Friday, May 15, 2009

This Day in Civil War History (Confederate Cadets Turn the Battle of New Market)

May 15, 1864—Hearing that the Army of Northern Virginia had rushed 257 teenaged cadets from Virginia Military Institute to the Battle of New Market, Union commander Ulysses S. Grant is said to have remarked, “The South is robbing the cradle and the grave.”

Today, this short, confined but fierce engagement under a dark cloud on a Sunday afternoon is remembered as one of the hero tales of the Confederacy. But Grant’s sense of the remorseless arithmetic of the Civil War is more telling, I believe. It was a sign of the South’s increasing desperation that these young men—boys, really—even had to be used at all.

With his order to end prisoner exchanges that had disproportionately benefited the Confederacy and a stepped-up, multi-front spring offensive, including his own Battle of Spotsylvania, occurring simultaneously, Grant was attempting to put the South in a vise. The result: a severe manpower shortage for General Robert E. Lee.

Three and a half years ago, I visited this site in the Shenandoah Valley. Like the army under Gen. Franz Sigel that Grant sent into the region, I didn’t want to spend much time in this village.

My objective was to take in as much of the sprawling valley—the sites associated with Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Wilson—as I could within slightly less than a week; Sigel’s was to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad at Staunton, diminishing both Lee’s ability to transport troops on the double wherever they were needed in Virginia and the valley’s critical value as “the breadbasket of the Confederacy.”

On that November day of my visit, I took a number of photos, including the one that accompanies this post (which I’ll explain shortly). The inclement weather was hardly ideal either for photography or walking around, but it gave me at least an inkling for what those cadets went through that day.

I say “at least” because neither I nor any of us today, if we are lucky, will ever have to duplicate what these young men experienced. Because imagine all of this:

* You’re 18 years old, or perhaps, as some of your friends are rumored, as young as 14.

* You’ve trained an awful lot, at an institution known as the “West Point of the South,” but this encounter will be your first time under fire.

* You believe in General Lee and the Southern cause, but from what has likely happened to a brother or friend, you know all too well what might lie in store for you: death. (Two percent of the nation died during the war, 19 times the per capita loss of Americans in World War I and six times that in World War II.)

* You arrive at this rolling field after marching four days in the rain.

* And now it’s dark again over your head.

It’s said that when the commanding Confederate general that day, John C. Breckinridge, gave the order for the cadets to advance, he averted his eyes, not wanting to see what he feared might happen to the young men.

If you’re down in the Shenandoah Valley, visiting either the village of New Market or the marvelous college town of Lexington (home not only of VMI but of Washington and Lee University), you can visit fine museums devoted to the battle and the men who fought there. But if you can’t make it down, I’m left with the problem of how to convey its experience to you.

The best way to do this, I’ve decided, is to share with you the name of a place and the name of a person.

Over the years, like other Civil War buffs, I’ve come to understand the meaning of the passage in A Farewell to Arms where Ernest Hemingway’s hero Frederic Henry discusses the debasement of language in wartime:

“I had seen nothing sacred and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with meat except to bury it…Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments, and the dates.”

History texts tell of places like Antietam, Bull Run, Gettysburg, the Wilderness. But if you want a visceral sense of what the war meant, think of the names of particular spots: the Devil’s Den, Cemetery Ridge, the Mule Shoe, or the Sunken Lane.

To this list should be joined The Field of Lost Shoes, at New Market Battlefield—the image in today’s post.

Once they hustled past both sides of the Bushong House to take up their positions, the VMI cadets found themselves mired in a muddy and recently plowed wheat field. Yet, when given the order, they charged, leaving their footwear, by necessity, behind in their anxiety to attack the Union battery on the slight rise above them.

In the ensuing fighting, the Confederates not only drove Sigel off the field, but back to Mount Jackson to lick his wounds—and, it turned out, out of his command.

Annoyed that the Shenandoah Valley remained for another rebel commander to exploit, even with the peerless Stonewall Jackson dead for nearly the past year, Grant relieved the slow-moving Sigel of his post, turning first to Gen. David Hunter, then to one of his trusted subordinates in the West, Philip Sheridan, to put an end to Confederate resistance in the Valley.

I mentioned earlier that a name might also help you understand the nature of what happened in New Market. Here it is: Thomas Garland Jefferson. If you’re wondering if he might be related to You-Know-Who, you guessed correctly—he was a descendant.

If you examine young Jefferson’s photo, he looks like what he was at the time of the battle—only 17 years old—but there’s a wariness about the eyes, maybe a premonition of what lay in store for him.

His presence on the battlefield that day represented a failure—not his own but that of his illustrious ancestor, who feared in old age that disagreements over slavery represented “a firebell in the night” that could doom the Union but did nothing to reverse or even arrest the spread of slavery after middle age.

Debt and, we know now, a liaison with one of his own slaves left the author of the Declaration of Independence increasingly disinclined to do anything to disrupt “the peculiar institution” that took care of all his needs. In fact, it might be argued, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that he had written with the help of friend James Madison had planted the seed of secession that bore fruit after Fort Sumter.

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” wrote this man who had never seen fighting himself. Less than 40 years after his death, his descendant would pay the price for his failure of vision.

Cadet Jefferson took a bullet in the chest during the charge out of the Field of Lost Shoes. Moses Ezekiel, the first Jewish cadet at VMI, carried his best friend to a nearby house and, in the latter’s final hours, fulfilled his request to read from the Bible as his life ebbed out.

Years later, after leaving medical school, Ezekiel became a European-based sculptor who executed a striking sculpture on the VMI campus called “Virginia Mourning Her Dead.” Beneath that statue lies his friend, one of 10 VMI cadets killed (and another 47 wounded) on the day that would win them fame for their desperate stand.

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