Sigel's Fight at New Market, Virginia
Military Essays and Recollections, Volume III
For the Commandery of the State of Illinois
by Roswell H. Mason, Recorder; © 1989
Sigel's Fight At New Market, Virginia
By Charles Fitz-Simons
[Read January 4, 1882]
I shall try this evening to recall some of the incidents of Sigel's fight at New Market, Virginia, in 1864. While I do not expect to be able to make a retrospect of disaster interesting reading, I hope to point out a moral which may be of advantage to us. It is said, "Sweet are the uses of adversity." Viewing this action in that light, we may derive some benefit.
In the winter of '63 and '64 the Shenandoah Valley was used as a sort of training-ground for superfluous generals. Its nearness to Washington gave the opportunity for intrigues more political than warlike, and these resulted in a number of independent commanders, between whom there was very little, if any, concert of action, except, perhaps, the uniformity with which they submitted to the exactions of Mosby. It became proverbial that the guerrilla chief needed neither quartermaster nor commissary, and yet he was well served in both of these departments. Rosser, Imboden, and sometimes Early also, took a hand in supplying themselves from the various depots of Federal supplies, getting safely away over the montains, before a combination for anything like effective pursuit could be made among the various commanders.
Those of my readers who were so fortunate as to serve in one of the grand divisions of the army, where, if not always identified with celebrated victories, they had at least the satisfaction of being connected with memorable defeats, can hardly realize how disagreeable it was to serve in the Shenandoah Valley during the period I have named.
When, in April, 1864, it was disclosed that a strong moving column was to be made up from the various posts, you may be sure the announcement was hailed with joy, - considerably modified, however, when it was found out that Sigel was to assume command; for "fighting mit Sigel" was not as popular a pastime as formerly. "The hero of Pea Ridge" was by this time suspected of having practised (sic) his retreating tactics too frequently. Nevertheless, it was with a good deal of pomp and circumstance that preparations were made for the campaign, the object of which was no less pretentious than an attack upon Richmond from the southwest; the sequel proved how very short of this goal we attained.
Sigel, on assuming command, displayed great fondness for pageantry and parade. Military etiquette and discipline appeared to prevail, but only lasted while the enemy was at a distance.
On the 1st of May Sigel set out from Winchester with 13,000 men of alarms, a splendid column for its size. The quota of artillery was ample, well organized and well equipped; the cavalry comprised at least a third of the whole force, and was well mounted and armed, and many of the regiments were familiar with the country from previous service. The first day out Kernstown was made by the whole command, and in doing this the cavalry had scoured the whole country between North Mountain and the Blue Ridge. Although it was well known that there was no force of the enemy in our front, Sigel developed in this advance a peculiar idiosyncrasy in the matter of cavalry scouting; day and night he kept his cavalry in motion, detailing them in parties of from fifty to a hundred men, and sending them out in all directions, east, west, north, and south, with no definite instructions or apparent object. Indeed, the casualties to the numerous detachments, resulting from their mistaking one another for the enemy, were the most serious losses sustained. The whole might have been considered harmless amusement had it not been for its effect upon the men and animals, both being used up when the time came for service. It might be thought from this energetic shaking-up of horses and riders that the movements of the enemy were well known to our sapient commander. The sequel shows the contrary was the fact.
On the morning of May 15, at ten o'clock, the leading regiment of Sigel's advance, having reached the foot of the hill that hides the hamlet of New Market from those going southward, was ordered to bivouac on the right of the road. While the men were preparing to dismount a cannon-shot from over the hill game them the first intimation of the presence of the people they had been looking for during the past fifteen weary days and nights. The discovery was rather too sudden to be as pleasant as the long search might indicate. It was a surprise party, with rather too much bass musicv. Sigel, on coming up shortly afterwards, seemed both surprised and bewildered. Fully one-half of his command was at this time halted at the crossing of the Shenandoah, five or six miles to the rear. The character of the ground that intervened between him and the enemy offered a singularly favorable position to form a line and await an attack; to the left of the road was a nearly level plain slightly descending to Massanutten Creek, which skirted the mountain of that name, while west of the road the ground rose rather abruptly to the foot-hills of the Shenandoah Mountains. It was cut up into fan-shaped ravines or gullies, the apex in each case towards the mountains. There they were deep and narrow, but became shallow and broad when they debouched upon the road. This was the character of the ground for the whole distance from the Shenandoah Bridge to a point a little north of New Market, where a series of gulches ran clear across the Valley. Sigel formed his line on a ridge between two of these continuous ravines. He posted his artillery on the extreme right where the ground was the roughtest. His infantry occupied the centre, mostly to the right of the road, and the cavalry was place in line to the left, where the ground in front was as steep and impracticable as the "Hollow way of Ohain."
