I am, and have been since my pre-teen years, fascinated by the American Civil War. There are so many different facets that can be looked at – the different theaters of operation, land and naval warfare, tactics and strategy utilized by each side. It continually amazes me that the Union actually won. It amazes me because the Confederacy had a clear advantage in their officer corps and were arguably the most motivated of the two sides. I won’t go into the whole thing of why the Union won.
A newer book, Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Campaign, May 1864 by Charles R. Knight, touches on one of the many smaller battles that was fought in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia – the breadbasket of the South. It pitted the Union forces (roughly 10,000 men) under General Franz Sigel against those of the Confederacy (approximately 4,500 men) under General John C. Breckinridge.
As it seems with three-fourths of all Civil War battles, the Confederate forces got the best of the Union forces because of superior leadership from the top. Breckinridge outgeneraled Sigel – although it could be argued that Sigel should never have been in command – he was a political officer that was unwanted by General Grant. Breckinridge took command of the battle as soon as he was on the field (which was early in the fight). Sigel, however, was not in control of his forces – in fact the battle was waging for quite a while before he even appeared to take personal command.
Knight depends on mostly primary sources (many of them newly discovered since the last great book on the battle by William C. Davis in 1975). His account of the battle is balanced and accurate – it may seem that the Confederacy is slightly put in a better light, but that is only because they were so well led. He brings his extensive knowledge of the battlefield (gained from being the former historical interpreter at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park) to the book.
The book is 295 pages. It includes eight appendixes on topics ranging from the Order of Battle at New Market to how the park for the New Market Battlefield was started. There are 11 maps and 16 black and white photographs scattered throughout the text.
This book is an essential piece for anyone interested in the smaller engagements of the Civil War.