By Bill Miller
It is impossible to dig up family roots without getting involved in history. After all, our ancestors made it and shaped it. When we find them old history comes alive. For example, I think I never heard about the Civil War Battle of New Market until 1991 when our youngest son, Tim, became a cadet at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA. He soon came home with the story about how on May 15, 1864 the entire 257 student Corps of VMI marched 5 days up the Shenandoah Valley, through rain and mud, to join Confederate Gen. John Breckenridge’s make-shift army to defeat the Union forces of Gen. Franz Sigel. In that battle 10 students were killed and 45 wounded. He and his brother “Rats” had visited that battlefield and had memorized the names of those 10 cadets. Every VMI cadet to this day is shaped by that event.
Family research eventually revealed that our family was engaged in that conflict – on both sides! On the Union side, riding a horse, was my wife’s great-uncle, 22 year old Joseph Dorsey Bowers, with the 12th WV Infantry, Co F. (See photo below) They had been sent to join the army of Union Gen. Sigel. Their objective was to go to Staunton, VA and destroy the Virginia Central RR, Lee’s supply line. When Confederate Gen. J. D. Imboden got word of their movement down the Shenandoah Valley he realized that his 1500 man army was too small to stop the enemy. So he ordered the VMI Corps of Cadets to join the CSA force. Immediately after arrival, following a very hard march, they were thrown into battle. Within minutes the first cadets were dead. Within hours the battle was over, the Union army retreated, the wounded and dead attended, and the Corps returned to campus, forever changed. Six of those 10 cadets are buried on campus at the “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” Monument.
Two weeks later the whole Corps ran for the hills in the face of a Union attack by Gen. David Hunter. VMI was captured and burned. Into the smoke and ashes rode another great-uncle, Andrew Jackson Jones, CSA, 20th Regiment, VA Cavalry, Co B. In his Journal he describes the destruction at VMI as they pursued the Union forces up the devastated Shenandoah Valley.
Two great-uncles from West Virginia on opposite sides of the greatest conflict in our nation’s history: just like that the civil war and New Market becomes real. We had to visit it! That is one of the great joys of genealogical research. You meet some amazing people, some good and some bad, you journey back to times and places you have never been before, you learn history you never knew, and it sure beats watching TV! The Lake Lure Genealogy Club meets the 2nd Tuesday of each month at 3 PM in Mountains Branch Library to help and encourage you on the journey.
VMI Cadets in the Battle of New Market – May 15, 1864
Joseph D. Bowers
Union, 12th WV Infantry