About the Battle

VMI Cadets Fight Alongside Confederate Troops

On May 10, 1864, the VMI Corps of Cadets was ordered to join Gen. John C. Breckinridge's Southwest Virginia forces with the expectation of a coming battle in the upper Shenandoah Valley. After marching nearly 85 miles northward, the entire Corps arrived at New Market on May 15, set to defend the Valley from the pressing Union army under Gen. Franz Sigel.

Taking heavy fire from the Union, the Confederate front line was severed, creating a gap of some 350 feet. Originally, Breckenridge refused the advice of one of his officers to send in the Corps, saying, “This will not do. … I cannot expose them to such a fire as our center will receive.” Breckenridge soon realized he had no choice, and he reluctantly ordered the the cadets to fill the gap.

Remarkably, the cadets closed the gap, allowing the Confederate forces to regroup and push back the Union army. Eventually, Breckenridge forced Sigel and his men to retreat, securing the battlefield and the Valley for the Confederacy.

Many cadets lost their footwear in the freshly plowed soil, turned to thick mud after several days of rain. That battlefield became known as the “Field of Lost Shoes.” The cadet charge, and the shoe-scattered field, are depicted in a painting, New Market Battle, by Benjamin West Clinedinst, VMI Class of 1880, a dominant feature in Jackson Memorial Hall since its unveiling in 1914.

The days following the battle were filled with care for the more than 40 cadets wounded and marching. The cadets were ordered from Staunton to Richmond to Lexington to Lynchburg and back to Lexington again, before being furloughed on June 27, 1864.

The burning of VMI at the order of Union Gen. David Hunter took place during this period, on June 12, and classes did not resume on the VMI post until October 1865.