Shenandoah County, VA | May 15, 1864
On May 15, 1864, Confederates under the command of John C. Breckinridge fought and defeated Federals under Franz Sigel at the Battle of New Market, ending the first phase of Federal operations in the Shenandoah Valley.
How It Ended
Confederate Victory. As a result of the battle, Sigel was forced to fall back from the field and retreat across the North Fork Shenandoah River, abandoning his effort to sever Confederate supply lines.
In May 1864, as part of a major Union offensive, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered General Sigel to move up the Shenandoah Valley cutting the rail lines utilized by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, to oppose the Federals Breckenridge collected a scratch force of two infantry brigades, one cavalry brigade, and a battalion of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute
Sigel left Martinsburg, West Virginia, on April 29, 1864, and moved up the valley. Though Breckinridge lacked a formal army, he had adequate cavalry that informed him of Sigel’s movements and slowed down the Federal advance.
Sigel eventually reached New Market just fifty miles from Staunton, taking up positions principally on Manor’s Hill north of town.
While Sigel’s forces began to funnel into New Market, Confederates under Breckinridge moved towards the town, arriving there late in the evening of May 14th. In the waning hours of the day, both sides traded artillery shots.
When the artillery duel renewed again on the 15th, most of Sigel’s force was still not present on the field. The Confederates forces, however, took up positions along Shirley’s Hill, just south of the Federal positions. More Federal forces arrived through the course of the morning.
At noon, Breckinridge decided to attack Sigel’s positions on Manor Hill. In the resulting action, the Confederates steadily pushed the Federals back. During the slow withdrawal from the hill, Sigel finally arrived on the field and decided to establish a new defensive line along Bushong Hill. After reorganizing his men, Breckinridge launched another assault on this new position.
As the Confederates advanced, a barrage of Union artillery fire showered their ranks. With the artillery fire, mud, and rain wreaking havoc along the Confederate lines, a gap emerged in Breckinridge’s ranks. Breckinridge was forced to close it with the VMI cadets under his command, stating, “... may God Forgive Me for the Order.” Once completed, the Confederates launched one final attack along the Federal lines.
During the attack, the VMI cadets charged near the Bushong House against Capt. Alfred von Kleiser’s battery. In their desperate charge, the young men attacked across a depression just past the house littered with thick mud. During the charge, many of the cadet’s shoes were swallowed up in the mud; the section was later called the “Field of Lost Shoes.”
Sigel’s lines finally broke after facing intense pressure. Thousands of Sigel’s men began to retreat north. Breckinridge pursued but was ultimately unable to cut off Sigel’s retreat. For the time being, the Shenandoah Valley was safe.
During the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” This vital valley provided the southern armies with foodstuffs and an avenue to invade the north without any serious threat. In the years prior, Robert E. Lee used the valley and the high mountains surrounding it to cover his army’s movements. In 1864, Grant realized he needed to capture the Valley to cut the supply routes and eliminate access to the North.
In the days leading up to and during the Battle of New Market, armies faced rain storms that choked up the dirt roads and impeded movement. Once the battle opened up, a violent thunderstorm moved through and soaked the fields where the troops were fighting. During one of the Confederate charges, VMI cadets moved over ground and had their shoes swallowed up by the mud. The area eventually became known as the “Field of Lost Shoes.”