[Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864 by Charles R. Knight (Savas Beatie, 2010). Hardcover, 11 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:264/344. ISBN:978-1-932714-80-7 $29.95]
William C. Davis's The Battle of New Market (Doubleday, 1975) has always been my favorite of his many books, but in the 35 years since its publication enough new source material has emerged to justify a new book length account. Happily for students of the Civil War and the 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah, Charles R. Knight's Valley Thunder is a masterpiece of modern battle history, firmly establishing itself as the new standard work on the subject, a situation that Davis himself readily concedes in his gracious and incredibly effusive introduction to Knight's book. When Davis places Valley Thunder in the top dozen Civil War battle histories that have ever been published, it should raise eyebrows a bit, but, if he's overdone it, he's not off by much.
In Valley Thunder, Knight, a former Historical Interpreter at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, displays his expert knowledge of the terrain and of the body of source material pertaining to the battle. He also has the rare natural ability as a writer to take this unmatched knowledge base and use it to construct a tactical battle narrative that easily rivals any of the best to be found in the literature. Beyond the battle itself, enough background material is presented to give readers a solid conception of the campaign's planned coordination of three Union columns, Sigel's effort in the Shenandoah Valley and George Crook and W.W. Averell's raids against the industry and rail transportation system of southwest Virginia.
Knight deftly reconstructs the three distinct phases of the Battle of New Market, helped greatly by primary source material discovered over the past few decades. The only major movement remaining almost a complete mystery is that of John D. Imboden's cavalry east of Smith's Creek [a rain-swollen stream that marks the eastern boundary of the main battlefield], an issue that is further discussed in an informative appendix. Knight lauds the overall direction of Confederate commander John C. Breckinridge, as well as his units's regimental leadership, but is justifiably critical (especially in hindsight) of the sweeping movement of Imboden's brigade mentioned above, as it weakened Breckinridge's right flank at a critical moment and denied his army the ability to effectively pursue the Federal army when it was finally routed north of New Market in the late afternoon. On the Union side, the personal bravery of "army" commander Franz Sigel is duly noted, but the German's badly planned and organized advance to New Market is heavily and persuasively criticized. The lack of march discipline allowed the smaller Confederate force to defeat the Union army piecemeal. The federal cavalry division, under Julius Stahel, also performed poorly in the battle, but Colonel George D. Wells is well praised by Knight for his handling of the 34th Massachusetts infantry regiment.
Cartographer George Skoch's excellent sequence of tactical maps is heavily influenced by the Colonna Map of the Battle of New Market (reproduced on pg. 126), the strengths and weaknesses of which are noted by the author on the facing page. The battlefield was constricted on both sides by widely meandering water barriers (the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on the west and Smith's Creek to the east) and Knight does an excellent job of describing for the reader the critical role that the constantly shifting front length had on the tactical deployments employed by both sides. The effects of other natural and man-made terrain features (hills, ravines, fences, buildings, orchards, etc.), as well as the role of the weather (heavy rains and thick, deep mud) in retarding rapid movement, are also attended to in detail.
New Market is probably most well known for the Confederacy's battlefield deployment of VMI's corps of cadets, but Knight avoids the tendency of previous chroniclers to get carried away with describing their impact on the battle. The background of the cadets and their participation in the battle is discussed fully, but their brave and effective performance is placed in the proper context of being one among many. Another unusual unit that was singled out for special mention in the text (and in Appendix 8) was the only organized force of Missourians [Co. A, 1st Missouri Cavalry] to serve in the eastern armies.
In an additional nod to serious students, the source notes, which often burgeon with additional background and analysis, are placed at the bottom of each page. The appendices, eight in number, provide a wealth of information, perhaps most significantly the annotated orders of battle complete with numbers and losses data. Others explore Imboden's flanking operation, the roles of specific units that fought in the battle [the 54th Pennsylvania, 23rd Virginia Cavalry, and 1st Missouri Cavalry], the story of the Bushong family, and the importance of VMI graduate and businessman George Collins in the genesis of the battlefield park.
Throughout the past couple decades, the concept and execution of the Civil War battle study has been both broadened and significantly refined, and Charles Knight's Valley Thunder embodies all the best elements of the genre that readers have come to expect, and more. Award worthy, it is a masterwork in every regard.