Late on the night of May 10, 1864, the cadets of Virginia Military Institute were called out of bed for orders that directed them to join Confederate forces at Staunton, Va. Despite the late hour, “the air was rent with wild cheering,” as the men broke from ranks, excited at the prospect of finally having a hand in the conflict.
Among the cadets was 20-year-old Richmond native Jonathan Edwards Woodbridge. He had entered VMI in 1861, following the military legacy of his grandfather, a brigadier general in the Virginia militia, and his father, Rev. George Woodbridge, a West Point graduate who resigned from the military in 1828, and spent the Civil War as the Rector of Monumental Church in Richmond. By the spring of 1864, young Woodbridge had risen to the rank of sergeant major, the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer in the corps. At some point, he posed for the ambrotype pictured here.
Rain clouds gathered as the cadets assembled at 4 a.m. on May 11, to begin the 70-mile trek north towards the enemy mobilizing near New Market. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, the 10,000-strong federal force moved up the Shenandoah Valley with orders to destroy critical rail and canal lines at Lynchburg.
Four days later, at 11 a.m., the cadets arrived on the battlefield. They were initially placed in reserve behind the crest of a hill. They expressed their desire to fight to Gen. John C. Breckinridge, who now commanded the 4,100-man Confederate force. Breckinridge responded with an answer perhaps reminiscent of his politic days in Washington as vice president in the James Buchanan administration. He “did not wish to expose them unnecessarily, but would use them very freely, were developments such as to justify it.” Breckinridge was true to his word. He soon realized that he could not spare the young men, and repositioned them behind the main lines.
As the order to march rang down the line, Cadet John S. Wise saw Woodbridge dart out in front of the line, “forty paces in advance of the colors as directing guide, as if we had been upon the drill ground.” Woodbridge, who normally assumed this parade ground position as cadet sergeant major, likely believed this as his duty during an actual engagement. It was not. Though this action reflected conspicuous gallantry to many eyewitnesses, it had no place in the confusion and danger of the battlefield. He was quickly ordered to fall back in line beside VMI’s unique flag, which featured the Virginia state seal in the center of a white field, before pushing forward into the fight.
A sudden rainstorm drenched Woodbridge and his classmates as they struggled forward. Some lost shoes as the ground beneath them turned into a quagmire, while others fell from wounds. Despite the poor conditions and the constant fire, the cadets’ line never wavered. Meanwhile, Breckinridge exploited the withdrawal of a Union battery by ordering his entire force into the exposed gap of the enemy line. Sigel’s stubborn defense collapsed, and the Union army withdrew after six hours of hard fighting.
The cadets were ecstatic as the color bearer leapt up onto a caisson, waving the flag in triumph. Though the battle had left the cadets hungry, wet and exhausted, Scott Shipp, the lieutenant colonel and commandant of VMI, stated in his after-action report that “they bore their hardships with that uncomplaining resignation which characterizes the true soldier.” He added. “Numerous instances of gallantry might be mentioned, but I have thought it better to refrain from specifying individual cases for fear of making invidious distinctions, or from want of information, withholding praise where it may have been justly merited.”
They also bore a share of the casualties—8 killed and 44 wounded, or 20 percent of those engaged. Woodbridge emerged unscathed and received a promotion to Adjutant of the Corps of cadets. After caring for the wounded and burying the dead, the boys traveled to Richmond for a review by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and then headed back to Lexington, after news was received that the enemy had resumed its devastating operations against the Valley. Despite the timely arrival of the cadets, the Union Army shelled and burned VMI and forced the suspension all academic activities until October.
Existing records are unclear as to Woodbridge’s activities after the destruction of the school forced a furlough of cadets in June 1864. While some sources indicate that he returned to VMI when it reopened in the fall, others state that he joined the Confederate army for the remainder of the war. Regardless, there is no information on his whereabouts for the summer of 1864, only a letter written by his father in early June to a family friend regarding Woodbridge’s desire to join a blockade runner. Whether or not his wish was fulfilled is not known.
