Wheeling Played a Major Role in the Minor Battle of New Market

This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.

May of 1864 was quite eventful for many Wheeling soldiers who were involved in the Battle of New Market, in eastern Virginia. Although not considered a major battle of the war, it was significant for Wheeling because both the 1st West Virginia Infantry and Carlin’s Battery were involved. This battle included the cadet corps of VMI, which had an infantry battalion of 247 cadets and a two-gun artillery section.

The battle was part of Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy to control the strategically important and agriculturally rich Shenandoah Valley. Union forces were led by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel; Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge led the Confederates. The May 15 battle was a Confederate victory, and the Union general, Sigel, was subsequently removed from his command.

A report written by one of the members of Carlin’s Battery described some of the events. “On the evening of the 14th we heard brisk cannonading towards New Market. That night we got orders to march. At 4 o’clock, a.m. we could see the smoke of the artillery; waited about half an hour, and got orders to go to the front. The enemy was pushing Sigel hard … Our lines were giving way; we awaited the rebels approach; for a few moments all firing ceased; then we heard a loud shout, and we knew they were coming; soon they made their appearance in long black lines. We opened at good range, but on they came as if on dress parade; shell and canister flew through them, but on they came.

“I cannot describe to you the scene, but it was awful; 10 pieces pouring canister into them at 150 yards and not moving them … The First [West] Virginia is the only regiment that charged; they alone could do nothing but fall, which many of them did. We [Carlin’s Battery] were ordered to limber to the rear, but before we could do so the rebel line in front of us raised and killed two horses on one of our pieces.

Before we could get new horses they were too close, and we were compelled to lighten and leave it … We then started, and down went three horses in our other piece. On they came, and this had to be abandoned, and down went three men who belonged to it: Geo. Bottles, a man from the Belmont Mills, shot through the left breast; Dan Morrison, shot through the body … W. Johnson fell here, and was run over with a gun, but the ground was soft, and he was not badly hurt.”

A letter written to The Wheeling Intelligencer three days after the battle stated, “Major E[dward] W. Stephens commanded our Regiment and to his coolness, caution and military skill is owing to a great extent the success of the day’s operations. In the hand of a less capable man all would have been lost … Our color Sergt., Wm. M. Ross, of Co. C, carried the old flag through the battle, and although the banner is riddled and torn with shot and shell, not a bullet touched the bearer.” Col. Joseph Thoburn was also praised for his action.

The Confederates lost 531 men, including 10 of the VMI cadets killed in action. Union casualties were heavy, with a reported 841 killed, wounded or missing. At least nine members of the First West Virginia Infantry and four from Carlin’s Battery died. Listed among those wounded was William Stone, nephew of Wheeling’s E.J. Stone (co-founder of the Stone & Thomas store). Wheeling’s Benjamin Exley was a corporal in Carlin’s Battery at the time and presumably took part in the battle, escaping death, injury and capture.

Among those killed was Martin Van Buren Manners, son of Wheeling’s wharf master, Joseph Manners. When the 1st West Virginia Infantry withdrew, Martin’s brother, Alexander Manners, remained with his wounded comrades and was captured by the Confederates.

His fellow infantryman, Henry C. Foster, was also captured. Both men were sent to the infamous Andersonville Prison, where they languished under horrific conditions until their release nearly a year later on April 5, 1865.

Both boarded the ill-fated Sultana steamer, headed back north to family and friends as the war was drawing to a close. The boiler of the overloaded Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865. Some 1,700 men, women and children died, making the disaster the worst in U.S. maritime history – with even more loss of life than the Titanic. Alexander Manners, who survived the battlefield and Andersonville Prison, was one of the casualties.

Henry Foster made it back to Wheeling. When the war had begun, the former brick maker enlisted in Company H of the First [West] Virginia Infantry, organized for three months. When that enlistment ended, he joined Company A of the newly organized First Infantry and served until his capture at New Market. He was thrown into the water by the explosion on the Sultana and was rescued five hours later, while clinging to a tree.

Back in Wheeling he resumed his former career as brick maker and later worked as a carpenter. In his application for a pension based on his service, he stated that he suffered from scurvy while at Andersonville “from want of food and from exposure.” He also reported “debility or weakness of the whole system” from his experience in the water following the Sultana explosion. His pension application, however, was denied.

He continued living in Wheeling until his death from pneumonia in 1890. He is buried in Mount Wood Cemetery. Hiram Bowen of Barnesville recently installed a new marker at the cemetery, in honor of Foster’s service.

On a much lighter note, The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer of May 23, 1864 reported the following: “Yesterday morning as a lot of exchanged prisoners were leaving the Baltimore and Ohio railroad depot to join their regiments, a woman, who to say the least of her, was no better than she should be, wept very bitterly and made some piteous appeals to be allowed to accompany one of the boys, who she said was her husband. Instead of being allowed to get aboard the train, she was committed to the Atheneum, the soldier whom she claimed as her husband gladly assenting to the arrangement.”