An emotional tribute to young cadets who fought and died in the American Civil War.
Written by Thomas Farrell and David M. Kennedy and directed by Sean McNamara, Field of Lost Shoes (2014) tells the story of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who fought at the Battle of New Market during the American Civil War. Despite an obviously low budget and inexperienced cast, the film is charming and emotionally engaging; one of the better Civil War films to be released in recent years.
Robert (Nolan Gould) is a freshman cadet, or “Rat”, who falls in with a tight group of upperclassmen, including John Wise (Luke Benward), an ex-governor’s son, and Moses Ezekiel (Josh Zuckerman), an aspiring sculptor and the first Jewish cadet at VMI. The war forms a backdrop to schoolboy antics like hazing, stealing food from the Institute’s enslaved cook, Old Judge (Keith David), and pursuing a romantic interest with the local girls, including Libby Clinedinst (Mary Mouser).
War comes knocking on their doorstep, however, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant (Tom Skerritt) sends Franz Sigel (Werner Daehn) and Captain Henry A. DuPont (David Arquette) with an army to subdue the Shenandoah Valley. Opposing him with a much smaller force is Confederate general and former U.S. vice president John C. Breckinridge (Jason Isaacs).
Breckinridge badly needs reinforcements, and he reluctantly sends for the VMI cadets, who his battle-hardened veterans regard as nothing more than children playing soldier. Will the cadets get there in time, and more importantly, will they prove their worth on the battlefield?
Field of Lost Shoes is based on the true story of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who fought in the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. As depicted in the film, the cadets played a role in winning the battle for the Confederacy. Ten were killed or mortally wounded and 47 wounded. The title “Field of Lost Shoes” comes from the fact that several soldiers lost their shoes in the mud while crossing the battlefield. Moses Ezekiel did become a well-known artist and sculpted the monument to his fellow cadets that stands at the Virginia Military Institute to this day.
Critics hated this film, charging it with rewriting history to whitewash racism, but that’s unfair. Not only did Field of Lost Shoes depict the heartbreaking reality of a slave auction and the splitting up of black families, but it shows VMI’s cook, “Old Judge” (Keith David), being brutally beaten and falsely imprisoned for stealing food. The film also outright says the war is being fought over slavery, something other Civil War films have been hesitant to do. There’s nothing ahistorical about the characters having differing opinions over slavery or acting compassionately towards slaves.
John Wise’s father, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, exemplified these Southern contradictions. The movie implies Governor Wise was an opponent of slavery, but it’s a bit more complicated. He criticized the slave trade as Ambassador to Brazil and described African Americans in humanizing terms. However, he also said slavery was justified “by the natural as well as divine law” and became an ardent secessionist. Later in life, he supported U.S. Grant for president, the very man who trampled Southern aspirations for independence into dust.
Sculptor Moses J. Ezekiel was another man of contradictions. As an adult in Rome, Italy, he kept a Confederate battle flag hanging in his studio. His best known work was the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, which depicts (among other figures) a black body servant in military uniform and a weeping black woman holding a Confederate officer’s child. In Field of Lost Shoes, Ezekiel is shown as empathizing with Old Judge, which seems in keeping with his later “lost cause” sentiments.
Overall, Field of Lost Shoes was more compelling and emotionally engaging than larger-budget Civil War films like Free State of Jones (2016). It managed to keep a tight reign on its multitude of characters and events, using them to enhance rather than detract from the main story. We can both condemn a society based on slavery and recognize the courage of the men who fought under its flag. There’s a reason the Virginia Military Institute still honors these boy-soldiers to the present day, and this film is a fitting tribute to their memory.