On May 11, 1864, Colonel William Boyd and three hundred members of the 1st New York Cavalry were dispatched into the Luray Valley. Riding with them were detachments from the 15th New York and Colonel Henry Cole’s Maryland Cavalry. Boyd had been ordered to cover the army’s left flank as General Franz Sigel pushed his nine thousand-man army up the Shenandoah Valley. It would be Boyd’s job to secure Luray Gap and then rejoin Sigel’s Army at New Market.
Meanwhile, General Sigel’s advance along the Valley Pike had reached Woodstock by 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 11. Sigel’s overly cautious attitude, however, would bring his advance to a halt, even though he had intercepted telegrams indicating that Confederate General John Breckinridge’s army was still at Staunton, nearly seventy miles away. Sigel informed his commanding officer, General U. S. Grant, that he planned to hold at Woodstock until such time that the Confederate Army should begin an advance down the valley. At that juncture he would intercept the Confederates “at some convenient position.”
Troop Positions May 13, 1864
Unaware of General Sigel’s halt at Woodstock, Colonel Boyd continued pushing toward his planned rendezvous at New Market. By mid-afternoon on May 13, Colonel Boyd had departed Luray and began driving toward Luray Gap. As the party approached the peak several Confederates were spotted on the high ground. Numerous attempts were made to apprehend them. Each endeavor, however, resulted in failure. One New Yorker noted: “On account of the superior condition of their horses they kept within a tantalizing distance ahead of the advance guard, defying every effort to run them down.”
Colonel Boyd soon “manifested a little impatience.” “Boyd rode to the head of the column and asked why these men had not been captured.” When told it was because of the quality of their horses Boyd challenged Lieutenant Edwin A. New, who was leading the advance. Lieutenant New responded to his Colonel stating: “You have a race horse, colonel, suppose you and I try it.”
Boyd accepted the challenge and the two of them initiated the chase. Galloping on as fast as their horses could carry them, they were soon able to intercept the enemy, managing to capture several of the “rangers.” Lieutenant Edwin New was still not satisfied, however, and pushed on alone after one of the elusive Confederate troopers. “This man was a brave fellow who made a desperate resistance until he had been shot through the body.” “New was about to saber him” when the mortally wounded trooper slipped from his horse.
Colonel Boyd’s command soon reached the summit of Massanutten Mountain. “From a height of a thousand feet looked down upon a magnificent scene. The valley, with New Market in the foreground, lay spread before them. Just above New Market they could see troops encamped, and farther up the valley toward Staunton they could see a baggage train and a herd of beef cattle.”
Sixteen-year-old Private David Crabill of the 18th Virginia Cavalry had been deployed on picket duty along the Luray Gap Road earlier in the day. Late in the afternoon he spotted movement up at the top of the mountain. Private Crabill quickly reported his observations his to his lieutenant: “Sir, I see men riding through the gap.” From this distance it was hard to tell if they were friend or foe. Regardless, Crabill’s “sharp eyes had given the Confederates time to arrange a reception.”
Ford at Smith Creek used by the 18th Virginia and McClanahan’s Artillery
As it turned out Boyd’s men were being simultaneously observeded from several distinct locations. There were reports from the top of Shirley’s Hill, an eminence just south and west of New Market. Even Imboden’s men, located several miles away at Rude’s Hill near Mt. Jackson, spotted Boyd’s command as they descended Massanutten Mountain.
General John Imboden
Brigadier General John Imboden commanded Confederate forces stationed in the region surrounding New Market. Assuming the worst, he ordered Colonel Robert White with his 23rd Virginia Cavalry, along with Captain George Chrisman’s Reserve Cavalry, to ride for New Market. One young boy, Elon Henkel, a resident of New Market, recalled seeing the 23rd Virginia Cavalry and Chrisman’s Boy Company “thundering down Main Street and ‘giving the rebel yell’ before turning left at the Strayer Hotel.”
Chrisman’s Boy Company had only recently been organized. Three weeks before, on April 26, General Imboden had issued orders calling out “the reserves of the Valley of Virginia from Shenandoah County in the north to Craig County in the south.” In addition to men over the age of 45, he also summoned all boys “between 17 and 18 into the service immediately.” It was these youngsters that would constitute Chrisman’s unit.
An article published in the Staunton Spectator regarding the boys stated “it would seem that the ‘seed corn’ of this section is being sent immediately to the mill to be ground up.” The youngsters that were called up would be recruited as cavalry. They would be commanded by Captain George Chrisman. They were “composed mostly of seventeen-year-olds with a few sixteen and eighteen years-old” mixed in.
While Chrisman’s Boy Company had been hastily organized, they were even more hastily armed. Most of the teenagers had “brought whatever weapons they could get from home including outdated flintlocks and old shotguns.” As most of the boys reported for duty riding white horses, the company was given the nickname the White Horse Company. Unfortunately, most of their mounts were better suited pulling plows than for carrying men into battle. On May 13, with little or no training, these young men were ordered into combat for the first time.
