,300
troops, which included two brigades of infantry, 1,500 cavalrymen under General
John D. Imboden, and 257
VMI cadets commanded by Colonel Scott Shipp. "I trust you will drive the enemy
back," Lee told him.
On May 11, Imboden captured 464 Union cavalrymen near Port Royal. The next day
Breckinridge's main force reached Staunton but stayed only a day before marching north to meet Sigel. The
slow-moving Union forces, fighting off Imboden's horsemen, arrived in the area
around Woodstock and Mount Jackson on May 14. Several miles to the south,
meanwhile, was New Market, population 1,422, a farming village that sat at the
crossroads of the Valley Turnpike and the only road over Massanutten Mountain to
the east. Sigel coveted control of New Market Gap because it would allow his
forces quickly to cross the Blue Ridge and swoop down on Lee's left flank. For the moment, though,
he was bogged down by heavy spring rains that had washed out nearly all the roads
except the macadamized Pike.
On the morning of May 14, 1864, Imboden's
cavalry engaged a detachment of the 1st New York Cavalry just northwest of New
Market, where the Union horsemen were attempting to secure a bridge over the North
Fork of the Shenandoah River. Sigel reinforced the New Yorkers with a brigade of
infantry under Colonel Augustus Moor and an overwhelmed Imboden was forced to
retreat to New Market that evening. Early the next morning, Breckenridge arrived
from Lacey's Springs and sent both cavalry and artillery against Moor in an
attempt to lure the Union forces into attacking him. After a heated artillery
duel, Breckinridge advanced on the Union line at ten o'clock, pushing Moor's men
back while Imboden's cavalry attacked the Union left flank, pressing east to get
around Sigel's left and cut off his only avenue of withdrawal.
Sigel, a German-born general with a much greater gift for politics than for
warfare, arrived on the battlefield at eleven and ordered Moor's Connecticuters
and Ohioans back. As they abandoned New Market, Breckinridge's men marched through
town and took up positions to the north. By two o'clock, through a driving rainstorm, blinding smoke, and
deepening mud, they had pushed the Union forces all the way back to Bushong Hill.
There, Sigel deployed eighteen of his guns and aimed them at Breckinridge's
still-advancing line. They wreaked a predictable havoc, especially on five Virginia regiments that
were thrown back from the Bushong Farm.
By 2:40 p.m. the Confederate advance had faltered, and at 3 p.m. Sigel organized a
hasty and uncoordinated counterattack of infantry under Moor and Colonel Joseph
Thoburn and cavalry under General Julius Stahel. "I dinks we fight him a little,"
Sigel told one of his gunners, and indeed he was now taking the battle to
Breckinridge. The problem for Sigel was that much of his army was still marching
along the Valley Turnpike, en route to New Market. When his attack was stymied by
Confederate artillery and sharpshooter fire, he had no reinforcements on which to
call. And his artillery batteries, including one commanded by Captain Albert von
Kleiser, suddenly became vulnerable. Breckinridge saw his chance.
Shortly after three o'clock, the
Confederate general ordered another attack on Bushong Hill, this time calling in
the boys from VMI. "They are only children," he had told an aide earlier in the
day, but in fact their average age was eighteen, and reminiscent of the "foot
cavalry" made famous two years earlier by Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson they had marched
eighty miles from Lexington to New Market in just a few days. When a
hundred-yard-or-more gap in the Confederate lines opened up where the Virginians
had retreated under heavy artillery fire, Breckinridge used the cadets to plug the
hole and sent them after the Union battery. The cadets charged across a field so
muddy that some of their shoes were sucked off their feet—hence the legendary
"Field of Lost Shoes"—and eventually they were able to take Kleiser's battery and
even a few members of the 34th Massachusetts. Sigel's men began to panic, with
Sigel himself riding up and down the line, "all jabbering in German," as one of
his officers recalled, so that "the purely American portion of his staff were
totally useless to him."
The main body of Sigel's army fell back to Rude's Hill, while his regiments east
of the Valley Turnpike, with the help of Captain Henry DuPont's battery, covered
the retreat. In the face of DuPont's fire, Breckinridge halted the Confederate
advance at about four o'clock. He was soon met by Imboden, who reported that he
had failed to maneuver behind the Union troops and destroy that bridge over the
Shenandoah River. The last of Sigel's troops crossed over at seven, burning the
bridge behind them. Marching all night and through the next day to distance
himself from the Confederates, Sigel arrived at Strasburg on the evening of May 16. He had suffered
831 casualties, including 256 missing (most of them captured) and 96 men killed,
while Breckenridge's casualties numbered 577, including 43 killed, 10 of whom were
The battle and the subsequent retreat of
Sigel's army successfully secured Lee's left flank, and Breckinridge marched his
small force east to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia. The cadets went
along as far as Richmond before returning to VMI on June 10. Also in June,
Confederate general Jubal A.
Early took advantage of the cleared-out Valley to march his newly created
Army of the Valley all the
way to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Sigel, beloved by a large and important
constituency of German-Americans, had up to then managed the political end of his
military appointment brilliantly; now the military end of his military appointment
caught up with him, and Lincoln relieved him of his command. The Valley,
meanwhile, played host to the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
in which Sigel's successor, Union general David Hunter, employed hard-war tactics, which included the
burning of VMI on June 12.
July 8, 1864
- Union general Franz Sigel's inability to prevent Confederate general Jubal A. Early from leading his Army of the Valley to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., leads him to be relieved of command.