Published on June 30, 2021

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Help Save Battery Heights at New Market

Save 52 Acres Where a VMI Cadet Battery Helped Turn Back a Union Cavalry Charge

Click image to see map of battle and target property

Sometimes it feels as if our history is being lost everywhere, but we have an amazing opportunity to save part of it – a 52-acre tract that is some of the most fought-over ground on the New Market battlefield, including the spot where the VMI Cadet battery helped to turn back more than 1,000 Union horseman during the climax of the fighting!

This property is considered highly developable and is part of the residential growth area in the Town of New Market’s comprehensive plan. But we can save it – and we’re off to a great start.  Two families have come together to challenge us all to join them in protecting this key piece of our history.  They’ve contributed $125,000 to get this campaign started and to hold the property while we raise the rest of the funds needed for the purchase.  Because of their generous gifts, only $375,000 more is needed to ensure that this property is protected.

There is one more thing that makes your help even more critical – this property is not eligible for state and federal grants; the grants that we rely on to help us complete almost all of our projects.  This project must be totally funded with private money.  Because the Town of New Market’s comprehensive plan designates this part of the battlefield as an area for residential growth, the state and federal funding is completely off the table.  This one is totally up to us to get done.  All private funds – end of story.

Battery Heights property, looking south

Located just north of town along US-11 (the Valley Turnpike), and just a stone’s throw away from the Virginia Military Institute’s park, this property, known as Battery Heights, will be a major new visitor destination.  Opening this site to the public will bring greater attention to the eastern portion of the battlefield where much of the day’s fighting occurred and where 13% of the Cadet Corps fought as cannoneers.  They had been detailed from each VMI company and were serving the guns that day – the way that Stonewall Jackson had taught them during countless hours of drill.

During different phases of the battle, the site was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops, and was a key artillery position for both armies.  Confederate Col. Clarence Derrick, in command of the 23rd Virginia Infantry Battalion on the extreme right flank of the Confederate main battle line on this property, formed his men into defensive squares to guard against the Union cavalry charge – a maneuver rarely employed during the entire war.

Confederate Col. Clarence Derrick

The property is pristine and unchanged since the battle, and its commanding height makes it stunningly beautiful.  But that same height makes it a great threat if ever developed.  Any development on the site would be in full view of the Bushong farmstead and the protected property of VMI’s state park.  Preserving this site will allow us to ensure the protection of much of the viewshed from already protected property – and will enable us to tell the story of the brave cadets who fought in the Battle of New market to a greater extent than ever before.

If we can raise just $375,000, we will save Battery Heights and protect the heart of the New Market Battlefield.

Like the Cadets during that fateful day in May of 1864, we didn’t expect to be in this fight, and we didn’t expect to be on the front lines of history, but we are – and led by their example we must rise to the challenge and save forever this hallowed ground.

To see the complete letter from SVBF CEO Keven Walker, click here.

 

The Battle and the Target Property

The Road to New Market

In the Spring of 1864, as a part of his coordinated offensive against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Gen. Franz Sigel to advance south in the Shenandoah Valley.  Sigel’s movement was in conjunction with a simultaneous move into the southern Valley by Gen. George Crook, with both forces targeting the key logistical center of Staunton.

Sigel’s opponent, Confederate Gen. John C. Breckinridge, had too few men to confront both Sigel and Crook.  Judging that Sigel was the greater threat, Breckinridge left a smaller force to confront Crook and hurried to concentrate the bulk of his available forces – including the VMI Corps of Cadets – to block Sigel.  On May 15, Breckinridge and Sigel met at New Market.

The Battle Begins:  “Blackened with shells and canister”

The battle began with a thunderous artillery duel, as Confederate guns on the high ground of Shirley’s Hill, south of town, exchanged fire with Union cannon positioned in and just north of town, leaving the skies “literally blackened with shells and canister.”  Breckinridge hoped to lure the Federals into attacking him, but when the northerners showed no signs of taking the bait, he became the aggressor, advancing his force on both sides of the Valley Turnpike, and pushing the Federals north of town.

Union Gen. Julius Stahel

Sigel arrived on the battlefield around noon, although much of his command was still strung out on the Valley Pike.  He ordered his advance line to fall back to join other regiments at a stronger position on Bushong’s Hill.

Attack on Bushong Hill: “[The] rebel line melted away”

Around 2 pm, Breckinridge launched an all-out attack on the Bushong’s Hill position, but his troops ran into a furious storm of fire from Union infantry and artillery.  “The first rebel line melted away,” one Union soldier remembered.  Torn apart by the fire, the left center of the Confederate line fell back, leaving a dangerous gap.  To fill the gap, Breckinridge called up his only reserves, including the young VMI Corps of Cadets.

The Cavalry Charge:  “They were ready for us”

With the Confederates staggered, the chance for victory was in Sigel’s grasp.  He ordered a counterattack – including an assault by Union Gen. Julius Stahel’s 1,000-strong cavalry east of the Valley Pike.

VMI Cadet Capt. Collier Minge

Unfortunately for the Federal horsemen, the conditions were terrible for a mounted charge.  Hard rain had turned the ground into a muddy morass.  To their front was a ravine with broken ground, and on their right was the Valley Pike, where stone walls would funnel the horsemen into a compact front, making them easy targets.  For the attackers, it was nightmarish ground.

And the Confederates [many of them positioned on the target property] were ready, formed into a large “V”, with infantry on both sides and artillery in the center.  The 22nd Virginia Infantry, led by Col. George S. Patton, was on the left, and the 23rd Virginia Infantry, commanded by Col. Clarence Derrick, was on the right.  In the center rested the artillery – double shotted [sic] with canister, per Breckinridge’s orders – including two VMI guns commanded by Cadet Capt. Collier Minge.  In front of the VMI guns [on the target property] were the remnants of a partially demolished rock fence, providing additional protection.

For the Federal horsemen, it was a recipe for disaster…

For more on the battle and the actions on the target property, click here.