Saturday, February 14, 2015

Field of Lost Shoes

The motion picture, Field of Lost Shoes, that is currently available on Netflix, tells the story of the role of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) at the Battle of New Market.

Field of Lost Shoes is a 2014 American war drama film directed by Sean McNamara and written by Dave Kennedy and Thomas Farrell. The film stars Luke Benward as Cadet John Wise, Lauren Holly as Mrs. Clinedinst, Jason Isaacs as Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, Tom Skerritt as Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant, Keith David as "Old Judge," and David Arquette as Col. David DuPont. The movie focuses on a group of five cadets from VMI who fought in the battle.  The story begins shortly before the battle and reveals the character of the young men from Virginia.  They adopt a new student Robert as "Sir Rat," defend "Old Judge" from accusations of stealing food, and fall in love.  The story features VMI's first Jewish cadet, Moses Ezekiel, who survived the battle and became an famous sculptor.  The film received a 47% "liked it rating" from Rotten Tomatoes.  I liked the movie and found it one of the better independent films on the Civil War.  The cast and acting is certainly superior to many military films.

The Battle of New Market took place on May 15, 1864 as part of the Lynchburg Campaign in May and June.  In conjunction with his Spring offensive, Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel to move up the Shenandoah Valley along the Valley Pike with 10,000 men to destroy the railroad and canal complex at Lynchburg. At New Market, a makeshift Confederate army of about 4,100 men commanded by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge attacked Sigel's forces. At a crucial point, a key Union battery was withdrawn from the line to replenish its ammunition, leaving a weakness that Breckinridge quickly exploited. He ordered his entire force forward, and Sigel’s stubborn defense collapsed. Threatened by the Confederate cavalry on his left flank and rear, Sigel  ordered a general withdrawal burning the North Fork bridge behind him. Sigel retreated down the Valley to Strasburg and was soon replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter.
Each May 15, VMI commemorates the Battle of New Market. The battle represents a rare moment in U.S. history when an entire student body fought as a unit in pitched battle. On May 11, 1864, the Corps was given orders to rise early to begin the nearly 85-mile march northward to support Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s troops in battle. Of the 257 cadets engaged, 10 were killed or died as a result of their injuries. Six are buried beneath the statue Virginia Mourning Her Dead in front of Nichols Hall. Every year on the battle’s anniversary, they are remembered with a parade and ceremony on post.  From the start of their cadetships, VMI cadets learn the names of those who “died on the field of honor” as emblems of service, duty, courage, and integrity. As they take their oath at the site of the battle, retrace the steps of the New Market cadets, and honor them in ceremonies, they aspire to make these qualities of character their own.

Gen. Franz Sigel's Union troops atop Bushong's Hill raked the Confederate line with cannon and musketry creating an ugly gap in the line. Originally, Breckenridge refused the advice of Major Charles Semple to send in the Corps, saying, “This will not do. … I cannot expose them to such a fire as our center will receive.” Breckenridge soon realized he had no choice, and reluctantly ordered the cadets to fill the gap. Remarkably, the cadets helped close the gap, allowing the Confederate forces to regroup and push back the Union army. Eventually, Breckenridge forced Sigel and his men to retreat, securing the battlefield and the Valley for the Confederacy. Many cadets lost their footwear in the freshly plowed soil, turned to thick mud after several days of rain. That section of the battlefield became known as the “Field of Lost Shoes.”

The cadet charge, and the shoeless field, are depicted in a painting, New Market Battle, by Benjamin West Clinedinst, VMI Class of 1880, a dominant feature in Jackson Memorial Hall since its unveiling in 1914. The days following the battle were filled with caring for the wounded and burying the dead. The cadets were ordered to Richmond where they were honored by President Davis and Virginia's Governor William Smith. They received the accolades of all and a new set of colors to replace their bullet-ridden banner. The Corps arrived back on post as Gen. David Hunter attacked and burned V.M.I. on June 12, 1864. In October of 1864 the Corps was dispatched to Richmond for fatigue duty in the trenches and on the Poe Farm until academic duties resumed at the Alms House in December of that year. On October 17, 1865, VMI reopened in Lexington and academic work resumed.

(Sources: The Battle of New Market - Wikipedia, Field of Lost Shoes Review - Rotten Tomatoes, Field of Lost Shoes - Wikipedia, New Market - Civil War Trust, Virginia Museum of the Civil War -VMI) 

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