South gains advantage at outset

Cavalry: Aggressive Confederate action in the opening days of the battle foiled Union efforts to gather information through reconnaissance patrols.

May 09, 2004|By Devon Fink | Devon Fink,SUN STAFF

On May 8, 1864, Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, commander of the Union army in the northern Shenandoah Valley, sent out two strong cavalry patrols under Col. Jacob Higgins and Col. William H. Boyd from his base near Middletown, Va., to reconnoiter the approaches to New Market, Va., in preparation for his advance against the Confederates in that area.

The Confederates soon learned of the patrols and took steps to foil them, helping to set the stage for the Union defeat at New Market on May 15.

Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, commander of the Confederate forces in the area, described the situation in an article of the battle of New Market, in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, first published in 1884:

"Early in the afternoon of Sunday, the 8th of May, Capt. [J.L.] Bartlett announced from his signal station on top of the Massanutten Mountain, overlooking Strasburg, that two bodies of cavalry, which he estimated at one thousand men each, had left General Sigel's camp in the forenoon, the one moving across the North Mountain westward on the Moorefield road, and the other eastward through Front Royal, passing through that town and taking the road leading through Chester Gap in the Blue Ridge.

"These facts convinced me that Sigel, before venturing to advance, meant to ascertain whether he had enemies in dangerous force within striking distance on either flank; an investigation which would consume several days. As there were no troops, except my little band [about 1,500 men], nearer than Gen. [Robert E.] Lee's army, it was manifestly important to attack these detachments as far from Strasburg as possible and delay their return as long as possible."

Numbers and motives are always matters of debate in any account of Civil War action, and New Market is no exception.

In his account of the opening moves in the battle of New Market, Sigel wrote that he had learned that there was no hostile force in the Shenandoah Valley, except Imboden's cavalry and mounted infantry, reported to be about 3,000 strong, and that he therefore decided to advance to draw Confederate forces away from southwestern Virginia, where a Union attack was planned against rail lines and the saltworks at Saltville.

"Before leaving Winchester," Sigel wrote, "a force of 500 cavalry, under Col. Jacob Higgins, was sent toward Wardensville to protect our right flank, and Col. William H. Boyd, with 300 select horsemen, into the Luray Valley to cover our left flank ... but Colonel Higgins was attacked and beaten by a detachment of Imboden's brigade between Wardensville and Moorefield on the 9th of May, and pursued north toward Romney. Colonel Boyd was ambuscaded on his way from the Luray Valley to New Market on the 13th and defeated, suffering a loss of 125 men and 200 horses."

The Internet site adds detail to Sigel's brief account of these cavalry actions: "Imboden caught up with Higgins' column when they were resting and grazing their horses. He overran the camp and as many of Higgins troopers as could fled through Romney scattering their equipment along the road. The escape route covered about 60 miles with Higgins abandoning his men. It didn't stop until they reached Old Town, Md."

Imboden then turned his attention to Boyd's patrol. "Colonel Boyd, of the 1st New York Cavalry, with detachments from the 15th New York and Cole's [Maryland] battalion, came upon me from Luray about sunset," Imboden reported. "We pitched into him, cut him off from the roads, and drove him into the Massanutten Mountain. Numbers have been captured, together with about half of all their horses. They are wandering in the mountain tonight cut off. When day breaks I think I will get nearly all of theirs. Colonel Boyd was wounded. We have his horse, and he is in the brush."

After this skirmish, Imboden claimed to have captured 464 of Boyd's men, but Boyd's force consisted of only 300 horsemen, 125 of whom were reported killed, wounded or missing, according to

Both sides agreed that the Confederates gained an advantage as the outcome of these skirmishes.

Imboden reported: "These mishaps to General Sigel's flanking parties of cavalry, sent out the previous Sunday, secured us the all-important few days' respite from his dreaded advance, and enabled Gen. John C. Breckinridge, from southwestern Virginia, to reach the valley with something over 2,500 of his best veteran troops to be united with mine for a battle with Sigel wherever we might chance to meet him."

And in his report on the fighting at New Market, Sigel acknowledged missing the 800 cavalrymen put out of action in this skirmishing. After being defeated at New Market, Sigel ordered a withdrawal to Mount Jackson. Fearing total defeat, Sigel ultimately withdrew from that position, too. According to the general, "We would have remained at that place, but since the cavalry on our flank, under Colonels Boyd and Higgins respectively, had been beaten, flanks and rear were unprotected."

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