Confederates foil Union attack

Battle: When the Union high command put a plan in motion to clear the Shenandoah Valley "once and for all," federal troops under Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel found it easier said than done.

May 09, 2004|By Robert M. Duff | Robert M. Duff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The winter of 1864 was bleak. According to The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac 1861-1864, entry for Friday, Jan. 1, 1864, "Extreme cold swept across much of the North and South and temperatures below zero as far south as Memphis, Tenn., and Cairo, Ill., caused much suffering among the soldiers."

President Abraham Lincoln's prospects for re-election were dreary.

The fourth year of the war was dragging on and increasingly unpopular. Hope of a decisive military victory by the Union was dim and even dimmer for the Confederacy. It was becoming a war of attrition and depletion. European nations were reluctant to take sides even in trade matters.

Possession and control of the Shenandoah Valley became a matter of major importance. Stretching 150 miles from Harpers Ferry, Va., southwest into North Carolina, the Shenandoah Valley was a valuable resource. It gave the Confederacy access to men and supplies to the west as well as the grain, cattle and horses of the Valley itself.

The railroads and roadways of the Shenandoah Valley offered military commanders on both sides an unheard-of mobility. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "The South used the transportation advantages of the valley so effectively that it often became for the North the `valley of humiliation' until late in the war, when Union forces took undisputed control."

In May 1864, orders from Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan were to "clear the valley once and for all." The objective was the town of Staunton, Va., where Union Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel could cut the Virginia Central Railroad and thus deprive Gen. Robert E. Lee's army and the Confederate capital at Richmond, Va., of one of their chief sources of supply.

Opposing the 5,500-man Union force was the much smaller force of Confederate Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden with "cavalry, mounted infantry, and a battery of six guns, aggregating about 1,500 men," as recorded in the Virginia Military Institute Archives. (Some of these numbers are in dispute.)

Thirty-one miles south of Staunton lay Lexington and VMI, with a battalion of four companies of cadets who had been spoiling to join the fray. Many of them on reaching the age of 18 left VMI to join the Army of the Confederate States of America. As the manpower situation in the South worsened, the cadets had several false alarms. The Cadets had mustered, waited, then finally returned to barracks at VMI, their hopes for combat dashed. This time it would be different.

According to VMI Archives, "When Imboden heard of Sigel's advance, about May 2, he notified the superintendent of the VMI to hold the Corps of Cadets in readiness to reinforce his little army. In May 1864, the [Shenandoah] Valley of Virginia was in the military department of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, who was then in Southwest Virginia, he at once assumed active command of the Confederate States forces for the defense of the Valley."

Owing to the small number of Breckinridge's available forces, the Corps of Cadets was ordered on May 10 to join Breckinridge's Southwest Virginia forces at Staunton; from which point the whole force could march down the Shenandoah Valley to join Imboden; or to which point Imboden could fall back to join Breckinridge.

Face to face

After cavalry skirmishing on May 14, the two armies came face to face at New Market on May 15 in a battle that lasted about four hours and resulted in a Confederate victory.

Breckinridge arrived at New Market with most of his force during the night. He established an artillery position on Shirley's Hill about a mile south of New Market and was soon involved in an artillery exchange with federal batteries on Manor's Hill and in St. Matthew's cemetery.

About 11 a.m., Sigel arrived on the field and ordered a withdrawal to a position on Bushong's Hill. He brought 14 guns to support his position and placed his cavalry on his left flank. Breckinridge deployed his troops on both sides of the Valley Pike and ordered an advance while Imboden's cavalry crossed Smith's Creek and tried to outflank Sigel on the southeast side.

By 12:30 p.m., Sigel had withdrawn from New Market, with the 18th Connecticut and the 123rd Ohio resisting the opening Confederate advance on Manor's Hill.

By about 2 p.m. Sigel had concentrated his forces at Bushong's Hill, and Breckinridge had launched an assault on this position involving the 26th, 30th, 51st and 62nd Virginia regiments.

The 62nd Virginia suffered more than 50 percent casualties. The Confederate advance staggered under heavy fire, and a gap developed in the center of the line. Breckinridge, fearing that he would be counterattacked where his line was weakening, ordered the VMI battalion into the gap near the Bushong House.

About 2:45 p.m. the federal cavalry under Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel attacked along the Valley Pike but was driven off by Confederate artillery with heavy casualties.

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