By John Pancake
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
It was a small battle, and bloody.
The thing that set it apart was the role played by several hundred teenagers. And because of them, the ground on which the Battle of New Market was fought is one of the most lovingly enshrined meadows in Virginia.
Set the scene: It is the spring of 1864, late in the carnage of the Civil War. The main Southern army, under Robert E. Lee, is hunkered down in Richmond. To the west, a Union force is probing down the lush Shenandoah Valley, attempting to cut a critical supply line.
The Confederate commander in the valley, Gen. John C. Breckinridge, desperate for reinforcements, sends for the corps of cadets at Virginia Military Institute at Lexington.
VMI is "the West Point of the Confederacy," but almost all the older boys are long since off to war. The ones who are left average 16 years old. They march 84 miles up the valley to New Market to join Breckinridge, who faces a superior Union force.
Breckinridge plans to hold the cadets in reserve. As the battle swirls and eddies, he sees a chance to strike a decisive blow. But there is a ragged gap at a critical spot in his line. His only option is to call on the fresh-faced cadets, in their spotless uniforms with shiny brass buttons.
He tells an aide: "Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order."
I drove out to the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park on a sunny day and parked under a shady tree. As I wandered the farmland where so much blood was spilled, a Carolina wren sang nearby. A red-tailed hawk keened overhead.
While I crossed the ground where the cadets advanced, I thought about my Uncle Frank. He was a tall, straight, cheerful man who played tennis well into his 80s. He graduated from VMI 80 years after the famous charge at New Market. I never entirely understood why he loved VMI as much as he did. But he did. At his funeral five years ago, a VMI honor guard was on hand to carry his casket.
But why did he care so much about a place where his first year was a hellish exercise? The freshmen at VMI are called rats. They are harassed and harangued. They are barked at and belittled. They are subjected to a raft of what look, to an outsider, like silly, arbitrary rules.
Why would anybody pay to go to a place where people yell at you?
Uncle Frank, a decorated bomber pilot who never talked about his medals, would probably have said that suffering through his rat year at VMI taught him grace under pressure, taught him something about comradeship and courage.
And I think Uncle Frank would finally have gotten around to an old-fashioned idea of doing what has to be done, even when you don't feel like it.
Federal batteries unleashed murderous fire on the cadets. They advanced through a small farm (perfectly preserved today) and halted briefly at the edge of an orchard. Then, on command, they swept forward, across a field of boot-sucking mud that stripped off many shoes, and charged up a hill at the Union line. The Union gunners fled, abandoning one of their cannons.
Of the 257 cadets, 10 were killed and 47 were wounded, a grievous casualty rate. Through it all, the cadet line never broke.
At the crisp little museum on the edge of the field, you will learn that it was the one time in American history that an entire school fought under its colors as a unit. You can hear the full story of the engagement. The cadets did not win the battle single-handedly. There was bravery on both sides. And the Union forces were handicapped by their commander, Franz Sigel, who at one point started babbling orders in his native German.
The museum is privately supported. Its purpose, as Troy Marshall, the museum's supervisor of historical interpretation, explained it to me, is not to glorify war or even VMI.
It is, he said, to glorify duty.
If you drive 1 1/2 hours down Interstate 81 to the VMI campus, you can learn a little more about the VMI notion of duty. The place to begin is in the chapel in Jackson Memorial Hall, to the right of the fortresslike barracks. There you will find a painting of the cadets' charge at New Market. And one floor down, you can visit the small VMI museum, big brother to the New Market branch and the oldest in the state. It was founded in 1856. Here are mementos from the career of Gen. T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who taught at VMI before the war. You can see the raincoat Jackson was wearing when he was shot at Chancellorsville. Also in the museum are the stuffed remains of Little Sorrel, one of Jackson's favorite mounts, and a reproduction of one of the spartan rooms that cadets live in today.
I did not see any mention of VMI's most famous battle of recent years: the effort to prevent women from enrolling. The institute fought to the highest court in the country, where in 1996 it lost, 7-1. Col. Keith Gibson, executive director of museum operations, says the museum will add a number of exhibits in the next year, including one that deals with that controversy. (Outside the museum, as you watch the trim, serious cadets striding to class, you'll notice that quite a few are women.)
A few steps from the museum is the statue "Virginia Mourning Her Dead." It was created by VMI's first Jewish cadet, the sculptor Moses Ezekiel, who was in the cadet line during the charge at New Market.
In the memorial garden just outside the museum entrance, a wall filled with plaques commemorates VMI graduates who died serving their country. It is not on the battlefield at New Market or inside the museum in Lexington, but there, looking at the modest bronze memorials, that you get the truest measure of VMI.
I don't suppose anybody wants a war, but looking at the history of sacrifice by the graduates of VMI, you begin to think that when there is one, it might be a good idea to have the folks from VMI on your side.