In May of 1864, Grant was locked in deadly combat with Lee at the Wilderness. While it was necessary that Lee should concentrate the strength of his thinned gray ranks in order to oppose the overwhelming force that faced him, Grant could out of his sheer numbers harass his adversary from other points, as well. It was in an effort to disturb Lee’s rear by destroying his communications and base of supplies that General Franz Sigel, German-born immigrant in command of the Department of West Virginia, was ordered to invade the Shenandoah Valley.
General John C. Breckinridge was sent by Lee to reinforce General Imboden’s brigade, which had occupied the valley all winter, and to check Sigel’s advance with all possible haste. Breckinridge left his headquarters in Southwest Virginia and, by forced marches, arrived at Staunton on May 8.
On the following day, the cadet corps of the Virginia Military Institute was summoned. During the three long years of the war, the cadets had craved a chance to take active part in some campaign. Although they had once appeared with Jackson in the valley as reserve troops and had on several occasions been ordered out to chase small detachments of Yankees in the mountains near Lexington and Lynchburg, they had never participated in battle. This conflict took place on May 15, 1864. The 251 cadets from VMI made the 81 mile march from Lexington to New Market. Confederate General John Breckenridge had made it clear that the students would only be used a reinforcements and only in the direst of circumstances.
As the battle ensued that day the Confederates were about to charge when Breckenridge realized there was a 350 foot gap in the middle of the line that had to be filled. When a staff member suggested the cadets be ordered into the combat the General blatantly refused. At the point he realized he no choice but to make the call he said, “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order. . .” The cadets showed their mettle that day. They repulsed the charge and in victory one of the cadets sat astride a cannon captured from the 34th Massachusetts and waved the Institute flag. Of course there was cost among the cadets–48 were wounded in the conflict and 10 were either killed in battle or died from wounds quickly thereafter.
Because of the drenching rain this recently plowed wheat field had received many of the cadets had the shoes pulled from their feet by the suction of the mud. Therefore, the cadets would call this battlefield the “field of lost shoes.”.
Every year during the first weekend of September, the freshman class of VMI, or Rats as they are called at VMI, visit New Market Battlefield State Historical Park for a day long orientation to the 1864 battle in which the VMI Cadet Corps so prominently figured. The “Rat” Class, are joined by proud family members for the occasion. The event comes as the cadets finish an intense ten day military “cadre” period and begin their academic classes. It is the first time most parents have seen their cadet since matriculation. During the event the “Rats” will take their oath of cadetship and march up the same hill that the cadets charged up in 1864.
Footnote: VMI has held a ceremony on May 15th since 1878. The ceremony begins with the historic roll call of the ten cadets who died in the Battle, each name called by the Commander of the Company in which the New Market Cadet served. In response to each name called, a cadet appointed for the ceremony gives the traditional reply “Died on the field of honor.”