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With Memorial Day rapidly approaching, expect to see more than the usual amount of war movies on television, entertaining us with tales of conflict and character in the battlefield … or, at least how ‘Hollywood’ imagined?it.

One of the old chestnuts is The Horse Solders (1959), in which a Union cavalry regiment is sent behind Confederate lines during the Civil War, to disrupt and destroy rebel resources, communications and supply centers. The film was directed by John Ford, who has always earned high marks with me when it comes to the attention paid to authentic details in his films.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t ready to engage in a little artistic license, in order to tell a good story. The bulk of the film is inspired by Grierson’s Raid, part of General U.S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.

But, a particularly moving part of the film is taken from another, little known battle, the Battle of New Market … you know the scene, in a desperate attempt to hold off the Union forces, the rebel commander drafts the corps of cadets from a nearby military academy. Movie make-believe? No,?it really happened ….. just ask anyone from the Virginia Military Institute.

Tomorrow, May 15, they will be marking the 154th anniversary of that battle.

In the movie, it’s an occasion for high spirits, even some laughs, as the cadets seek to close with the seasoned Union troops, voices that have not yet been touched by puberty raising their rebel yells to especially high levels. One of them is even captured, and spanked before the Union troopers retreat, yielding the field and the day’s glory to the gallant youngsters.

If only …

After a four-day, eighty-mile march, VMI’s Corps of Cadets did indeed close with the enemy at the Battle of New Market, enduring rifle and artillery fire from the Union positions, meeting and repelling a Union charge, then launching a charge of their own, capturing prisoners and artillery pieces, and spurring a Union retreat.

The field, and the glory was theirs’ …. but not at the cost of just a spanking. Ten of the cadets were killed outright, or died later from their wounds. Another 45 cadets were wounded in the action. The boys ranged in age from fifteen- to seventeen-years, though?there are?accounts claiming some of the cadets were as young as twelve-years. You can visit the battlefield – virtually – at its website. If you get a chance, though, I recommend actually visiting the site. The wife and I visited several years ago … for depth and breadth?of history, culture and natural beauty, it’s hard to beat a tour of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

By the way, I said earlier that I always appreciated Ford’s attention to authentic detail. In the movie, the school has been renamed the Jefferson Military Academy. Among those cadets killed at the Battle of New Market was Thomas Garland Jefferson (a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson) ….. not a coincidence, I think.

There's a saying around here, something like, "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!" That's me. I'm a 'dang Yankee from back-east' who settled in the Lone Star State after some extended stays in the eastern U.S., and New Mexico. I worked as an archaeologist for a few years before dusting off my second major in English, and embarking on a 25-year career in journalism. Since then, I've embraced the dark side of the force, and now work in PR for a community college in Midland, Texas.
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