- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

FAIRFIELD, Va. — Earlier this month, 17 Virginia Military Institute cadets awoke and strapped on rucksacks to begin another day of walking 84 miles to the town of New Market.

The foot-blistering journey wasn’t a punishment or a training exercise. Each member of the group, retracing the school’s most celebrated march, considered it an honor.

It was along this same country road, in 1864, that a VMI corps of mostly teenagers walked with muskets in hand from Lexington to fight the Union army at New Market. Ten of them died and 47 were wounded after they charged the battlefield through Yankee gunfire.

This year, as historians mark the 140th anniversary of the battle, the cadets said understanding their predecessors’ sacrifice is as important as ever. They, too, have a war to fight.

“We have a lot of traditions at our school, but this one just seems more real,” said Tim Riemann, a bulky 21-year-old from Houston. “Especially because of where a lot of us are headed.”

Next summer, most of the 17 cadets plan to graduate from the military school and begin training at the Marine base in Quantico, Va. Then it is on to duty in the war on terror, possibly in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Like their counterparts in 1864, these cadets were well-aware of what they were facing at VMI. War broke out for both classes the year they enrolled.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, “the whole tone of our class changed,” said Brandon Wheeler, a 21-year-old cadet from McLean who completed the hike. “We were preparing for war.”

The hike to New Market is a big honor at a school steeped in Civil War history. The 17 cadets were selected by their peers and were met in New Market by first-year students to take the institute’s oath of duty.

Afterward, the entire group charged the hill where their Confederate brethren fought.

“I’ve wanted to do this since I started at VMI,” said Michael Tittermary, a 20-year-old from Richmond who wants to become a military lawyer. “We need to pay our respects to that place.”

From sunup to sundown, the cadets tramped along the road, passing dairy cows and cornfields at an ambitious pace, suitable for upperclassmen who have just taken over the reins to their school.

“The first time I did this, my feet were beyond pain,” said Cadet Riemann, who nevertheless timed brief rest stops to the minute with his watch. The first cadets took four days to cover the distance, and Cadet Riemann was sure they would do better than that.

Saul Newsome, 22, of Douglasville, Ga., scanned the acres of pasture and wildflowers beyond the two-lane road: “It’s crazy to think we’re seeing the same thing they saw.”

As the miles of asphalt rolled on, the group grew quiet. Jay Coleman was ridiculed in the morning when he played Culture Club’s 1980s hit “Karma Chameleon” on the compact-disc player attached to his rucksack. But now the music was barely audible over the stomping of feet.

The Battle of New Market began May 15, 1864, as Union forces swept into the Shenandoah Valley to gain control of its railroads and the farmsthat fed much of the Confederate army.

Civil War historian James I. Robertson estimates that Union Gen. Franz Sigel led 9,000 men into Virginia. They marched uncontested until they got to New Market, where Confederate Gen. John C. Breckinridge was waiting with about 5,300 men.

The Confederates had been preparing for a difficult fight. A month before the battle, Breckinridge sent word for reinforcements, reaching thousands of men including a few hundred from VMI.

The fighting began in the early morning under a steady rain. Breckinridge had wanted to spare the young cadets, but when his battle line broke, the general called them forward.

Though the Confederates went on to hold the Shenandoah Valley for several months, the year was the beginning of the end for the South. It was the same year that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launched a massive invasion of Virginia, giving orders to destroy everything in sight.

After four days, Cadet Riemann’s cadets marched into New Market on sore feet and blisters, but with no major injuries. Still, Cadet Wheeler said, it was amazing to think how teenagers could walk the same length in wool uniforms without sports drinks or comfortable shoes.

“I can’t even imagine what it must be like to go into combat after marching like that,” Cadet Wheeler said.

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