On the morning of May 15, 1864, the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute fell into rank and began the march to New Market, where they would serve as a last defense against a Northern force headed by General Franz Sigel.
Despite his determination not to let the boys see actual combat, Southern General John Breckinridge was forced to, at last, commit the young, grey-clad corps to fill a gap in the line as the battle raged near the old Bushong Farm. The young cadets fought valiantly and helped turn the tide of battle, securing an increasingly rare victory for the doomed Confederacy.
Mustered at dawn, the 247 cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, more than half first-year students as young as 15, fell into ranks and began the long march to New Market. Having left with a minimum of baggage, they camped near the town of Midway when the rains began to pour down.
“Let’s run for the church,” said Private Edward Tutwiler, pointing to the nearby Presbyterian meeting house.
When his friends objected that “they might not like it,” Tutwiler replied, “We can’t fight if we drown first.”
Tutwiler would later write, “We slept where many a good follower of Calvin had slept before us.”
The boys climbed through a window and by morning, every cushioned pew was occupied by cadets.
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General Ulysses S. Grant had ordered Union troops to proceed up the valley as a flanking maneuver to press Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the west. The small Confederate force had little choice but to deploy every resource, which in this case included the mostly teenaged cadet corps of Virginia’s Military Institute.
John Breckinridge had served as vice president of the United States, ran second to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 Electoral College vote for president, been expelled from the U.S. Senate for siding with the South and risen to the rank of general in the Confederate Army. Yet, it was in the last year of the war, in the peaceable Shenandoah Valley, that he would face one of the most difficult decisions of his life. With his center collapsing, he realized that his last hope lay with the youngsters from the Institute, and that they would be advancing directly across open ground into enemy fire.
“May God forgive me the order,” said Breckinridge.
What follows is an account written by Edward Mark Bushong, a veteran soldier and nephew of Jacob and Sarah Bushong, whose farm is known even today as “The Field of Lost Shoes”:
Returning from a social gathering of young folks in the neighborhood on the night of May 14, I detected a Yankee raiding party going south through the Alms house woods. About 4 a.m. I crossed the Valley Pike to my home, fed my horse and before daylight mounted and headed south. I had not proceeded far when I met James Bushong coming north – he also had detected the Yankees. We at once conjectured that their object was the capture of the picket line, and we determined to get the boys together and give them a warm reception on their return, he taking one way and I another, we very soon had a good chain of dispatchers.
By 8:00 we had a good fighting force of 14. These men were: Martin Strickler, Abram Strickler, Allen Bowman, Silas Cabal, William Busherman, James Bushong, B.F. Hotel, S.K. Wright, E.M. Bushong, George Knight, George Bushong, John Hoover, Milton Cabil, Benjamin Cabil. We moved south parallel with the Valley Pike, marching far enough to conceal ourselves behind the hills, with one scout or lookout on higher ground. When we reached Henry Kootz’s woods we could see the Yankees coming south, flankers right and left. After crossing the bridge, thinking they were safe I suppose, they drew in their flankers, very much to our advantage.
They were marching along in a very good order unaware of their enemy being not 200 yards from them. As their rear guard came up, the command to charge was given, and we struck them between their main column and rear guard. They made a very determined stand at the Big Pond for about three minutes and then broke. We pressed right on them poking their backs. About half a mile further on, Maj. Young managed to rally about six or eight of his men, wheeled their horses and charged on us, our horses heads coming in contrast. Young’s horse was shot from under him; this was a royal battle. Being out of ammunition, our revolvers empty and the enemy apparently in the same condition, we used our empty revolvers as clubs and went to clubbing. Inexperienced ones might inquire why we didn’t use our sabers: Time too short. To make the situation a little more lively, Young’s horse had not been killed by the shot, only wounded, and it began kicking and rolling around. One of his men managed to get Young up behind him and they took off at full speed. We fell back over the hill at Isaac Gossner’s place, reloading as we came out to renew our attack.
Soon the full force of Union General Sigel’s army poured into the Shenandoah Valley, forcing Breckinridge to make his fateful command to send the boys into battle.
The battle raged for hours……..