1864: “May Be Relied Upon For Active Duty”

May 2, 1864 HQ, VMI
Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge
Comd. Dept. of Western Va. Dublin Depot

General,
I have the honor to enclose herewith a letter from General R.E. Lee, Commanding Army of N. Virginia, addressed to the Adjutant General of Virginia–also–a copy of instructions from the Governor of Virginia communicated by the Adjutant General defining my duty as Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute.

Under these instructions and suggestions, I now respectfully report to you, for such orders as the emergencies of the approaching campaign may call forth. The Corps of Cadets numbers an aggregate of 280, of whom 250 may be relied upon for active duty, leaving 30 as a necessary guard to the Institution and as disabled. The command is organized as a battalion of infantry of four companies, and is usually accompanied by a section of Artillery. It is fully equipped, except in horses, and these are impressed in case of need. We have abundance of ammunition, tents, knapsacks, shovels & picks, and will be prepared to march at a moment’s notice.

Brig. Gen. Imboden is about constructing telegraphic communication between the Institute and Staunton. This he hopes to have in operation by the middle of May. In the mean time he will communicate with us by signals. Any intelligence from Dublin Depot had better be forwarded to Gen. Imboden at Staunton, with instructions to be immediately transmitted to me.

An illustration of Francis H. Smith [VMI Archives]

I remain, General, very respt. yr. obt. servant/signed/Francis H. Smith/.
[Breckinridge replied on May 4.]

Francis H. Smith (Virginia Military Institute Superintendent) to John C. Breckinridge, May 2, 1864

Source: Virginia Military Institute Archives. Full transcriptions available here: http://digitalcollections.vmi.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15821coll14/id/1013

Virginia Military Institute

Established in 1839 for the purpose of preparing young men to be citizen-soldiers, Virginia Military Institute (VMI) served a dual purpose, guarding the arsenal located in Lexington, Virginia, and providing a high-quality educational course for young students. Cadets—typically between ages fifteen and early twenties—entered the Institute by application and remained if they were apt students who did not acquire the maximum demerits.

Modern view of the barracks at Virginia Military Institute, including a portion of the building that pre-dates the Civil War.

As faculty at a military academy sponsored by the state, VMI professors and instructors taught military discipline, drill, and weaponry in addition to mathematics, sciences, history, and composition. Not all graduates who exited the Institute on July 4—the original graduation day—entered professional U. S. or militia military service; most returned to civilian occupations, often achieving leading roles in their community or state as they grew older. However, having military experience and training as a citizen-soldier gave many VMI graduates and instructors important roles in Southern armies during the Civil War.

(Excerpt from Call Out The Cadets by Sarah Kay Bierle, 2019)

General J.C. Breckinridge

The Campaign

General John C. Breckinridge took command and was in charge of defending the Virginia Shenandoah Valley. With limited troops, he scrambled to assemble a force to oppose the army under General Franz Sigel who was advancing as part of the overall Union plans. This letter from Francis Smith offered the cadets from VMI to augment Breckinridge’s force. Breckinridge waited, but finally on May 10 a message arrived at the Institute, instructing the cadets to join the gathering Confederate army at Staunton, Virginia.

Franz Sigel, a German-American, advanced his Union army slowly up (south). If he had moved quickly, he might have accomplished his campaign objectives as assigned by General Grant, but his delays gave the Confederates time to prepare and move.

Franz Sigel, LOC

The armies clashed near the town of New Market and in the shadow of New Market Gap in Massanutten Mountain on May 15, 1864, resulting in a Confederate victory. At a crucial point in the battle, Breckinridge made the decision to send in the Corps of Cadets and the young men helped change the battle in the Confederates’ favor.

Historical Musings

I could talk about the New Market Campaign, VMI, and the battle for hours. (In fact, I am – catch the video series posting every Wednesday here on the blog!) I’ve been studying it for over two years and had the privilege to write a nonfiction book on the battle. Call Out The Cadets releases in May 2019, and it’s even available for pre-order.

If you live in Virginia or are traveling that direction, come to New Market on the weekend of May 17-19. There will be a Civil War re-enactment, lots of living history, and even some presentations by yours truly. We can literally talk about this battle for hours!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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