Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864
by Charles R. Knight, Savas Beatie
Charles Knight’s the first full-length treatment of the Battle of New Market to Valley Thunder is appear in nearly four decades. Fought on a rainy Sunday in May 1864, New Market was the inaugural battle of the crucial 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, where John C. Breckinridge’s roughly 4,000 Confederates routed a Federal force of nearly 6,300 troops under Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel. Total casualties exceeded 1,300 men, or roughly 13 percent of those engaged. Although Breckinridge emerged triumphant, the fruits of the Confederate victory that day proved short-lived. Within several weeks (and after Sigel was removed as their commander), the Federals marched south past the New Market battlefield and captured the crossroads town of Staunton.
Knight, who once worked as a historical interpreter at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, brings extensive firsthand knowledge of and appreciation for the battlefield terrain, as well as years of in-depth research on primary and secondary sources. His narrative is clear and very well written, and he does not tell the history of the battle at the expense of the larger campaign; in fact, nearly half of his book is devoted to the events leading up to the engagement. Knight does a good job at weaving the story of the campaign and battle into the larger context of the war, and he also provides an interesting discussion of this particular battle’s historiography.
Although more than 10,000 men fought at New Market, the gallant actions of the 250-some cadets from the Virginia Military Institute garnered much attention in the war’s aftermath. As Knight writes, it was the cadets’ participation “that catapulted the battle into the popular imagination of the public at large and has given New Market a stature in Southern folklore that arguably exceeds its military significance.” A romanticized image of the cadets single-handedly determining the battle’s outcome came to dominate popular notions of this fight, romanticizing that “began not long after the guns fell silent” and continued well after the war to the point that “little else was mentioned and the tactical details of the battle began to fall by the wayside.” One of the greatest attributes of Valley Thunder is that it corrects this mistaken, albeit compelling, view of an important fight.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.