Nolan, in his "History of Cavalry and its Uses," asserts that cavalry, unless posted where an advance can be made, is almost certain to break for the rear. This instance proved Nolan's assertion correct; set up as a conspicuous target for Breckenridge's well-served artillery, the long line of troopers soon assumed a very irregular formation, uniform in nothing but a general scrambling towards the rear. The infantry, being better posted, made a very creditable stand, and twice gallantly repulsed the onset of the foe. It was in the second advance of the rebel line that the Lexington Cadets suffered so much. In advance of the main line they came dashing up to the very muzzles of our guns, their impetus carrying them, in many instances, over and beyond us. In the retreat they served to supply the place of cavalry, in which, fortunately for us, Breckenridge was deficient.. These striplings numbered about five hundred, and two-thirds of them added to their soldier's baptism of blood and fire the last scene in a soldier's career. The beginning and the end was for them in one short day, and while we cannot help admiring their bravery, I think my readers will not blame General Hunter, who, a fortnight later, burned to the ground the school in which these young "Hotspurs" were trained. For our side to encourage such schools would have been a suicidal policy.
At the beginning of the fight a terrific thunder and rain storm began which lasted all the afternoon. The mingling of the crashing thunder with the sounds of the rebel guns and the exploding shells made dodging the fire a very uncertain and perplexing operation. The writer pleads guilty to several useless genuflections. Heaven and the foe made most of the loud noises, for Sigel's guns were scarecely heard from and were either captured or abandoned early in the melee. The nature of the ground made their withdrawal impossible when our centre was once pushed back, as it was continually at every new attempt to make a stand.
Every gun of the enemy was made effective by his use of the smooth ground, and by rapid manoeuvring (sic) an enfilading fire was kept up most of the time. After the first stampede, the retereat was dogged and sullen enough but always hopeless, as at no time, first or last, were our numbers equal to those of the enemy actually engaged. While Sigel's whole force was certainly double the Confederate numbers, and while time and place were favorable to bringing up at least an equal number of our troopos and having a fair fight, we were allowed to be beaten in detail. In the beginning of the fight and before the storm, all the available cavalry on the Southern side were sent to secure the passage of the Massanutten Gap. Sigel foolishly believed it was an attempt to get in his rear and cut off his retreat down the Valley. It was really only part of Breckenridge's programme to keep his road open through Page and Luray Valleys so that he might join Lee at Richmond, when he had sufficiently pulverized Sigel; a programme which he carried out with great precision. The pursuit ended at Mount Jackson Bridge which we destroyed just at nightfall, but our retreat was maintained all night long. The North Star was our beacon of safety if not of glory. About midnight, while Sigel and his staff were trying to pass by the wreck of overturned wagons and ambulances, a bearer of dispatches from Washington reached him. He communicated the news to Colonel Strother ("Porte Crayon") in about this way: "Oh Colonel; I have glorious news from General Averill. He is down in Wythe County doing great damage to the rebels, tearing up the railroads, " etc. Strother answered: "What a remarkable coincidence: General Averill is in Wythe Country tearing up the railroads, while we are in Shenandoah County tearing down the turnpike." Sigel was too obtuse to see the joke. In fact, it was a great mistake to p;ut such a man in command of intelligent American soldiers. They could have no respect for him; his stupidity was too conspicuous. An officer, to command successfully, must have the respect and admiration of his men, for without this they cannot, even if they will, obey him with that enthusiasm which begets bravery. The genius to command is the highest of inspirations. Something of the feeling that possessed the Crusaders of old must pervade. We are told that "They imagined they saw heavenly men in armor, upon the hill-tops of Palestine, waving silken flags and beckoning them on." Sigel, however, saw only Southern horsemen upon the mountain-tops, seeking to cut off his retreat.
It was not until noon the next day, the 16th, that a safe position was attained, and in this selection Sigel is worthy of great commendation. He chose Fisher's Hill and Cedar Creek, made famous later as the scene of events directed by a general whose genius spread a halo around them, which time cannot dim. In this selection Sigel might in charity be called the forerunner of one whose shoe-latchet he was not worthy to unloose; a general, the sublime height and depth of whose inspiration Sigel could not fathom in forty years.
Harper's "History of the War" makes light of this affair, and claims Sigel was outnumbered. This is not true unless one takes into account his custom of always presenting a minority of his force in actual combat. The defeat of Sigel was the more disastrous because whatever troops Breckinridge took with him to Richmond counted against us there; while, in addition, a large part of our column was so badly demoralized as to be useless for the time being. It is within bounds to say that it made a difference to General Grant in the Battle of the Wilderness, then approaching, of over twenty thousand men, - no inconsiderable item as a critical moment.
When, in addition, we consider the lives of the brave men who were needlessly sacrificed, the responsibility of appointing such a commander is shown to be most serious, and the writer has no apology to offer for what, at this late day, may seem severe criticism. Time cannot obliterate the horrible recollections of a month later, when I found and decently buried many brave men and officers of my regimen. The heaps of slain, piled in the ravines, with but a scanty covering of earth thrown over them, can neither be forgotten nor soon forgiven."Not a time-wasted cross, not a mouldering stone,
mark the lone scene of their fame or their pride;
One grass-cover'd mound told the traveler alone
Where thousands had sunk in their anguish and died!
Oh, Glory! Behold they famed guerdon's extent,
For this toil thy slaves through their earth-wasting lot-
A name like the mist, when night's beacons are spent,
A grave with its tenants unwept and forgot!"
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