"New Market Echoes"
By Richard Lewis


Like so many places in the South, the Civil War left its indelible mark on the Virginia Military Institute. The cadet barracks building still bears the scars of its 1864 destruction. The VMI post is littered with monuments and memorials that remind modern-day cadets and visitors of VMI's outstanding combat record during the 1860s.

Only 22 years old at the outbreak of the war, VMI nonetheless was a major supplier of talent for the Confederate officer corps. Former cadets and faculty served with distinction at every level of the Confederate high command. Prior to launching his famed attack at Chancellorsville, former VMI professor Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson remarked that the institute would be "heard from" on that day. Indeed, VMI was heard from distinctly on that day and on days before and after.

But on no day was VMI heard from so clearly as on May 15, 1864, at the Battle of New Market. That day remains as the defining moment for VMI, for it was then that the wartime corps of cadets--many of whom were deemed too young for active field service--went under fire for the first time and spearheaded a Confederate victory.

The Shenandoah Valley was called the "Breadbasket of the Confederacy" and for good reason. Valley farms were a major food source for the often-hungry Confederate army. The valley also was an excellent north-south route for Confederate forces. It was, therefore, a key military target for the Union.

In the spring of 1864, a Union force under Gen. Franz Sigel was making its way southward up the valley (note: when traveling south, one goes "up" the valley as it rises in elevation from north to south.) Sigel's objective was the town of Staunton where he could effectively cut the Virginia Central Railroad, one of the major suppliers of Robert E. Lee's army. Confronting Sigel were Confederates under Gen. John C. Breckinridge. Though Sigel's force numbered only 6,500 troops, Breckinridge had but 4,500.

With Confederate manpower already at a shortage, VMI's cadets were placed under arms and marched northward to join Breckinridge. The corps had been called out before, notably during Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign. But the cadets' duties had been strictly of a non-combat nature.

The 257 VMI cadets--some as old as 25 and some as young as 15, but most of them teenagers--joined Breckenridge's troops at Staunton on May 12. The veteran soldiers mocked the beardless boys of the corps by singing "Rock-a Bye Baby" and urging them to go home to their mothers. It would not be long before these young men would win the veterans' unabashed respect, along with immortality.

Marching northward, Breckinridge confronted Sigel near the village of New Market on May 15 in the midst of a driving rainstorm. Though Sigel was a man of less-than-imposing military talents, his troops fought hard and well, and he also had the advantage of terrain. Some of his artillery had found position atop a hill which overlooked the large farm and homestead of the Bushong family. Any chance of Confederate victory depended on the silencing of those guns.

Having already committed most of his troops in the battle, Breckinridge reluctantly ordered the VMI corps into line. Under fire for the first time, the cadets formed their ranks and marched forward through the Bushong farm. Union guns atop the hill quickly found their mark and soon exploding shells tore into the cadet ranks. With schoolmates falling at their sides, the cadets pressed forward through the rain and battle smoke.

Dividing their formation to pass around the Bushong house, the corps found itself pinned down in the Bushong orchard by the fire from federal cannon and infantry on the hill now looming on the left of the cadets. Some of the veteran units began to waver in the face of the Union fire. A moment of truth was at hand.

At the given command, the cadets fixed bayonets and moved forward from their position, going straight for the Union battery across a marshy field and up the ridge incline. The rain had rendered the field a quagmire and the mud literally sucked the shoes from the feet of the cadets as they advanced into the face of the destructive fire. Incredibly, the corps maintained near perfect composure as they followed their big color ensign, Oliver Evans, up the hill. A Union captain later remarked, "They came on steadily up the slope...Their line was as perfectly preserved as if they were on dress parade."

Moving irresistibly forward, the VMI cadets were soon among the cannon, fighting hand-to-hand with the artillerists who had not already fled. In one of the dramatic moments of the war, color bearer Evans leapt atop one of the Union guns, waving the distinctive VMI flag over his head. Within minutes, the Union line atop the ridge gave way as Union gunners and infantry ran for the rear.

It was an incredible moment in American military history. A group of young and untested college students had taken on veteran soldiers and won under the worst of conditions. But the victory had come at a terrible cost to the VMI cadets. In the path of their historic assault lay the bleeding forms of 55 of their comrades. Ten cadets lay dead or dying on the field while another 45 had suffered wounds.

One of the grievously wounded cadets lying on the soggy ground was youthful Thomas G. Jefferson, a direct descendant of President Thomas Jefferson. Hit by cannon fire and with life ebbing away, Jefferson soon found comfort in the person of his roommate, Cadet Moses Ezekiel, who had come to find him after the battle was over. Ezekiel procured a wagon and had Jefferson taken to a nearby house and placed in a bed. There he lingered for three days.

With life's energy waning away, Jefferson asked Ezekiel to read to him from the Bible. Ezekiel, the first Jewish cadet at VMI, opened the book to the New Testament and read to his friend from John 1:4, "In my Father's house there are many mansions..." As others looked on, observing Jew and Gentile united in the bond of brotherhood.

Jefferson thanked his beloved friend who now held him in his arms. "Moses," he said, "it is getting darker and darker." Seventeen-year-old cadet Thomas G. Jefferson then passed on into the corps Eternal.

Today the bodies of six of the cadets killed at New Market lie buried at VMI beheath a monument surmounted by an inspiring bronze statue, the work of one of the world's most celebrated sculptors of the 1800s.

