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Saturday, March 20, 2010
New Market Battlefield, part 1 - George Collins
Over the next few weeks I’m going to examine the establishment and development of what is today called “New Market Battlefield State Historical Park.” Our story begins during the Civil War Centennial with a West Virginia man named George Collins…
Like all cadets at Virginia Military Institute, George Randall Collins learned of the Battle of New Market. Only a few years before Collins’ matriculation at the Institute in 1907, “New Market Cadet” Moses Ezekiel’s Virginia Mourning Her Dead – a tribute to his comrades who fell at New Market – was unveiled on the edge of the parade ground, a dedication ceremony attended by many of the surviving “New Market Cadets.” Perhaps during his time at the Institute, Collins may even have met some of these cadets who fought at New Market. Regardless, at VMI Collins learned the special place the battlefield at New Market held in the Institute’s history.
After his graduation in 1911, Collins went on to a distinguished career as a coal executive in West Virginia, including president of Smokeless Fuel Company, general manager of Superior Portland Cement, and several other companies in the Ohio River Valley. During World War I, Collins served as an artillery captain with the American forces in France.
During the early 1940s, news of battles in Europe and the Pacific dominated the newspaper headlines, so it likely was not front-page news in 1942 when a roughly 200-acre farm just north of the small town of New Market, Virginia, was sold by the family which had owned it for more than a century. The family name was “Bushong.” Nearly 80 years before, Federal and Confederate forces met in battle on their farm – their small orchard was nearly destroyed as both sides jockeyed for control of the tactically important ground there. About 225 cadets from VMI secured the orchard for the Confederate forces. After the battle, the Bushong house, barn and all the outbuildings became a massive field hospital complex for the vast numbers of wounded from both sides.
The former Bushong farm was sold again in 1944. This time the buyer was George Collins. It seems that Collins intended for some time for the Bushong farm to be preserved by his alma mater. He sold off many of his business ventures in the late 1940s and early 1950s, living in semi-retirement in Charleston, West Virginia. At the time of his death June 27, 1964, at his home in Charleston, at the age of 74 George Collins had no immediate survivors.
Collins’ estate was valued at more than $4 million dollars. His Charleston home he left to his nephew and more than $1 million was divided among several other relatives. The 175 acres Collins owned at New Market, including the Bushong Farm, were left to Virginia Military Institute, along with a $3 million endowment “to be used as a trust to perpetuate and maintain as a memorial of the Battle of New Market and to place improvements thereon for educational purposes,” according to his short hand-written will. [Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9 Dec 1964] (The “improvements…for educational purposes” shall be examined in future posts…)
Even though Collins had hinted before his death that VMI would be the recipient of the Bushong Farm, and a copy of his will was probated and placed on file in the Shenandoah County courthouse within days of his death, news of his gift to VMI was not made public knowledge for six months. Once the information was released, it was front-page news throughout Virginia. Wrote a reporter for the Roanoke (VA) World News: “It is especially fitting that his gift should be accepted by the Institute during the period of the Civil War Centennial. The courage that was shown by the VMI cadets of 1864 will stand forever as an inspiration for the cadet corps. Mr. Collins’ gift insures permanency of the battlefield as a historic shrine, to be visited and appreciated by Virginian, cadet and tourist.” [Roanoke World News, 11 Dec 1964]
Today the approach road to New Market Battlefield State Historical Park is named “George R. Collins Parkway,” and a large bronze plaque inside the Hall of Valor (the history of which will be examined in a future post) honors him, as does an interpretive sign on the park grounds.
[George Collins photo courtesy VMI Archives]