It’s New Market Day. The anniversary of the Battle of New Market when Confederate troops under General John C. Breckinridge drove Federal soldiers commanded by General Franz Sigel off the high ground around New Market and into retreat back down the Virginian Shenandoah Valley. It’s the anniversary of when 257 cadets from Virginia Military Institute filled a gap in the Confederate battle line and helped turn the conflict in favor of a southern victory and moment of “youthful glory.”
But this May 15 is unlike other New Market Days. The classes at Virginia Military Institute will not parade in front of the Virginia Memorial and graves of the cadets who died in 1864. No crowd will gather for a tour at New Market battlefield (though Lt. Col. Marshall did host a Facebook LIVE to mark the occasion). I am not hosting a tour or a booksigning. I’m sitting in my apartment about two and a half hours from New Market, wearing a “Field of Lost Shoes” T-Shirt, and working from home for my job.
I’ve even struggled how to write this blog post. Just write a history post. Again? I’ve got dozens of those for New Market already on the blog and about six hours of teaching on YouTube. I wanted to write, and deep inside I knew what I wanted to share, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to say it. But it’s New Market Day…and in the spirit of “unprecedented” and “get up and do it” from that battle day in 1864, here goes…
The unknown and fear can be paralyzing. I have felt that way for weeks now. My faith has been strengthened, but I’ve still been struggling. I haven’t wanted to write for the public or get personal about history for a while. Sheltering with books and private writings has been easier. Staying in one place and looking out into the smoky, hazy, confusing future has been the easiest way to bandage up my hurts over canceling a conference, getting refunds for research trip reservations, missing anticipated networking events, and feeling sorry for myself has seemed easier than meeting writing deadlines.
However, last week as I thought about the New Market Campaign and Battle, history reached through with another lesson. Yes, these are unprecedented times as our nation struggles with COVID-19. But this is not the first time the human race has faced unprecedented challenges. I thought about the Cadets battling at the fence line on May 15—unprecedented in U.S. history for classes of military academy students to be thrust into battle as a unit. Basically speaking, the cadets had three choices as they faced the unknowns of battle that day: run, stay in position, or advance. Ultimately, they advanced…and captured an enemy cannon.
Metaphorically, I’ve been at the fence line and…well…surviving. Maybe I’ve fired off a few proverbial shots every once and a while just to let someone know I’m alive and not quite a coward, but anything more…no thanks. No motivation.
To be authentically honest, I’m not sorry that I haven’t been blogging here and creating content. Yes, I had grand plans at the beginning of this year and more grand plans at the beginning of “social distancing.” But the best laid plans slipped and I learned that was okay. (When I tried explaining this to a friend, she didn’t believe that schedule-crazy Sarah could say this.) It’s okay to take extra time to reconnect with family and friends. It’s okay to acknowledge that it’s hard to find the right words. It’s okay to not even know what to think at the moment. Everyone is responding differently to the current crisis. I see some on social media doing a great job of promoting their work and books, churning out blog posts as usual, writing dissertations. Bravo and Brava to them! Not everyone is ready to do that yesterday, today, or tomorrow.
But today is New Market Day. I feel challenged. I’ve had my time of waiting at the fence line and I know my moment of personal decision has come. Do I want to stay at the fence or am I ready to mentally rush forward into the unknown and see what happens? I think I’m finally ready. By grace, I’ve been able to sort through the sadness I have faced in the last two months. No, I don’t know what’s waiting out there in the “open fields” of life, but I’m feeling ready to fix bayonets and get back to sharing history and research publicly on my blog, starting next weekend—Memorial Day.
Every day, we stand at thresholds in our lives. Some small, some great. Every day, we face choices that will affect us personally, as communities, as a nation. It’s always been that way. It just feels larger at the moment. Unprecendented. And in unprecedented moments we discover who we are, what’s most important, who we love the most. It happened at New Market. To be honest, it happens every day. Maybe I just didn’t realize it until now.
At a certain moment, that rail fence—a line guide, an imaginary shelter—transformed to a threshold: a boundary between victory and defeat, courage and cowardice, boyhood and manhood. At a certain moment, the boys who had been called from their studies, whose families believed they were safe from battle, rose up. They knew the dangers of standing in battle fire and the dangers of open fields. But they rose up and Breckinridge’s battle—and their own lives—would be irrevocably altered. They would never be ordinary again.Call Out The Cadets, Preface by S.K. Bierle
Here’s to the New Market Cadets and our own determination on our individual “threshold days” to mentally move forward and embrace the opportunities to make a difference, exactly where we are called to wait with social distancing or serve.