The American Civil War was the most violent conflict this continent has ever witnessed. Central to many of the great and small battles were family farms and their barns. While many of these barns have been lost to time some of them still exist today. Though they will never be used for reclaimed wood, we at Aged Woods will profile some of them. These barns witnessed American history, if only they could talk.
The year 1864 was the bloodiest year of the American Civil War. Newly promoted general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant designed a five pronged attack to keep the Confederate armies from reinforcing each other with a simultaneous offensive that if successful would end the war. Grant would lead what would become known as the Overland Campaign in Virginia. William T. Sherman would lead the Atlanta Campaign in Georgia. Less famous were the other offensive efforts, George Crook and William Averell in West Virginia, Nathaniel Banks charged with taking Mobile, Alabama, and Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
Sigel had left Prussia following the failed Revolution of 1848 which attempted to depose the kaiser and install a democratic government. As a military leader during the revolution he was popular with many 48-ers, or other Germans who had fled following the revolution, which allowed him to be quickly promoted to a position above his level of competence. His political influence could not be ignored in 1864 though with elections coming in the fall and he was placed in an independent command. He commanded a force of approximately 6,000 men and was tasked with keeping the Shenandoah Valley free of Confederates. The Valley, as it was known, was the breadbasket of the Confederacy and provided the Confederates an avenue of invasion into the North.
Opposing Sigel was Kentucky-born and former U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge with about 4,000 men. Breckenridge while not a professional soldier had commanded the legendary “Orphan Brigade” of Kentuckians and had fought in most of the major battles in the western theater. He was competent but not spectacular. Sigel moved up the valley quickly seeing little opposition. The two small armies met near the village of New Market on May 15. The armies drew their lines around the 260 acre farm of Jacob Bushong, whose family had lived on this farm since 1791 and named it Bushong’s Hill. Jacob built the Federal-style home in 1825 and raised wheat, oats, cattle, hogs and horses. A large barn and several outbuildings were constructed over time and the farm was extremely profitable. As the battle began Jacob and his family took refuge in their basement.
The battle was a series of attacks and counterattacks around the Bushong Farm. Toward the end, Breckenridge decided to launch one final attack to try to win the day. The attack would center around the corps of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, who had marched from Lexington to join the army. The cadets proved their mettle marching through a quagmire of mud which sucked their shoes off (known today as the Field of Lost Shoes) and they broke the Union line and captured five cannon. Ten cadets were killed and Forty-seven were wounded, equaling nearly a quarter of the corps of cadets. Sigel ordered a retreat and the Battle of New Market was over with a resounding Confederate victory. The Valley would be cleared of Federal soldiers for nearly a month and wouldn’t be truly threatened again until Philip Sheridan began his offensive in the fall. Until then the breadbasket of the Confederacy was open for business. Breckenridge’s men were moved to Richmond to aid Robert E. Lee in fending off Grant.
The barn survived Sheridan and The Burning and remained standing until 1939 when it was struck by lightning and burned down. It was reconstructed in 1942 on the original foundation. The Bushong family kept the farm until the 1940s when they sold it to Everette Croxton who sold it a few years later to George Collins, a VMI graduate. Upon his death Collins bequeathed the farm and a $3 million endowment to VMI to create and maintain the farm as a memorial for the battle. The battlefield is well preserved (except for I-81 which cuts right down the middle of the battlefield) and is open to the public as the New Market Battlefield State Historic Site. Much of the farm has been recreated around the barn and the house, which still stands.
Every year on May 15 VMI celebrates New Market Day with a parade and ceremony. Roll is called for the cadets who died with a cadet answering that they “died on the field of honor.” Wreaths are placed on the monument that covers their graves on campus and the cadets parade past it.