As General Imboden rode through New Market he ordered Chrisman and the 23rd Virginia Cavalry to deploy on the rise overlooking the bridge at Smith’s Creek. He also dispatched the 18th Virginia Cavalry under Colonel George Imboden, the general’s brother, and a section artillery commanded by Captain John McClanahan. They were ordered to cross the creek at the ford south of the bridge. Imboden believed these units could be brought into action without being detected. Hopefully they would be able to cut off the retreat of the Federal Cavalry.
From their lofty perch on Massanutten Mountain Colonel Boyd convened a meeting of his officers. “Everyone except Colonel Boyd expressed the opinion that the army they saw was the enemy. He insisted they were our men, even when it was represented to him how absurd it would be for Sigel to place his wagon train between his army and the enemy. His attention was also called to the fact that our army had no herd of cattle.”
It was decided a scouting party would advance down the mountain to discover exactly who occupied the town. Lieutenant New was detailed to lead the band. The intelligence acquired would help determine what actions Boyd and his men would take.
On his approach to the bridge, however, New’s detachment was fired on by Confederate pickets who immediately fell back towards town. New observed “Confederate troops in position in his front and near the bank of Smith Creek on his right.” The lieutenant quickly turned his men about and sprinted back up the mountain to inform their commander of the situation. The detail had traveled less than a hundred yards, however, when they met Colonel Boyd and the rest of his command heading their way. New was “stunned and bewildered” by Boyd’s action.
Map Showing Initial troop Movements During the Battle.
Following a short interchange, it was decided the Cavalry detail would continue on down to the bridge. Boyd’s men had gone but a short distance when they observed cavalry crossing Smith’s Creek on their left. It was evident that their intent was to cut off their retreat. Captain New turned to Colonel Boyd and shouted: “We will have to fight now.” Boyd replied: “Yes.” New then yelled: “Left into line.” This brought the cavalrymen into a position facing Smith’s Creek with the enemy less than “a third of a mile distant.”
Lieutenant William Beach of the 1st New York described the backdrop for the battle. “Back of our line, probably a little more distant, was the mountain. The side of the mountain was very steep and covered with timber and huge bowiders, and scored with ravines. The timber extended with varying distances from the base of the mountain into the plain.”
For the young men of Chrisman’s Boy Company emotions must have been running high. Here they stood, along with veteran cavalrymen, ready to receive their first charge. Their weapons were largely antiquated guns. Their opponents, on the other hand, veteran cavalrymen, carrying Spencer repeating carbines. Most of the boys did not even have a sword. The only advantage they had was the sun, which was setting over their shoulders. Hopefully this would blind their enemy, making targeting more difficult.
Spot where the 1st New York, 23rd Virginia and Chrisman’s Boys Collided.
Lieutenant New requested permission to take a detachment and drive the Confederates back from the stream. His appeal granted, he immediately ordered a charge across Smith’s Creek “taking about eighty men he gave the order to unsling carbines, and advancing rapidly meet the approaching enemy. Seeing that the fire from his men was ineffective, when about a hundred yards from the opposing line he ordered his men to sling carbines and draw sabers.”
The 23rd Virginia Cavalry and Chrisman’s Boys, in turn, charged down from their perch, racing toward the New Yorkers. Most of the shots from Union carbines missed their targets. Private John Henton, though, remembered having a plug of tobacco in his hand when the charge was called. When the Federals opened fire, a bullet, which was meant for him, ripped the tobacco from his hand. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured.
Lieutenant New was now forced to order his men to fall back. Lieutenant Beach of the 1st New York recalled: “They had got about half way to the woods when a large force of infantry reached the bank of the creek and opened a galling fire upon them.” The fire originated, not from infantry, but from the 23rd Virginia Cavalry and Chrisman’s Boys.
Charge of the 18th Virginia Cavalry and the Rout of the 1st New York Cavalry
The time for the 18th Virginia to add its weight to the assault had come. A member of the regiment remembered: “Before the charge, and while we were in line, the command to dismount was given, when our noble chaplain sang a hymn and then prayed, the whole regiment kneeling. It was a solemn and impressive sight just on the eve of the battle.” “The chaplain prayed that if it should please God we might scatter our enemies…” Scatter them they did.
Colonel Boyd had done his best to hold his men in position until Captain John McClanahan’s artillery section opened up. The guns launched grape and canister and with the range so short several of Boyd’s “men and horses were struck down.” Sensing his position “untenable”, he ordered his men to retreat toward the mountainside forest. “Before entering the woods, the line was thrown into confusion by a rail fence through which the men had to pass under heavy fire, and after getting into the woods, the rough nature of the ground separated and scattered them so that organized resistance was impossible.”
