In May of 1864, Grant was locked in deadly combat with Lee at the Wilderness. While it was necessary that Lee should concentrate the strength of his thinned gray ranks in order to oppose the overwhelming force that faced him, Grant could out of his sheer numbers harass his adversary from other points, as well. It was in an effort to disturb Lee's rear by destroying his communications and base of supplies that General Franz Sigel, German-born immigrant in command of the Department of West Virginia, was ordered to invade the Shenandoah Valley. General John C. Breckinridge was sent by Lee to reinforce General Imboden's brigade, which had occupied the valley all winter, and to check Sigel's advance with all possible haste. Breckinridge left his headquarters in Southwest Virginia and, by forced marches, arrived at Staunton on May 8. On the following day, the cadet corps of the Virginia Military Institute was summoned. During the three long years of the war, the cadets had craved a chance to take active part in some campaign. Although they had once appeared with Jackson in the valley as reserve troops and had on several occasions been ordered out to chase small detachments of Yankees in the mountains near Lexington and Lynchburg, they had never participated in battle. This conflict took place on May 15, 1864. The 251 cadets from VMI made the 81 mile march from Lexington to New Market. Confederate General John Breckenridge had made it clear that the students would only be used a reinforcements and only in the direst of circumstances.