Part One: The Bloody Cedars
I have spent the vast majority of my life travelling up and down Interstate 81. Hundreds of times I’ve passed right through New Market, VA, but never had the opportunity to stop. My dad was always rather militant on road trips. We could stop for gas and that was pretty much it, Bathroom breaks took place in an empty soda bottle. Recently I took a long weekend from work and traveled to Winchester, VA to do some sightseeing. On the return trip to NC I finally made it a point to stop at New Market Battlefield. What I was unaware of is the fact that Interstate 81 splits the battlefield in half, so I decided to write two posts about the battle in honor of the 151st anniversary of the battle which will occur May 15, 2015.
The area of battle that took place between what is present-day Interstate 81 and US 11(The Valley Pike) earned the nickname of Bloody Cedars. You can access this spot by one of 2 ways. The first is that you can park at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War(located on the grounds of the battlefield) and take the walking tour that leads to the Bushong Farm and the Field of Lost Shoes. There is a pedestrian tunnel that leads under Interstate 81, from which you can follow a trail to the 54th Pennsylvania Monument. The other option is to take US 11 and park at the 54th Pennsylvania Monument. Personally, I took the first option.
As you emerge from the tunnel the foot path will continue to a treeline. This is a good point to orient yourself, and keep certain landmarks in mind. From the treeline you will look across a field and in the distance you can see the 54th’s monument. To your left will be the interstate and to your right is the Valley Pike. Take note of the features that you see from the Confederate positions at the treeline and compare them to when you reach the monument and look back across the field.
As the battle unfolded, the 62nd Virginia took up their positions in the treeline pictured. They appeared to be an easy target for General Stahel’s Union cavalry. An infantry attack was being planned to coincide with the cavalry charge, which Union commanders anticipated would be an easy rout of the enemy. What the Union didn’t realize was that more Confederate firepower existed than they had anticipated. General John C. Breckinridge was throwing everything he had in the Shenandoah Valley against the Union advance. General Stahel’s cavalry charged but were quickly stopped and forced to retreat.
Below I’m going to provide a photo so that you can compare what the South saw as opposed to the North. From the view of the 62nd Virginia you can see the entire field. You can see all of the key terrain features. But from the view of the Union’s line, you can’t. From their viewpoint the ground nearly looks flat, and this misconception would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Despite Stahel’s failed attack, the infantry goes in. Their plan was to march to the crest of the hill and then charge across the open ground to the treeline. They had hoped that a combination of smoke and fog would mask their movements, but in the end it didn’t matter. This played directly into the hands of the 62nd. They knew the ground was not flat. The Union ranks reached the crest and charged, except they found what the 62nd knew. Waiting for them on the other side of the hill, hidden from view, were several Virginia regiments. What ensued can only be described as a bloodbath, and a retreat was soon in the works.
Around the same time that this occurred, the 62nd saw from their treeline that the 54th Pennsylvania had been left to fight alone. The Confederates launched an attack on both flanks and forced the 54th to retreat. Breckinridge’s right flank was now secure.
The Battle of New Market was supposed to be the final decisive battle for control of the Shenandoah Valley. The Union had anticipated minimal resistance, for they knew that General Lee had neither the time or resources to come to the aid of the Valley. Their expectations of an easy victory caused several failures. First, the Union missed numerous opportunities to perform reconnaissance. They did not anticipate the fact that Breckinridge would use everything he could find to defend New Market. This included the now famous battalion of teenage VMI Cadets, where 10 would lose their lives and their courage is now cemented in history. Control of the Valley would eventually slip from the South’s grasp in October of 1864, but for the summer, the Shenandoah belonged to the South.