Thursday, May 15, 2008

New Market Day

Every year on May 15th my alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), honors the ten cadets who were killed on this day in 1864 at the Battle of New Market in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. As far as Civil War battles go, it was not a major affair and did not involve the massive armies of Lee and Grant which were then maneuvering around Richmond to the east. As the two armies squared off to fight on the Bushong farm outside of New Market, the 257 VMI students were only supposed to be used in an emergency. Having been called up as reserves to support General John C. Breckinridge's 4,000-man force, they had marched 80 miles in four days. Although Breckinridge had hoped to avoid using the cadets, heavy Union artillery fire opened up a 350-foot gap in the Confederate line, forcing the general to change his mind. Calling up the cadets, Breckinridge commanded, "Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order." Bolstering the Confederate ranks, the VMI Corps helped repulse a Union charge and joined the counterattack that drove the Union army back. The cadets even managed to capture a cannon, prompting cadet O. P. Evens to jump atop the gun and wave the Institute flag, as portrayed in the painting below.

So this afternoon the VMI Corps of Cadets assembled as always on the parade ground in Lexington, surrounded by hundreds of spectators, parents, and alumni, as they remembered those boys (ages 15 to 21) who stepped into the Confederate line and charged the Union army. Having spent four years taking part in this ceremony, I still remember it vividly as a solemn affair. (I also remember that a black shako and wool coatee are not the most comfortable items to wear in Virginia's mid-May sun. The shako essentially becomes a crock pot for one's head, and it's not surprising that nearly every year a cadet will faint in the ranks.) The Corps, roughly 1300 strong, would march out to muffled drums. Then the Regimental Commander (the highest ranking member of the Corps) would start a roll call of the fallen cadets. After each name, a cadet in the same company as each of the New Market cadets would call out, "Died on the field of honor, sir."

Although I'm sure the whole affair represented an exercise in remembering the "Lost Cause" when the tradition started in the late 19th century, I do not recall any glorification of the Confederacy or its "Cause" in our memorialization of the event. Instead, it served as a romanticized spectacle, complete with the trappings of Victorian-era uniforms and pageantry, honoring of those cadets who had answered their country's call. The lessons for us, as impressionable 18- to 22-year-old men, were supposed to be obvious. And I'm sure for the assembled parents, the carefully choreographed drama played out before them instilled proud feelings for their sons, who were taking their places in a storied history of military service that includes names like Stonewall Jackson and George C. Marshall. (I have a feeling the mothers who watch the New Market Parade each year are less enamored with the day's themes of "sacrifice" and "honor.")

Twenty-two years after graduating from VMI and marching in my last New Market parade, I'm not quite sure how I feel about this act of memorializing the ten cadets who died in a war that claimed over 600,000 lives between the Union and Confederate sides. At 18 I doubtless maintained a romantic vision of VMI's connection to the Civil War. Having grown up surrounded by Civil War battlefields, enthralled by the myriad histories of the conflict, and especially interested in the photographs that chronicled the period, I marched off to VMI in 1982 expecting to encounter the ghosts of the 1860s, if not literally then through the lore and rituals that had been passed down by generations of cadets. And to an extent, the place did not disappoint, at least during that first year before the hard shell of cynicism toward military life changed more minds than just my own.

Now, as I look at the ambrotype and tintype photographs of those New Market cadets, some of whom are pictured here, I'm most often reminded of the parade of dead soldiers displayed each night at the end of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. (The third photograph shows Cadet Thomas Garland Jefferson, killed in the battle.) Rather than thinking of these men (and now women in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan) as dying "on the field of honor," I'm inclined to ponder the waste, both in 1864 and 2008. And I remember the words of English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, who observed just 58 years after the Battle of New Market: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (A line borrowed from the Roman poet Horace, it means: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." Owen himself would be killed in action just one week before the end of the First World War.) New Market Day, therefore, is something of a bittersweet occasion, given my perspective as a historian and as a graduate of VMI.

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1 comment:

BooCat said...

Oh, BrianC, ask the mothers. Neither then nor now would any mother think that her son's death, even a death for his country, would be "sweet or fitting." In some cases it might actually be necessary for the greater good of us all. Even then, she would probably consider it to be tragic, not only for him (and now for her) and those loved ones left behind but for the nation he or she was serving. We have romanticized war and the death it brings for far too long. Thank you for this beautiful post that makes that point so well.