The year was 1864, and for three years the Federal Army had tried everything to defeat the Confederate forces. Many battles had been fought with both sides winning and losing. Casualty counts were far beyond what anyone had considered possible. General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had lost a major battle at Gettysburg, but the South's willingness to fight for their independence had not diminished.
Federal strategy began to focus on destroying the South's infrastructure which supplied Confederate forces in the field. In May, Federal General Franz Sigel's army began its march from Winchester, intent on destroying the Virginia Central Railroad located in Staunton. If successful, General Lee's Army would no longer receive the rich stores and supplies from the Shenandoah Valley.
To stop the Federal advance, the sparse Confederate forces under the command of General John C. Breckinridge and General John D. Imboden gathered all the troops they could muster. The Virginia Military Institute's Superintendent Francis Smith was asked if his "School Boy Soldiers" would fall in. Taught from the very beginning at VMI the principles of duty and honor, the young men were eager to prove their worth as soldiers. The cadets marched for 4 days covering 80 muddy miles from Lexington to New Market in the drenching rain.
The battle of New Market began in earnest on the stormy morning of the 15th with lightning, thunder, and cannon fire echoing across the valley. General Breckinridge had not wanted to deploy his 250 young VMI cadets, and held them in a reserve position on the battlefield. But when a large gap opened in the center line of battle, Breckinridge with tears in his eyes said, "Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order."
As the boys moved forward behind their colors the storm greatly intensified, with lightning, thunder and driving rain. Now in the eye of the storm, under heavy cannon and musket fire the cadets began taking casualties. Undeterred, they fought forward through a low section of the field with standing water and deep mud, with a number of the boys losing their socks and shoes. A 12 pound Napoleon cannon was abandoned in the face of the cadet's charge, which the cheering boys captured. A Confederate officer watching the cadets said their charge "surpassed anything that I witnessed during the war."
General Breckinridge would later ride to their position and say "Young gentlemen, I have you to thank for the result of today's operations. Well done, Virginians...well done men!"
The actions of those brave cadets fulfilled the motto of VMI, and would be remembered daily from that day forward. "In Bellō Praesidium - In War A Tower Of Strength".