Remarks at the New Market Descendents Reception

As the sun set over the Bushong farm 150 years ago on this date, May 16, the 257 members of the VMI Corps of Cadets finally had a chance to begin to reflect on the events of the previous 48 hours

It is easy to imagine that the cadets were ecstatic with the knowledge that their critical role on the battlefield had assured victory for the Confederate effort. Yet, in those early hours, the cadet corps could not have known that they had created an event unique in American history – never before, nor since, has a college student body participated in pitched combat as an independent unit and achieved victory.

Those hours were transformative. The Bushong farm was now a battleground – it would, in time, resume its role as a farm and home for the family who had settled here almost 50 years earlier, but now it also was forever a battlefield. In those 48 hours lives, were changed as well. Two hundred fifty-seven college boys were caught up in the swirling experiences of chaos and courage, of exhaustion and exhilaration, of violence and victory, of life and death.

Even as they began to untangle their emotions, the reality of the moment demanded their attention.   Forty-seven wounded Brother Rats – that’s what we call classmates – needed medical care. At this hour on May 16, Cadet Moses Ezekiel, the first Jewish cadet at VMI – realized that the grasp on life itself was slipping away from his best friend – Cadet Thomas Jefferson, descendent of the president. In those last hours, Jefferson asked Ezekiel to read to him from the New Testament – “In My Father’s House there are many mansions. …”  In all, 10 cadets – Atwill, Cabell, Crocket, Haynes, Hartsfield, Jones, Jefferson, McDowell, Standard and Wheelright – would die, all young lives of promise.

These hours were the defining moments for those who lived. When we examine what became of those cadets who fought here, it is startling to realize the high level of achievement in their life beyond the battlefield and VMI. 

As great as was their accomplishment on the field of battle, perhaps their greatest triumph is found when they laid aside the dress of the soldier for the attire of the citizen. Cadets with family names of Colonna, Powell, Horsley, Wood, James, Corling and 250 others continue to impact the course of American history. In numbers disproportionate to what statistics would suggest, they became agents of change in the new nation born from civil war. In ways large and small they contributed to society. They pursued careers and, certainly of great importance to all of you here this evening, raised families!

Nearly a dozen pursued the arts – including Cadet Moses Ezekiel, whose sculpture Virginia Mourning Her Dead located at VMI marks the graves of six of the New Market casualties. Ezekiel completed this moving allegorical statue just five years after the battle – five years after he held the dying Jefferson in his arms. I submit to you that the creation of this work was an act of healing for Ezekiel. For many cadets, the healing continued through their lives.  

Two dozen became medical doctors – what correlation can be drawn between the horrors witnessed here on May 15 and the commitment made by those New Market cadets to heal human suffering?

Nearly 100 collectively became attorneys, elected public officials and legislators – could their experience here amidst civil war have committed them to careers dedicated to making the post-war nation a stronger democracy?

Seventeen became educators – teachers and college presidents – lives dedicated to the betterment of society through education.

And now, a century and a half later, we gather to recognize their moment here and rededicate ourselves to the standard set for us by their deeds.

Former Secretary of the Army Jack Marsh has identified the Battle of New Market as the birthplace of the inimitable Spirit of VMI. This was a proving ground for the VMI citizen-soldier. Over the past 15 decades it has become the standard of conduct to which subsequent generations of cadets have been held. Whenever VMI alumni have been called to defend the nation in far-off places – a muddy trench in the Somme or a beachhead in Normandy, a rice paddy in Vietnam or a mountaintop in Afghanistan – they do so with the knowledge of the model set by your New Market cadet here.

Every year we bring our entering freshman class – “rats” as we affectionately call them at VMI – to this place and introduce them to their VMI family heritage. They learn of the courage, determination, and resolve of your New Market cadet. The new cadets stand in Jacob Bushong’s orchard; they hear the compelling story of when young people made the difference between victory and defeat; they discover new strength in the bonding with their Brother Rats – the echoes of May 15 touch another generation, just as they have for 150 years.

Your family and the VMI family are linked by a moment in time a century and a half past – a moment that continues to change young lives in positive ways.  This, in a very real way, is your historical site. We are stakeholders this unique moment. Your presence with us this weekend is a living connection to this heritage. This commemoration is an opportunity for us to rededicate to the telling of the moment in history we share so that the events of your ancestor continue to change the future. It falls to us as stewards of their legacy to assure that future generations of young Americans find inspiration from the story of your New Market cadet.

We look forward to welcoming you back often. Thank you.

--Remarks given by Col. Keith E. Gibson, Director of the VMI Museum System, at the New Market Descendants Reception in the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, 16 May 2014