History of New Market looms over VMI cadets

Legacy: 'We commemorate the battle every day, by being open,' says the director of the historical park operated by the nearby school.

May 09, 2004|By Michael Hilt | Michael Hilt,SUN STAFF

The past is present and on duty at New Market, Va., and its watchwords are "where 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute made the difference between victory and defeat."

"The heritage [of New Market] looms over VMI," explained Scott Harris, the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park director. The Civil War battle is ingrained in the mind of every cadet, and the school's identity is rooted in the response of its 257 cadets to the call to serve. Ten died and 45 were wounded in the fighting. The school seems to not simply commemorate the event, but rather to embody it at its very core.

Initiation into the history of New Market starts from "the first day you are here," Harris said. When first-year students, or "Rats," as they are called, enter the institute, they are sworn in on the battlefield where their predecessors fought and died so long ago.

During the school's annual commemoration of the Civil War battle, a march of fourth-year students starts at the institute in nearby Lexington, Va., and proceeds, just as the original corps of cadets, to the Bushong Farm House at New Market, where the first-year students will meet them after charging to the house from their position.

Once the Rats finish the charge across the muddy ground later known as the Field of Lost Shoes and reach the fourth-year cadets, they are given their cap insignia and are assembled to march back to VMI.

Two things about this march are unique to the VMI corps of cadets. First, the cadets march with their bayonets fixed - a distinction awarded to them because of the battle at New Market. Also, in commemoration of the battle, the VMI flag carries a New Market battle streamer, an honor identifying the field of battle for units that distinguished themselves in combat there.

Once the cadets return to VMI they turn to memorizing the "Rat Bible," a book of New Market facts that a cadet must know and repeat upon request by any upperclassman or instructor. The legacy of New Market is "history to look back on" and an example of courage and honor to follow, Harris explained.

VMI also recalls the battle with campus artwork.

One of the institute's graduates - one of the survivors of the battle of New Market - went on to become an internationally renowned sculptor. This sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, an 1866 graduate of the institute, created Virginia Mourning Her Dead, a statue that serves as the centerpiece for the acknowledgement and remembrance of the day. Six of the cadets killed in the battle are buried behind the monument.

The primary area of assembly for the corps of cadets, Jackson Memorial Hall, contains a massive painting called The Charge of the New Market Cadets. It was done by Benjamin West Clinedinst, an 1880 graduate of the institute, said Harris.

Outside specific acts and objects of remembrance by the institute, the very fact that the battlefield, preserved as a state park, is owned and operated by the school is an act of commemoration - a sharing of a rich and proud tradition with visitors from near and far, Harris said.

"We commemorate the battle every day, by being open," he said.

New Market is not the only connection between the VMI and the Confederate cause that is remembered in Lexington.

As the Encyclopedia of the Confederacy observes, "At the outbreak of the Civil War, nearly 300 of the 348-man Corps of Cadets were sent to Richmond to help drill and instruct the thousands of recruits who were daily pouring into the Confederate capital. Estimates vary, but it has been suggested that the recruits drilled by the cadets range in number from 25,000 to 50,000.

"At the beginning of the war there had been 1,217 matriculates at the institute, and another 813 enrolled during the war, bringing the total to 2,030. Of these 1,902 were living at the commencement of hostilities, and 1,796 (94 percent) went into Confederate service. Of this total, 259 (14.5 percent) died, either killed outright or by wounds or disease. Small wonder, then, that VMI has been referred to as the `West Point of the South' or that Superintendent Francis H. Smith was prompted to say in 1877 that the institute `left more of its alumni on the battlefield among the slain in the civil war of 1861-65 than West Point in all wars of the United States since 1802, when the United States Military Academy was established.'

"The institute gave to the Confederacy 3 major generals, 17 brigadier generals, 92 colonels, 64 lieutenant colonels, 107 majors, 306 captains, and 221 lieutenants."

The VMI of today says of itself: "It is the mission of the Virginia Military Institute to produce educated and honorable men and women, prepared for the varied work of civil life, imbued with love of learning, confident in the functions and attitudes of leadership, possessing a high sense of public service, advocates of the American democracy and free enterprise system, and ready as citizen-soldiers to defend their country in time of national peril."

Michael Hilt is a junior majoring in political science at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.

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