Breckinridge’s Boys

My mother recently purchased several books for me from the local Goodwill store at highly discounted prices. One of them, The Battle of New Market by William C. Davis, begins with a concise description of the Shenandoah Valley and its value to the Confederacy. Davis clearly outlines the battle strategy used by both Union and Confederate leaders as they confronted each other in the Valley. He completes the story with personal information about some of the individual actors in this drama of War.

William C. Davis is a well-recognized name as a historian of The War to Prevent Southern Independence. He is the former editor of Civil War Times Illustrated and author of several books, including Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol and The Orphan Brigade.

The author does a good job of describing the topography of the Shenandoah Valley with the use of a map. He explains how the gaps in the mountain ranges could lead the enemy right into the heart of the Confederacy at Richmond, Virginia.

To the west of the Valley were the Allegheny Mountains and to the east of the Valley were the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Massanutten Mountains ran down the center of the Valley for 45 miles with a gap near its center.  This gap was large enough to accommodate the passage of an army with its horses, men and weapons.  It lay close to the little village of New Market, Virginia.

By April of 1864, General Lee was hearing rumors of a possible Union invasion from the north into the Valley.  Lee was facing Gen. Ulysses Grant at Richmond and he feared that an invasion from the Valley would be able to get to his flank as this would place the enemy only 60 miles from his beleaguered men.

According to Davis, General Lee was unable to spare any troops to aid in the defense of the Valley.  No one could determine accurately where or when the Union forces would invade. Lee had lost the General who kept the Valley clean of Yanks, as Stonewall Jackson was then moldering in his grave in Lexington, Virginia.

Lee appointed a Kentuckian, Gen. John Cabal Breckinridge, to stop any Union attempt to invade the Shenandoah Valley. On Page 26 of the book:  “Lee, though he barely knew the Kentuckian was handing him a trust he had given to no other since the mighty Stonewall.”  General Breckinridge would have the military assistance of Generals Imboden, Wharton, and Echols.                                                                    

The rumor of an impending invasion proved to be correct, as General Grant soon ordered Gen. Franz Sigel to prepare to invade the Valley. Union General Sigel moved slowly into the Valley with almost 9,000 men under his command while General Breckinridge was struggling to recruit a satisfactory force to confront Sigel. He managed to call up more than 5,000 men to attempt to keep Siegel from any connection with Grant at Richmond.  Next is a war dated image of General Breckinridge.                                                                                             

On May 10, 1864, the Cadets at Virginia Military Institute held their first anniversary memorial for Stonewall Jackson’s death. He had been a professor at V.M.I. before the War. That very same evening, they received the request from General Breckinridge to join him and prepare for battle.  Breckinridge regretted being forced to make this request, but he hoped to only use the Cadets as reserves.

Davis states that V. M. I. forwarded 264 young men to the front along with several artillery pieces. These Cadets were the cream of Virginia’s youth. Their average age was just under 18. Several of the Cadets fell ill in Staunton before the battle. There was some lighthearted ridicule directed at the young men by the old veterans as they gathered.

General Sigel moved cautiously into the Valley and was dogged by the likes of Capt. John H. McNeill, Maj. Harry W. Gilmor, Lt. Col. John S. Mosby under Gen. John D. Imboden.  Partisan Capt. T. Sturgis Davis and his small band also harassed the Yanks. Sigel’s men got strung out along the road into the Valley due to the continued attacks.

When the actually battle took place on May 15, 1864, General Breckinridge still remained outnumbered, but General Siegel’s command had become badly separated north of New Market.  During the battle, a dangerous gap developed in the middle of Breckinridge’s lines as he engaged the enemy.  He was forced into calling the Cadet reserves to fill this gap.  They marched forward into battle and onto the pages of glory.

Breckinridge’s outnumbered soldiers were able to force the Union army north until it became an unstoppable rout. General Siegel attempted to make another stand, but it also failed and away the Yanks ran back to their lairs.  They skedaddled across the bridge over the North Shenandoah River and burned it as they left the Valley. Unfortunately, Breckinridge was not able to destroy their entire army, because he was unable to cross the river after the bridge had been destroyed.

The V.M.I. Cadets lost 10 dead and 47 wounded out of a total of 258 actually engaged. The Cadets were received with rave reviews as they marched back to V.M.I.  The folks of the Valley felt as though they had seen the bold actions of another Stonewall in the person of General Breckinridge. He received congratulations from General Lee.

The paperback edition of The Battle of New Market is 249 pages with eight pages of photographs and seven maps.  It was published by Doubleday & Company, Inc. in 1983 and lists for $18.95.  The ISBN number is 0-8071-1078-7.

General John Cabal Breckinridge became a Southern hero in our fight for Freedom during The War to Suppress Southern Independence. Though the state of Kentucky remained in the hands of the Yankee enemy, many brave Kentuckians fought for the Confederacy. Even the old veterans would later agree that Breckinridge’s boys proved themselves to be men at the battle of New Market.

Nancy Hitt - 2008 ©  2010 quantrillsguerrillas.com. "Permission should be requested and agreed to before using this copyrighted essay." Below are two images of an extremely rare post war medal awarded to the VMI Cadets who fought at New Market. ENJOY! 



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