In the midst of his retreat Lieutenant New abruptly realized Colonel Boyd and his men had disappeared. Instead there was a “heavy column of rebel cavalry moving rapidly along the foot of the mountain, threatening to cut them off from the woods.” “Realizing their only hope of escape from capture was to reach the woods before the rebel cavalry cut them off, now pressed their horses to their utmost speed, and passed into the woods and part way up the mountain, almost side by side the rebels.”
Lieutenant J. Potts of the 18th Virginia cavalry remembered that as they pressed their charge, they were able scatter their opponent. Most of them began to make a break for the cover offered by the trees and bushes on the side of the mountain. One man in the New York regiment noted: “Our men were seen running in all directions on foot.”
Smith’s Creek in Foreground Showing the Field the 18th Virginia Charged From. McClanahan’s Artillery would have been Positioned in this Field as Well.
As the opposing lines closed and mingled the fighting became close and deadly. A member of the 1st New York reported: “With a force many times more numerous than that of Boyd’s, they were able to surround our men on all sides. Even the crest of Massanutten Mountain was carefully picketed and patrolled, as was found by some of our men.”
The intensity of the rebel fire was noted by several of the New Yorkers. Lieutenant New avowed a bullet passed through his cap, knocking it off his head. A second gunshot cut off a button from his coat, while a third cut his stirrup strap. A fourth struck and passed through his blanket roll.
Charles R. Peterson of the 1st New York was stubbornly intent on damaging the enemy as much as possible while trying his best to escape. “While urging his horse to the utmost along the mountain side, he would now and then turn in his saddle and, giving a loud and peculiar war whoop, give his pursuers shot after shot from his carbine.” Peterson would eventually be captured after running out of ammunition.
Other problems soon emerged. “Because the girths were slackened by the day’s march, many saddles slipped, the riders were thrown to the ground and the excited horses could not be caught. Other riders were swept from their horses by limbs of trees and other obstructions.” The situation was desperate and chaotic and was soon ended by the surrender of most of Boyd’s men.
The losses for the 1st New York were substantial. “The wonder was that the whole of Boyd’s command was not captured. Hemmed in between mountain and river, with superior forces on all sides, it was individual determination that saved those that escaped.” Colonel Boyd lost more than 125 men. The majority of these were captured. Most of the rest were left hiding on the slopes of Massanutten Mountain. Nearly 200 horses were secured, all of which would serve as much needed replacements for worn Confederate mounts.
Confederate casualties, overall, were light. Though there were no official casualty figures for the Boy Company, extrapolating from a news article interview in a 1908 edition of The Daily News in Harrisonburg, losses can be surmised. It would appear twenty-nine of the young men may have been struck down. Chrisman would praise the boys for their courage. He would declare that “the valor of the boys spread through the valley.”
General Imboden, in his official report, would conclude: “Colonel Boyd, of the First New York Cavalry, with detachments from the Fifteenth New York and Cole’s (Maryland) battalion, came upon me from Luray about sunset. We pitched into him, cut him off from the roads, and drove him into the Massanutten Mountain. Numbers have been captured, together with about half of all their horses. They are wandering in the mountain to-night cut off. When day breaks I think I will get nearly all of theirs. Colonel Boyd was wounded. We have his horse, and he is in the brush.”
That night Chrisman’s Boy Company was sent south along the Valley Pike to the town of Tenth Legion to recuperate from their fight. The boys setup camp at Bethlehem Stone Church. Early on the morning of the 15th, Private James Hillyard, a member the unit, spotted a group of young cadets from the Virginia Military Institute marching along the turnpike. Hillyard and his companions teased them by shouting: “’Where did you leave your mother?’ and other remarks at the passing cadets. ‘The boys never returned a word’, Hillyard recalled, ‘but stepped along in silence’ toward their fate in the battle of New Market.” On this occasion 47 more young boys would be wounded and 10 others would be killed. It was more “seed corn sent to the mill to be ground.”
Bethlehem Stone Church.
Note: Ironically, following the war, James Hillyard would become a deacon at the Bethlehem Stone Church. He would never forget the cruel things he had said that morning to those V.M.I. Cadets.
Maps were made or adapted using Microsoft Paint.
Beach, William H. The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry: From April 19, 1861 to July 7, 1865. The Lincoln Cavalry Association. New York. 1902.
Davis, William C. The Battle of New Market. Stackpole Books. Harrisburg, Pa. 1993.
Jenkins, Donald B. The Lost Civil War Diary of John Rigdon King: The Story of an American Civil War Hero. Fothill Media LLC. 2018.
Knight, Charles. Valley Thunder. The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864. Savas Beatie. New York. 2010.
Newcomer, Elsie and Ramsey, Janet. 1864, Life in the Shenandoah Valley. The Daily Dispatch. Richmond, Va. 2014.
War of the Rebellion, Official Records. Union and Confederate Armies. Series I. Volume XXXVII.