May 15, 2020, marks the 156th anniversary of the VMI Corps of Cadets’ participation in the Battle of New Market, the only time in American history that the entire college student body fought in battle as a unit. Those young men, now known as the New Market cadets, endured a multi-day forced march through rain and mud – just to arrive at the battlefield. They left an enduring legacy through their actions.
At a time when other commanders had to discourage deserters with the point of a gun, the Corps of Cadets followed orders despite legitimate excuses for confusion: The unit was separated into two parts and their commander was wounded, forcing another officer to take charge – in the midst of the battle.
When ordered to advance through a “deadly fire of shells, grape, canister and bullets,” the Corps did not retreat, or even slow down, according to “The VMI New Market Cadets,” by William Couper ’904.
Although their company order had disappeared, the cadets quickly and enthusiastically gathered around the company colors and charged forward, filling a gap left by other forces.
Ultimately, the cadets’ actions that day resulted in victory. The victory won by the actions of the cadets came with a price: 10 cadets were killed or died of their wounds and another 47 were wounded. Those 10 cadets were William H. Cabell ’865, Samuel F. Atwill ’866, Charles G. Crockett ’867, Alva C. Hartsfield ’866, Luther C. Haynes ’867, Thomas G. Jefferson ’867, Henry J. Jones ’867, William McDowell ’867, J. Beverly Stanard ’867 and Joseph C. Wheelwright ’867.
New Market Day is normally marked with a time-honored parade, which is a notably more serious occasion than VMI’s normal Friday parades. Cadets march out to a solemn drumbeat, and the formation is centered on the “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” New Market memorial monument (sculpted by Moses Ezekiel ’866) instead of filling the Parade Ground facing the reviewing area in front of Preston Library.
The formation of the Corps is followed by roll call for the 10 cadets who died as a result of the Battle of New Market in 1864. Ten current cadets reply for the fallen alumni with the casualty’s rank, name and, “Died on the field of honor, sir.”
In addition to those called by name, the number of VMI graduates who lost their lives in every military conflict since the Mexican-American war are remembered for their sacrifice.
New Market Day cannot be marked with the Corps of Cadets this year due to governmental restrictions. The video above, prepared by the VMI department of communications and marketing, is a compilation of previous New Market Day ceremonies and plus a 2020 commemoration. Below is a slide show of photos from New Market Day 2019.