Saturday, April 23, 2011
THE VALOR OF THE YOUNG
By Bob Hurst
I recently had a very pleasant experience involving some students from Florida State University who were enrolled in the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program at the school.
It all began when Major Marshall Baldwin, a member of the ROTC staff at FSU, phoned me and asked if I would be interested in joining him and and a group of ROTC students at the Natural Bridge Battlefield the following Friday afternoon. Major Baldwin was taking the students to visit the battlefield and also planned to involve them in an exercise regarding tactics and strategy. The major thought that I might be able to add some insight on the battle and also on the Confederate Cause, in general.
I readily agreed to meet the group at Natural Bridge.
I always enjoy being around bright young people and especially those who have an appreciation for the military. I also enjoy talking with young people (and older people, too) about the Confederacy because, I know from experience, many of the things they are taught in school (or have learned from the media) are slanted with a strong bias against anything Confederate.
Major Baldwin told me that the students had already heard one presentation on the Battle of Natural Bridge by a student who had been given the topic as a research assignment. Rather than replowing ground, I decided to discuss with the students some aspects of the Great War of 1861-65 from a Southern perspective. I felt certain that many of the things I discussed would be from a different viewpoint than the ROTC students were accustomed to. I discussed topics such as slavery not being the primary cause of the War, how the Emancipation Proclamation was a hoax and did not free anyone, how the North was not truly interested in ending slavery, how the War was a fiscal war as were all wars and how those who fought for the South were not traitors as they are so often portrayed as being by those thick-as-a-brick types who have strong opinions but little historical knowledge.
One thing these young cadets did know, as I suspected they would, is how the ROTC Corps at FSU is one of an elite group of only three among all the colleges in the country that are certified to fly a battle streamer with their corps flag. They, of course, all gave a big "hoo-ah" to this. I was also pleased that they were aware of the other two colleges whose ROTC program had this honor.
As I thought about these things on my way back to Tallahassee, I realized that I had never written an article about these schools and the acts of valor on the part of their cadets that earned them the honor of flying a battle streamer.
I will correct that oversight with this month’s article.
Since I have written about the Battle of Natural Bridge before and since so many in this area (with the exception of the recent transplants) are already well-familiar with the story of the encounter, I will only touch briefly on this last significant Confederate victory of the War.
The battle at Natural Bridge was fought on March 6, 1865. A Union force of approximately 1000 troops under the command of Brigadier General John Newton had come ashore two days earlier near the St. Marks lighthouse. Their purported mission was to take Tallahassee and then move on toThomasville, Georgia to release some Union prisoners that were supposed to be held in captivity there. It is unlikely that there actually were prisoners being held in Thomasville.
When the federals were unable to get across the St. Marks River at Newport, they set their sights on an alternative sight upriver a bit at the natural bridge. By the time they reached the natural bridge on March 6, there was already a contingent of Confederates under Major General Samuel Jones and Brigadier General William Miller dug in and waiting for them. By most estimates the Confederate forces, which consisted primarily of home guard units with some regular forces, numbered a good bit less than the federal forces.
Among the Confederate troops was a contingent of approximately 50 young cadets from the West Florida Seminary (present day Florida State University) who played an integral role in turning back the yankees and sent them scurrying back to their ships which were waiting in the Gulf of Mexico.
This Confederate victory kept Tallahassee from falling to the yanks (the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi River not to fall) and, more importantly, spared the Big Bend area the infrastructure destruction and rape and pillage that had occurred in other parts of the South that had fallen to the yankee horde.
For their valor in combat, the cadets earned for the school the privilege of flying a battle streamer.
Another school that has the privilege of flying a battle streamer is The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. The Citadel is actually approved to fly nine battle streamers representing eight engagements with the enemy and one streamer representing the Confederate States Army.
The earliest action of the cadets from the school, which was called the South Carolina Military Academy at the time, occurred on January 9, 1861 when cadets fired cannon located on Morris Island at a ship, the "Star of the West", that had been sent to reinforce the Union garrison at Fort Sumter with additional military supplies and troops. ( This was in violation of an agreement that had been reached between South Carolina and the Federal government.) The "Star of the West" was hit three times by the shelling and turned back without delivering its cargo.
These shots were essentially the first shots of the War Between the States, but President James Buchanan, unlike his successor, Abraham Lincoln, was unwilling to risk war by retaliating. Lincoln, of course, desired war and just three months later when the firing on Fort Sumter occurred he had his excuse to launch war.
By some accounts, the cadets from the school took part in 16 battles as part of the Sixth Regiment of South Carolina Cavalry.
The most immortalized of the encounters by the Citadel cadets occurred at the Battle of Trevilian Station near Gordonsville, Virginia on June 11-12, 1864. This was the largest all-cavalry battle of the War and went to the Confederates, under Major General Wade Hampton leading less than 4000 men, over the more than 9000 federals of Major General Philip Sheridan.
Noted artist Mort Kunstler produced a marvelous painting titled "Charge at Trevilian Station" which features the cadets in the thick of the charge with their school flag held aloft.
To me, the most amazing contribution of cadets to the war effort involved the Virginia Military Institute cadets at the Battle of New Market (Virginia) on May 15, 1864.
Union Major General Franz Sigel had been given orders by General Ulysses Grant to clear the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley. Sigel’s army of between 6000 and 10,000 troops was confronted by the Confederate forces of Major General John C. Breckenridge which numbered about 4000. Among these 4000 were 257 cadets from VMI who had made a 4-day, 80-mile march to reach the battle site.
Breckenridge hoped not to use the VMI cadets since some were as young as 15. The battle was fought in a heavy rain and the VMI cadets were initially placed in the reserve line. As the Confederates advanced they received murderous fire from the federal artillery and infantry and the center of the Confederate line seemed to disappear. Breckenridge first balked at the idea of sending the cadets up the middle but soon gave in to necessity at the urging of his staff officers.
What happened next was incredible! The cadets charged forward through the mud fighting like seasoned veterans and completely turned back the Union charge. Sigel began withdrawing his artillery and the federal line was quickly swept aside by the advancing Confederates led by the VMI cadets. The cadets even captured a cannon and placed the VMI flag atop the weapon.
General Breckenridge was overcome with pride for the cadets and saluted them as he rode by after the Federals began a rapid retreat. Sadly, ten of the cadets died as a result of the battle.
Sigel and his forces withdrew to Strasburg after the defeat and the Shenandoah remained in Confederate hands for a while longer.
I have read in some sources that two other colleges have ROTC corps that are approved to fly battle streamers. One source listed William and Mary because of the large number of students at that school that took part in various actions during the American Revolutionary War. Another source listed the University of Mississippi for action taken by cadets at Vicksburg. I have been unable to confirm either of these claims.
The most definitive source concerning cadet corps certified to fly the streamers is the book FAITHFUL TO THE OBLIGATIONS OF HONOR by Colonel James B. Smith, USA (ret.), which lists only The Citadel, Virginia Military Institute and Florida State University. Until a definitive source comes along with a differing opinion, I’ll accept only these three and give a big "hoo-ah" to each one.
PS- All the articles from CONFEDERATE JOURNAL for the first four years of the series are available in book form. These can be ordered online. To order Volume 1 go to http://www.createspace.com/3540609 and to order Volume 2 go to http://www.createspace.com/3543269.