The Virginia Military Institute was founded in 1839, outside the town of Lexington, Virginia. The cadets and
the Instructors were part of the Virginia militia system. Classes each year began in July with an encampment. The entire cadet
corps was present for the encampment, where they would take part in marches, field exercises, infantry and artillery drills
and guard duty. Cadets at the VMI were expected to perform well scholastically as well as physically. The physical training,
or at least part of the training was moving field artillery pieces around the parade grounds. There were two of specially
made lightweight canons manufactured for that purpose. The students named them Matthew and Mark.
The corps was called
out in 1861, to protect Virginia state property and again in 1862 to assume a defensive position in case of an invasion of
the Shenandoah Valley. On May 15, 1863, the VMI corps of cadets assembled to pay tribute to, and to bury their former instructor
Lt. General Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson. One year later the corps would assemble to take part in the battle for which it is
most famous: New Market.
New Market was a village in the rolling country between a fork of the Shenandoah River and
one side of Massanutten Mountain. The battle took place between a Union force of about 6500 men, commanded by Major-General
Franz Siegel and a Confederate force of less than 5000 men, commanded by Major-General John Breckinridge. General Breckinridge
was ordered to deny General Sigel access to Staunton, Virginia.
On May 15, 1864, a force of 215 to 258 Cadets arrived
from Lexington to assist General Breckinridge in his defense of the Valley. The cadets were fifteen, sixteen and seventeen
years old, though some accounts record cadets as young as twelve. The youngest cadets were left behind in Lexington, feeling
disgraced at missing the opportunity to fight.
General Breckinridge kept the cadets in reserve during the morning
and the early part of the afternoon; he did this at the request of President Jefferson Davis. The President wanted to prevent
what he referred to as grinding the seed corn of the nation. Later in the afternoon, General Breckinridge could wait no longer
and told his adjutant Charles Semple, Put the boys in, after some hesitation, he added tearfully, and may God forgive me for
The cadets went into battle led by Lt. Col. Scott Shipp, age twenty-four. Insults were shouted at the
boys as they approached the front lines. The veterans yelled: Here come the wagon dogs!, Katydids!, Ho, bombproofs, get outta
them good clothes! and other disparaging remarks. The cadets wanted to stop and fight on the spot for their honor, but were
ordered forward. They joined the Confederate line in the center, a place regarded as a great honor and moved with the line
as it went up Bushongs Hill. On the way up the hill they passed their own artillery battery that was already in action and
moved down the other side. Five cadets from C Company went down from shell fire almost right away. The other cadets had not
believed the battle was so close. Sergeant Cabell called for the boys to close up and move forward. The cadets moved to within
300 yards of a Battery of the 30th New York Artillery, commanded by Capt. Albert von Kleisen.
The boys took cover
in a ravine filled with cedar scrub and stumps. It should be noted here that the ravine was filled with thick mud; the result
of a week of heavy rain. The mud in the ravine was so thick that many of the cadets' shoes were left behind, stuck in the
mud. This area is now known as the field of shoes. As the Confederate line moved forward the cadets moved with the veterans.
The cadets made it through the ravine more swiftly than the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, which was on their right. Their
line was split at Bushong House, but was reformed in good order on the other side. After the cadets were reformed, Col. Shipp
gave the order, fix bayonets. The Colonel and several cadets were struck by shell fragments and fell at this spot. Following
the blast, many of the cadets seemed ready to falter, but Cadet Pizzini of B Company swore that he would shoot anyone that
ran away. The boys pressed onward.
Capt. Franklin E. Town of the United States Signal Corps watched the movements
of the cadets and was so taken by the precision of their movements that he overlooked fact that he could have been captured.
He observed that as the big guns changed from canister to double canister, the lines did not falter; it was as if the cadets
were on parade. The cadets continued until they were inside the Federal lines, where they captured an artillery piece. The
cadets cheered wildly as the VMI flag was waved over the captured canon. The cost of this battle for the VMI was 10 dead and
44 wounded. By comparison the 62nd Virginia had 7 of its 10 Captains shot down and 241 dead or wounded. After the battle General
Breckinridge sent the cadets back to act as reserves.
The following day General Breckinridge stopped to pay his compliments,
he said, Boys, the work you did yesterday will make you famous. Like a true veteran, one of the boys told the General the
fame would be all right, but they would be happy to find the Generals commissary wagon.
Each year on May 15, the corps
of cadets retraces the steps of the New Market battle and performs a special ceremony. The roll of the corps of cadets is
called, but with ten additional names added to the roll; the names of the ten cadets that died at New Market.
As each of these names is called, a living cadet steps forward and replies, Died, on the
field of honor, sir.
The Virginia Military Institute is still in operation today. It continues its tradition of providing
a good military education to its cadets in addition to the excellent training in engineering and the sciences.