I recently finished reading Charlie Knight’s new book, “Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Campaign, May 1864.” This is Knight’s first book and I predict it will be the authoritative narrative on the famous battle. Charlie was a historical interpreter at the New Market Battlefield and is now the curator at the Douglas MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia.
Published by Savas Beatie, LLC, “Valley Thunder” is very enjoyable to read and is very well researched. In my interview with Charlie, I asked him why he decided to write a new book on the Battle of New Market. His reply was that he had uncovered a significant amount of new primary source material and that it was time to revisit the battle with a new narrative. His book is the first new book on the battle since William C. Davis’ narrative, “The Battle of New Market,” was published 35 years ago.
The first chapter of “Valley Thunder” provides an interesting history of the Shenandoah Valley, detailing why the valley was so crucial to the Confederacy and why it would ultimately become one of the most hotly contested areas in the eastern theater. Chapter two details the ascendancy of Franz Sigel to command of the Federal forces in the valley and John Breckinridge taking over command of the Confederate forces spread throughout the area. This chapter also provide rich detail on the command structure of both forces.
Next, Knight provides detailed information of the initial movements of the two forces towards New Market. This was particularly interesting for me as it highlighted the shortcomings of Sigel and his hesitancy to move his forces on Breckinridge after successfully occupying Winchester. Knight builds a strong case for Sigel losing his nerve after John McNeill’s partisan rangers attacked the B & O Railroad in his rear. After this minor skirmish Sigel would become fixated on his supply line, and as the author points out, he would quickly use his cavalry up chasing small bands of rangers instead of properly screening his movements and scouting ahead of his army.
The next five chapters provide a narrative of the battle that is rich in firsthand accounts and expert analysis of the movements of both armies. The author, having earlier detailed the terrain of the battlefield, describes how it dictated the tactical deployment and movement of troops. While terrain, roads and bodies of water impact every battle, their impact during the battle around New Market were even more dramatic. I have visited the New Market Battlefield State Park and was very impressed with the detailed imagery that Knight’s book painted in my mind. It is important for an author to properly convey the terrain the armies fought over, and Knight hits the bullseye on this mark – making the book that much more enjoyable to read - the battle flowing effortlessly across the pages like a documentary program.
The last chapter, “Fame,” details the enduring fame the Battle of New Market has enjoyed and dispels some of the myths involving the actions of the VMI cadets. Knight’s expert knowledge is apparent in his analysis of the battle and the strategic implications it forced on the residents of the valley when Sigel was removed from command, three days after his defeat, in favor of US Major General David Hunter – a move that would initiate “hard war.”
Knight provides eight detailed appendixes to provide additional information on the battle. These include the order of battle, after-action battle reports, details on the 54th Pennsylvania, 23d Virginia, 1st Missouri Calvary, Imboden’s flanking movement at Smith’s Creek and other interesting items.
I am very impressed with Charlie Knight’s first book, “Valley Thunder.” It is a “must have” for any serious student of the Civil War. Like all the Savas Beatie publications I have reviewed, the book is well constructed and loaded with maps and pictures – making it a great investment that can be passed down to future generations of ACW enthusiasts. I had the opportunity to interview Charlie on May 25. He is very engaging and provides a great deal of information on the Battle of New Market. I’m sure you will enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed speaking with Charlie.
Charlie Knight Interview – 14 Parts
“Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Campaign, May 1864”
Interview Date: May 25, 2010
Total Time: 1 hour 29 minutes 48 seconds
Part 1: Charlie Knight Interview Part 1
Contents: Welcome and introductions | About Charlie Knight | Why write about New Market? | Charlie’s relationship with Savas Beatie, LLC | The strategic importance of the Shenandoah Valley
Part 2: Charlie Knight Interview Part 2
Contents: Lincoln promotes US Major General Franz Sigel to command the Valley forces | John Breckinridge and John Imboden the Confederate commanders in the Shenandoah Valley
Part 3: Charlie Knight Interview Part 3
Contents: The opposing forces and tactical situation in May 1864 | Sigel’s early movements in the Shenandoah Valley
Part 4: Charlie Knight Interview Part 4
Contents: Confederate partisan rangers bring grief to Sigel | Sigel’s use of his mounted arm | The Federal operational plan for the Shenandoah Valley
Part 5: Charlie Knight Interview Part 5
Contents: Breckinridge’s Confederate forces meet near New Market | Confederate desertions spike during the movement on New Market | How the terrain of the New Market Battlefield dictated the tactical plans and movements at New Market
Part 6: Charlie Knight Interview Part 6
Contents: Night fighting at New Market on May 14 | Breckinridge arrives at New Market and arrays his forces on Shirley’s Hill | The tactical situation on the morning of May 15 | Breckinridge formulates his plans for the upcoming battle
Part 7: Charlie Knight Interview Part 7
Contents: CSA Brigadier General Gabriel Wharton’s Brigade attacks Colonel Augustus Moor’s troops at New Market | Moor’s lack of familiarity with his brigade | Sigel arrives at New Market and takes command | Imboden attacks the Federal cavalry from a position east of Smith’s Creek | Imboden is taken out of the fight
Part 8: Charlie Knight Interview Part 8
Contents: Moor’s Federal brigade pulls back to the Bushong Farm | Terrain impacts the Confederate attack at the Bushong Farm | The Union army continues arriving at New Market | Federal artillery concentrates on the Confederate line
Part 9: Charlie Knight Interview Part 9
Contents: The 62d Virginia Mounted Infantry and Company A 1st Missouri Cavalry is ordered to silence the Federal artillery | Company A 1st Missouri Cavalry is annihilated
Part 10: Charlie Knight Interview Part 10
Contents: Sigel orders Major General Julius Stahel Cavalry to attack east of the Valley Turnpike | Stahel charges into the mouth of the Confederate artillery and Echols’ Infantry | The disposition of Echols brigade and the Confederate artillery | Colonel Joseph Thoburn orders his brigade to counter attack against the left flank of Breckinridge’s army | Lack of communication dooms Thoburn’s attack
Part 11: Charlie Knight Interview Part 11
Contents: Wharton orders an attack on the Federal right flank | The ground favors the Confederate charge | Carlin’s Federal battery is surprised by the 51st Virginia | Sigel’s position becomes untenable | The VMI Cadets are ordered to charge von Kleiser’s Battery
Part 12: Charlie Knight Interview Part 12
Contents: With a general retreat along the Federal line Sullivan’s Federal brigade arrives at New Market | DuPont’s Battery takes on the unusual task of covering the Federal retreat | DuPont’s unique actions provide time for Sigel’s army to retreat | Imboden’s cavalry dispositions and its impact on pursuing Sigel’s retreating column
Part 13: Charlie Knight Interview Part 13
Contents: One of the myths of the Battle of New Market | The Rupperts care for the wounded soldiers at New Market
Part 14: Charlie Knight Interview Part 14
Contents: US Major General David Hunter takes command of the Federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley | Hunter starts “hard war” and goes on the offensive | New Market – the “Gettysburg” of small battles | Knight’s plans for future books | Closing and wrap up