The Civil War, Day by Day

Thunder In The Valley

Battle of New Market, Virginia

On May 15, 1864, General John C. Breckenridge led a force of Confederate troops - including cadets from the Virginia Military Institute - against General Franz Sigel’s Federal troops at the Battle of New Market. The Federals were forced to retreat and the Northern invasion of the Shenandoah Valley was stalled.

The spring of 1864 once again found Union troops established at Winchester with the job of driving down the Shenandoah Valley. General Franz Sigel led the task force against the Confederate units, commanded by General John C. Breckenridge, a former vice-president and veteran of Shiloh. Waiting for the cautious Sigel to stretch his supply lines, Breckenridge finally blocked the Union advance at New Market. The small village of 1,000 people was caught between the two armies.

After briefly studying the terrain, Breckenridge announced, “We can attack and whip them here, and I’ll do it.” Sigel’s troops went on the defensive as Confederate artillery pounded them and the Southern infantry swept towards them over the battlefield. Breckenridge’s troops marched through a driving rain. Included in his outnumbered forces were over 200 teenage cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, who marched with parade ground precision, despite the mud, rain and Union fire.

The rain-soaked Breckenridge watched his troops from the blazing guns of Blaine’s Virginia Battery, as Lt. Colonel Scott Ship’s cadets and the 62nd Virginia rushed into the face of Union fire. It was a desperate charge, as the rain fell in torrents and lightning cracked over their heads. Onward they went, sweeping into a Yankee battery, routing the gun crews and staggering the center of Sigel’s line.

It was the turning point of the battle, but at a terrible cost, including the deaths of 8 cadets. The thrust of the Union forces was once again thwarted in the Shenandoah Valley, due to the bravery and skill of a Kentucky general and his Virginia soldiers. The area would have to be taken with more than a handful of men - an entirely new army, one that even John Breckenridge could not stop.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.