As the sun rose above the Blue Ridge Mountains, Tim Riemann and 16 Virginia Military Institute cadets under his charge strapped on their rucksacks and began another day retracing their school's most celebrated march.

It was along this same country road, in 1864, that a VMI corps of mostly teenagers walked with muskets in hand to fight the Union army 84 miles away at New Market. Ten of them died and 47 were wounded after they charged the battlefield through Yankee gunfire.

This year, as historians mark the 140th anniversary of New Market and what some believe to be the most critical year in the Civil War, the cadets say understanding their predecessors' sacrifice is as important as ever.

They, too, have a war to fight.

"We have a lot of traditions at our school, but this one just seems more real," said Riemann, a bulky 21-year-old from Houston. "Especially because of where a lot of us are headed."

Next summer, most of the 17 cadets plan to graduate from the Lexington, Va., military school and begin training at the Marine base in Quantico. Then it's on to duty in the war on terror, possibly in Afghanistan or Iraq -- destinations everyone on the hike seemed to accept.

Like their counterparts in 1864, these cadets were well aware of what they were in for at VMI. War broke out the year they enrolled.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, "the whole tone of our class changed," said Brandon Wheeler, a 21-year-old cadet from McLean, who completed the hike with the others earlier this month.

"It was like people really wanted you to think about what you were doing," he said. "We were preparing for war."

The hike to New Market is a big honor at a school steeped in Civil War history. The 17 cadets were selected by their peers. And this year the cadets carried shoulder boards with the school crest, to give to first-year students who met them in New Market to take the institute's oath of duty.

Afterward, the entire group charged the hill where their Confederate brethren fought.

"I've wanted to do this since I started at VMI," said Michael Tittermary, a 20-year-old from Richmond who wants to become a military lawyer. "We need to pay our respects to that place."

From sunup to sundown, the cadets tramped along the road, passing dairy cows and cornfields at an ambitious pace suitable for upperclassmen who've just taken over the reins to their school.

"The first time I did this, my feet were beyond pain," said Riemann, who nevertheless timed brief rest stops to the minute with his watch. The first cadets took four days to cover the distance, and Riemann was sure they would do better than that.

As the miles of asphalt burned into their thick rubber soles, the group grew quiet. Jay Coleman was ridiculed in the morning when he played Culture Club's 1980s hit "Karma Chameleon" on the CD player attached to his rucksack. Now the music was barely audible over the stomping of feet.

Saul Newsome, 22, of Douglasville, Ga., scanned the acres of pasture and wildflowers beyond the two-lane road: "It's crazy to think we're seeing the same thing they saw."

The Battle of New Market began May 15, 1864, as Union forces swept into the Shenandoah Valley to gain control of its railroads and the farms that fed much of the Confederate army.

Civil War historian James I. Robertson estimates that Union Gen. Franz Sigel led 9,000 men into Virginia. They marched uncontested until they got to New Market, where Confederate Gen. John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president, was waiting with about 5,300 men.

The Confederates had been preparing for a difficult fight. A month before the battle, Breckinridge sent word for reinforcements, reaching thousands of men including a few hundred from VMI.

According to accounts, the fighting began in the early morning under a steady rain. Breckinridge had wanted to spare the young cadets, but when his battle line broke, the general called them forward.

"It's quite possible, if they didn't plug that gap, Breckinridge's attack could have fallen apart," Robertson said. "And that would have cost him the Shenandoah Valley."

Though the Confederates went on to hold the valley for several months, the year was the beginning of the end for the South.

In 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launched a massive invasion of Virginia, giving orders to destroy everything in sight.

"This was something new," Robertson said. "Grant makes it the first modern war. . . . Not only do you take the war to the South, you take it to the civilians. Once you break their will, the South will collapse."

The South began to crumble as its cities burned to the ground. The Shenandoah Valley is still littered with sites from 1864 where Confederates resisted the Union advance.

"We're calling it the 'Year of Decision' because so much was decided that year," said Howard J. Kittell, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. The foundation, based in New Market, has begun marketing the region's battlefields together to draw more tourists and teach their collective importance.

After four days, Riemann's cadets marched into New Market on sore feet and blisters, but with no major injuries. Still, Wheeler said, it was amazing to think how teenagers could walk the same distance in wool uniforms without sports drinks or comfortable shoes.

"I can't even imagine what it must be like to go into combat after marching like that," Wheeler said.

At least now he knows that such a sacrifice is possible.

Virginia Military Institute cadets walk the shoulder of U.S. 11 near Staunton, Va., during their four-day march.Two VMI upperclassmen, after completing a four-day, 84-mile march, lead new cadets in a charge across the Field of Lost Shoes at the New Market Battlefield. VMI seniors, from left, Saul Newsome of Douglasville, Ga., William DeShazor of Richmond and Ben Melton of Bedford, Va., are among 17 cadets selected to participate earlier this month on an 84-mile march that commemorates the school's involvement in the 1864 Battle of New Market.