Woodbridge next appeared on the record in April 1865 during the last days of the Confederacy. He numbered among a group of cadets called to Richmond to fill in trenches left open by Lee’s retreating forces. After they arrived, Woodbridge and other cadets chose to follow Lee’s army towards Appomattox, catching up to them on April 8, but leaving before the surrender on April 9. Woodbridge recalled that he continued on to Lynchburg, “thinking a stand might be made there.”
Woodbridge returned to VMI before the end of April and a few months later, on July 4, 1865, graduated 10th in his class. He then moved to Chester, Pa., and became a shipbuilder, eventually rising to become the Superintending Engineer of the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding and Engine Works. The reasons for his decision to move north rather than remain in the South are lost to history. Following two decades as a shipbuilder in Pennsylvania, he began work as a naval architect and mechanical engineer for the federal government, assisting in the construction of vessels for the American Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy.
In Chester, Woodbridge met Louise Deshong, the daughter of a wealthy banker and sister of Union veteran Alfred O. Deshong of the 10th Regiment of Pennsylvania Militia and 37th Regiment, Emergency Corps. They married on May 23, 1876, and in 1888, moved into a manor house that he had designed and named for her. The house now serves as a dormitory for students at Widener University.
In 1910, Woodbridge commissioned an oil portrait based on his wartime ambrotype. The artist, Anna Margaretta Archambault (1856-1956) of Upperville, Va., painted a faithful reproduction of the old photograph. Woodbridge later presented the painting as a gift to his alma mater. It was displayed in the Preston Library on campus for about two decades, and then placed in a closet and forgotten. Research connected with this story prompted VMI personnel to locate the painting. Plans are underway for its return to a place of prominence in the library, where it will serve once again as a reminder to cadets and visitors alike of Woodbridge’s gallant performance at New Market.
Woodbridge and Louise were married for 49 years. At some point following her death in 1925, he relocated to his native Richmond, where he lived for a time with his twin sister, Mary, and her nurse. Woodbridge eventually returned to Chester, where he died May 23, 1935, on what would have been his 59th wedding anniversary. He was 91.
Today, his grave in Chester Rural Cemetery is marked by a Confederate flag.
References: Richmond Times Dispatch, May 23, 1935; William Couper, The V.M.I. New Market Cadets: Biographical Sketches of All Members of the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets Who Fought in the Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864; Jennings C. Wise, The Military History of the Virginia Military Institute from 1839 to 1865; John S. Wise, The End of an Era; “Deshong Family,” Widener University; “Manor House,” Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project; Encyclopedia of Genealogy and Biography of the State of Pennsylvania; Minor Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society.
Katie O’Halloran Brown graduated from Christopher Newport University in May 2016 with degrees in American Studies and Economics. In the fall she will begin working on her masters in Civil War history at Virginia Tech.
How a Lost Image Was Rediscovered
In 1994, 130 years after the Battle of New Market, Civil War collector Paul Sparks came across an unidentified sixth-plate ambrotype, opposite, at a Civil War memorabilia collectors’ show. The picture shows a young man attired in a strange jacket, perhaps from a military school. But the identity of the man and the school he attended remained a mystery. Always on the lookout unusual items, and intrigued by a research opportunity, Sparks purchased the picture.
Despite his best research effort, Sparks found nothing of special interest in the picture. He concluded the ambrotype had little value, and used it as a teaching tool for children at living history events. This was in the mid-1990s.
Flash forward 20 years. In January 2016, a snowstorm blanketed the east coast and trapped many residents in their homes, including Sparks. He thought about the ambrotype again, and posted a picture of it on Facebook, with the hope that others might have an idea about the identity of the man. An hour and numerous comments later, he had his answer. The young man was Woodbridge. Sparks also learned that he wore a fatigue coat issued to the cadets prior to the Battle of New Market. Someone provided a link to an image of the oil portrait.
How the ambrotype came to be separated from its original owners remains a mystery.
—Katie O’Halloran Brown