Teen Soldiers in the “Field of Lost Shoes”

Field of Lost Shoes By Tab Olsen

Field of Lost Shoes is a 2014 American Civil War coming-of-age drama produced and directed by Sean McNamara (Soul Surfer). It was written by Dave Kennedy and Thomas Farrell. In the beginning credits, the title card for Bosch Motion Picture Distributing has a scrolling marquee of Psalm 23 (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…”) The film stars Nolan Gould, Lauren Holly, Jason Isaacs, Tom Skerritt, Keith David, and David Arquette. President Lincoln was played by Michael Krebs, an actor known for his portrayals of Abraham Lincoln.

Field of Lost Shoes is based on the true story of a group of teenage cadets at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, during the Civil War. These students had been sheltered from the war, but were unexpectedly called upon to defend Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in a crucial battle with Northern troops. VMI cadets ranging from the age of 15 to 25 (though most were between 17-21) marched off to New Market on May 11, 1864. The Battle of New Market was fought on May 15, 1864. The film’s title refers to the large number of soldiers’ boots left on the battlefield due to the muddy conditions.

Approximately 4,090 Confederate soldiers and 257 VMI cadets held off Union forces of about 6,275, causing them to retreat, according to Civilwar.org and VMI’s online archives. Ten cadets died either in battle or later because of their wounds. A statue called “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” symbolizes the losses the VMI suffered in the Battle of New Market. Six of the soldiers are buried under the statue. The VMI still holds a ceremony every year on the anniversary of the battle to honor the brave cadets.

Field of Lost Shoes is not as memorable as Gettysburg or Gods and Generals, but it’s a story worth telling — a part of American history that should, indeed, inspire a movie. And unlike other Civil War era movies, Field of Lost Shoes is filmed completely from the perspective of the Confederacy. “There’s not one person on the production who doesn’t have some association with VMI,” Executive Producer Brandon Hogan said. “It’s a labor of love and these people are very specific about how this story is told.” The period costumes were well done and the Civil War re-enactors did a great job on the battle scenes. However, I doubt if the cadets had the time or the strength after marching for 80 miles to party the night before a big battle!

Using the real-life names of some of the cadets, the movie first builds sympathy for the participants, and then thrusts them into the bloody, intense battle. “What I found in looking into the archives and letters were some unbelievable characters, funny, angry, cynical and optimistic, they ran the gamut,” Kennedy said. Leaving behind their youth, these cadets had to confront the horrors of the front line and decide what they were fighting for. While the Confederate Army is often demonized, Field of Lost Shoes instead focuses on the humanity of the young cadets.

Anyone who is a student of history and understands the unique horrors of the War Between the States knows why the South commemorates the sacrifices made by its sons, and it has nothing to do with slavery or white supremacy. In fact, Field of Lost Shoes tries to dispel the notion that all soldiers who fought with the Confederate Army held the same values in regard to owning slaves. “This movie shows a generation of Americans who were fighting with their lives to protect what they thought was important,” McNamara said, and each soldier had his own reasons.

Most of the Confederate soldiers were not even rich enough to own slaves! They were mainly fighting out of patriotic duty to their homeland, or for States’ rights as defined in the Constitution. As Confederate John S. Mosby wrote in a letter, “a soldier fights for his country – right or wrong – he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in . . . The South was my country.” Likewise, much of the boys’ motivation to fight was simply to defend their land, seek revenge for the fallen, and uphold their honor.

Virginia Mourning Her Dead (1903), Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, VA

The sculptor of this monument was Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a native Virginian who was the first Jewish cadet to attend the Virginia Military Institute. He was also one of those wounded in the Battle of New Market. Ezekiel graduated from VMI in 1866. He then spent a year at the Medical College of Virginia, where he studied anatomy before attending an art school in Ohio. In 1904, he was presented the New Market Cross of Honor at VMI by the Government of Virginia as one of the cadets in the 1864 Battle of New Market. A talented artist whose works include a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, Ezekiel was the most respected American-born sculptor of his day. He also designed the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Ezekiel, who died three years after the dedication of his greatest work, is now buried at the base of his famous monument.

A Final Note: Come on, people! Leave the statues alone! These monuments are historic works of art, they do not in themselves condone or support actions. They were erected to honor lives lost among family, friends, and fellow countrymen – blacks included. Although the Confederates did not officially enlist blacks until March 1865, some states allowed them to serve on a local level as early as 1861. Nobody really knows how many blacks actually served in the Confederacy; some estimates go as high as 50,000. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass even drew attention to black Confederates in order to press his cause. In July 1861, he wrote: “It is now pretty well established that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets.” Also, did you know that an act of Congress officially declared all Civil War veterans from the Confederacy to be U.S. military veterans? So the statues being torn down depict American veterans who, although defeated in an internal struggle, helped shape and ultimately strengthen the Union.

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