American Civil War: Battle of New Market

John C. Breckinridge
Major General John C. Breckinridge. National Archives and Records Administration

The Battle of New Market occurred on May 15, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln elevated Major General Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and gave him command of all Union armies. Having previously directed forces in the Western Theater, he decided to give operational command of the armies in this region to Major General William T. Sherman and moved his headquarters east to travel with Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac.

Grant's Plan

Unlike the Union campaigns of the preceding years which sought to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Grant's primary goal was the destruction of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Recognizing that the loss of Lee's army would lead to the inevitable fall of Richmond as well as would likely sound the death knell of the rebellion, Grant intended to strike the Army of Northern Virginia from three directions. This was made possible by the Union's superiority in manpower and equipment.

First, Meade was to cross the Rapidan River east of Lee's position at Orange Court House, before swinging west to engage the enemy. With this thrust, Grant sought to bring Lee to battle outside of the fortifications the Confederates had constructed at Mine Run. To the south, Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James was to advance up the Peninsula from Fort Monroe and threaten Richmond, while to the west Major General Franz Sigel laid waste to the resources of the Shenandoah Valley.

Ideally, these secondary thrusts would draw troops away from Lee, weakening his army as Grant and Meade attacked.

Sigel in the Valley

Born in Germany, Sigel had graduated from the Karlsruhe Military Academy in 1843, and five years later served Baden during the Revolution of 1848. With the collapse of the revolutionary movements in Germany, he had fled first to Great Britain and then to New York City.

Settling in St. Louis, Sigel became active in local politics and was an ardent abolitionist. With the start of the Civil War, he received a commission more based on his political views and influence with the German immigrant community than his martial ability. 

After seeing fighting in the west at Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge in 1862, Sigel was ordered east and held commands in the Shenandoah Valley and the Army of the Potomac. Through poor performance and an unlikable disposition, Sigel was relegated to unimportant posts in 1863. The following March, due to his political influence, he obtained command of the Department of West Virginia. Tasked with eliminating the Shenandoah Valley's ability to provide Lee with food and supplies, he moved out with around 9,000 men from Winchester in early May.

Confederate Response

As Sigel and his army moved southwest through the valley towards their goal of Staunton, Union troops initially encountered little resistance. To meet the Union threat, Major General John C. Breckinridge hastily assembled what Confederate troops were available in the area. These were organized into two infantry brigades, led by Brigadier Generals John C. Echols and Gabriel C.

Wharton, and a cavalry brigade led by Brigadier General John D. Imboden. Additional units were added to Breckinridge's small army including the 257-man Corps of Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute.

Armies & Commanders:

Union

  • Major General Franz Sigel
  • 6,275 men

Confederate

  • Major General John C. Breckinridge
  • 4,090 men

Making Contact

Though they had marched 80 miles in four days to join his army, Breckinridge hoped to avoid using the cadets as some were as young as 15. Advancing towards each other, Sigel and Breckinridge's forces met near New Market on May 15, 1864. Deploying on a ridge north of the town, Sigel pushed skirmishers forward. Spotting the Union troops, Breckinridge opted to take the offensive. Forming his men south of New Market, he placed the VMI cadets in his reserve line. Moving out around 11:00 AM, the Confederates advanced through thick mud and cleared New Market within ninety minutes.

The Confederates Attack

Pressing on, Breckinridge's men encountered a line of Union skirmishers just north of the town. Sending Brigadier General John Imboden's cavalry around to the right, Breckinridge's infantry attacked while the horsemen fired on the Union flank. Overwhelmed, the skirmishers fell back to the main Union line. Continuing their attack, the Confederates advanced upon Sigel's troops. As the two lines neared, they began exchanging fire. Taking advantage of their superior position, the Union forces began to thin out the Confederate line. With Breckinridge's line starting to waver, Sigel decided to attack.

With a gap opening in his line, Breckinridge, with great reluctance, ordered the VMI cadets forward to close the breach. Coming into line as the 34th Massachusetts began their attack, the cadets braced themselves for the onslaught. Fighting with Breckinridge's seasoned veterans, the cadets were able to repel the Union thrust. Elsewhere, a thrust by Union cavalry led by Major General Julius Stahel was turned back by Confederate artillery fire. With Sigel's attacks faltering, Breckinridge ordered his entire line forward. Surging through the mud with the cadets in the lead, the Confederates assaulted Sigel's position, breaking his line and forcing his men from the field.

Aftermath

The defeat at New Market cost Sigel 96 killed, 520 wounded, and 225 missing. For Breckinridge, losses were around 43 killed, 474 wounded, and 3 missing. During the fighting, ten of the VMI cadets were killed or mortally wounded.

Following the battle, Sigel withdrew to Strasburg and effectively left the Valley in Confederate hands. This situation would largely remain until Major General Philip Sheridan captured the Shenandoah for the Union later that year.

 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of New Market." ThoughtCo, Dec. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/battle-of-new-market-2360916. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, December 14). American Civil War: Battle of New Market. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-new-market-2360916 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of New Market." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-new-market-2360916 (accessed May 27, 2018).