Moses Ezekiel returned to VMI after the war and graduated in the class of 1866. From youth, he had displayed a remarkable artistic talent. One such person who recognized Ezekiel's gift was Robert E. Lee, then president of neighboring Washington College. With encouragement from Lee and others, Ezekiel pursued studies in art, eventually traveling to Europe where he spent the remainder of his life. Ezekiel's talent in sculpture was such that he became one of Europe's most famous artists and was knighted by Italy's king.

In the late 1800s Sir Moses Ezekiel heard of plans to erect a memorial to VMI's New Market dead. Years before, he had executed a piece which he had kept stored in plaster. This work, which he called "Virginia Mourning Her Dead," he quickly offered to the institute. The title figure he described as a woman clad in chain mail sitting in an attitude of mourning atop a piece of breastwork, one hand holding a reversed lance and with her foot resting on a broken cannon covered with ivy.

The statue was sent to Lexington from Rome and was placed on the parade ground in front of the Jackson Arch in 1903. In 1912 it was moved to its present location, at which time the bodies of the six cadets were buried beneath it. Among the remains are those of Cadet Thomas G. Jefferson. Fittingly, the hands in which he died were the same that crafted the memorial atop his final resting place--those of Sir Moses Ezekiel.

Every May 15th, VMI observes the anniversary of the Battle of New Market with a moving ceremony in front of Ezekiel's statue. In full-dress uniform, the VMI senior class stands at attention facing the parade ground as the class roll is called. The names of the ten cadets killed at New Market are inserted alphabetically into the roll, and when one of their names is called, a designated cadet answers, "Died on the field of honor."

Another icon of New Market, one with its own intriguing story and creator, is the beautiful mural of the cadet charge which graces VMI's Jackson Memorial Hall. Completed in 1914, the artist was Benjamin West Clinedinst, VMI class of 1880. By the turn of the century, Clinedinst had established a fine reputation as a portrait artist and was living in New York City. Approached by a fellow alumnus and asked to create the mural, Clinedinst agreed to accept the commission at no fee.

The mural became a labor of love for the artist as he painstakingly researched every aspect of the charge of the cadets. Clinedinst came to Lexington and had members of the VMI corps don reproduction wartime uniforms and pose with broomsticks and shovels for guns. He and his son, Wendel, took VMI cadets to the scene of the charge at New Market and photographed them running across the field and up the hill, noting the attitudes of their figures as they slipped, tripped and fell.

After preliminary studies were completed, Clinedinst began painting on three-foot sections of Belgian canvas. The completed work measures 23 feet high and 18 feet wide and is one of the country's largest canvas paintings. Originally mounted in the old Jackson Hall, the painting was moved under the supervision of Clinedinst to its present location in 1917.

That would have presumably ended Clinedinst's active association with the mural were it not for the fact that his son Wendel volunteered for service in World War I. Wendel had served as the model for the figure of a cadet seen in the painting reeling backwards from a gunshot wound to the head. As Wendel departed for Europe, Clinedinst dreamed that his son would die in battle and, determined to remove Wendel's face from the mural, traveled again to Lexington.

Late one night, a cadet sentry noticed a light inside Jackson Memorial Hall. Entering, he found Clinedinst on a platform, pallet and brush in hand, about to paint over his son's image. Gen. Nichols, the superintendent, was summoned and persuaded the aged artist to return to his hotel. Nichols' success was short-lived, however, as later that night an agonizing Clinedinst again returned to the painting. Again, Nichols remonstrated with the artist, assuring him that no harm would come to the son.

Benjamin Clinedinst returned to New York and the painting remained intact. So did Wendel Clinedinst, who returned intact following the conclusion of World War I. In fact, the younger Clinedinst was forever proud that his face graced the mural his father painted, returning as late as the 1970's to see it.

The largest Lexington vestige of the Battle of New Market is Jackson Memorial Hall itself, though only related to that battle by a tangent line.

Later in the summer of 1864, another Union force moved southward through the valley. This force was commanded by Gen. David Hunter, at best a third-rate soldier but an arsonist of the highest caliber. A native Virginian but an ardent abolitionist, Hunter delighted in burning all that lay in his path that summer, including the homes of kinspeople and former friends.

After brushing aside minor resistance north of Lexington, Hunter entered the town and immediately put his torches to work, burning the home of Virginia governor John Letcher. Incensed that the VMI corps had participated in the Battle of New Market, Hunter ordered the institute buildings destroyed. As flames rose from the barracks, Hunter was heard to gleefully cluck, "Doesn't it burn splendidly?"

Not all of Hunter's men were so enthusiastic. A soldier writing home to his wife of the burning said, "It was a pity to do it, but I suppose it could not be helpt."

Another reluctant soldier was Hunter's chief of artillery, young Henry A. duPont. A native of Delaware, duPont had applied for admission to VMI in 1857 because his father and VMI Superintendent Francis H. Smith had been roommates at West Point. At that time, VMI only accepted applicants from Virginia, so young duPont entered West Point. June of 1864 found duPont unhappily firing artillery shells at the school he had preferred. Among his lengthy and honorable war experience was artillery duty at the Battle of New Market.

DuPont later became a United States Senator and in the early 1900s introduced a bill to provide money to VMI in payment for damages caused by Hunter's orders. The Senate authorized a payment of $100,000 and with those funds the institute built the long-awaited memorial to Stonewall Jackson.

Jackson Memorial Hall was designed by Bertram Goodhue, who also drew the plans for the cadet chapel at West Point. It was completed in 1916.

Not just a statue, not just a painting, not just a building--VMI's vestiges of New Market are stories unto themselves.


 

 



 

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