Wednesday, December 3, 2008

VMI Dress Parade video


On May 15, 1864, cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) fought alongside the Confederate Army as an independent unit at the Battle of New Market. The cadets, under the direction of VMI Commandant of Cadets Lt. Col. Scott Ship, aged 24, had marched 80 miles in four days to meet up with the Confederate forces. The cadets were intended to be a reserve and employed in battle only under the most dire circumstances.

General John C. Breckinridge, the commanding Southern general, held the cadets in reserve and did not use them until Union troops broke through the Confederate lines. Receiving massed fire from the Federal muskets and artillery, the center of the Confederate line melted away. Noting the confusion, Union troops began an attack. Breckenridge knew he must quickly fill the 350-foot gap in the center of his line or abandon the field. One of his staff suggested sending in the untried cadets.

"I will not do it," Breckinridge replied.

"General, you have no choice," responded the desperate officer.

"Put the boys in," Breckinridge ordered, "and may God forgive me for the order ..."

Col. Ship and his 257 VMI cadets, aged 14 to 22, joined the Confederate line of battle in the center - the place of honor - the history conscious among them thought. They stepped into the open along a split rail fence just as the 34th Massachusetts started its attack. Ship ordered his boys to "fix bayonets."

Almost immediately, an artillery explosion knocked Ship unconscious and the young men feared he was mortally wounded. Several cadets were wounded at this moment, and the file lay down. Someone yelled an order to fall back on the next Confederate unit, but Cadet Pizzini of B Company swore and said he would shoot the first man who moved backward.

Command fell to Captain Henry Wise, who got to his feet and shouted for a charge on the guns, and the line went up after him. Col. Ship awoke to see the entire Confederate line sweep forward over the rain-soaked and recently plowed wheatfield. This field would later be dubbed the "Field of Lost Shoes" by the cadets because of the many pieces of footwear that were pulled off the cadet's feet by the suction of the mud as the Corps charged forward.

The VMI cadets held the line and eventually pushed forward, capturing a Union artillery emplacement, securing victory for the Confederates, and forcing Union General Franz Sigel and his army out of the Shenandoah Valley.

VMI suffered fifty-two casualties with ten cadets killed in action and forty-two wounded. Six of the ten fallen cadets are buried on VMI grounds behind the statue, "Virginia Mourning Her Dead" by sculptor Moses Ezekiel, a VMI graduate who was also wounded in the Battle of New Market.

Every May 15, VMI honors their fallen brethren with a New Market Day ceremony in front of the statue. The ceremony features the roll call of the names of the cadets who lost their lives at New Market, a custom that began in 1887. Today, VMI is the only military college or military academy in the nation that is authorized to “fix bayonets” during formal parades (instead of just training).

The video below is from the New Market Day parade. The parade usually masses a crowd of several thousand parents, friends, relatives, VMI supporters, and civil war buffs. I especially enjoy the combined regimental band and pipe band (the bagpipes are my favorite). Pay close attention to the two drum majors, side by side, executing a very, very difficult "eyes-right" defining the term "military precision." The song that they're playing, Shenandoah, is a beautiful old Virginia folk song that is a VMI anthem of sorts.

For some reason, I can’t watch this clip without being overwhelmed with emotion and tears running down my cheek.

[compiled from a variety of internet sources]

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