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HISTORY CORNER: The Historic Shenandoah Valley

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| April 4, 2021 1:00 AM

The Shenandoah Valley shared by both Virginia and West Virginia is truly a natural wonder, with velvety mountain ridges looking down on bucolic meadows, farm lands, forests and rivers teaming with life and feeding a nation.

Native Americans knew about the valley 10 millennia ago — maybe longer. They were hunters and gatherers — and among the hunted were mastodons with 10-foot-long ivory tasks, their bodies protected with 3-foot-long hair.

Just who was living there when the Europeans first arrived is a bit hazy. There are historical documents that claim that the Shenandoah was inhabited by primitive tribes “who were massacred by a mysterious tribe of ‘Southern Indians.’”

One report says that “By the seventeenth century, conflicts over trade and territory among the Indian nations inhabiting the Shenandoah forced them to abandon the land, leaving it seemingly deserted.”

A 1671 expedition journal by Johann Lederer exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains mentions the Rickohocken Tribe in southwest Virginia later called the “Cherokees.”

And to this day there are mounds, large indigenous town sites and pre-European ruins that can be seen in Western Virginia.

In 1760, travel writer Andrew Burnaby crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and was awed by the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.

“I could not but reflect with pleasure on the situation of these people; and think if there is such a thing as happiness in life, that they enjoy it,” he wrote. “Far from the bustle of the world, they live in the most delightful climate, and richest soil imaginable… in perfect liberty: they are ignorant of want, and acquainted with but few vices…

“They possess what many princes would give half their dominions for — health, content, and tranquility of mind.”

Much of that would change around the early 1700s. European settlers came from England, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. Quakers and Mennonites arrived from Pennsylvania.

There were some Native Americans in the Shenandoah at that time, and soon trouble brewed between the competing cultures.

That lasted until 1736, when Virginia Governor Sir William Gooch settled the turmoil by paying the Iroquois £100 for any settled land that they were claiming, and another £200 in gold the following year to stop any further claims.

Rich in agricultural resources, the Shenandoah Valley runs 140 miles northeast to southwest between the Allegheny Mountains in Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia — which in those early days was considered America’s Western Frontier.

Locals say “going up” the Shenandoah Valley means heading southwest to higher parts of the valley, while going northeast would be “down the valley,” to lower elevations.

During the ensuing century and a half, the valley sprouted farms and towns as the population grew.

Then in the middle of the 1900s, dark clouds of Civil War began gathering. After it started in 1861, both the Union and Confederacy battled for control of the Shenandoah for its food resources and strategic importance — especially for the South.

During the war, the valley was subjected to many battles in what became known as the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns.

For the first two years, the Confederates dominated; then after that it was the Union for the rest of the war.

In the spring of 1862, Confederate morale was low. They’d been defeated at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh by General Ulysses S. Grant, and the South’s prospects seemed bleak.

In the East, Union forces were making important footholds, while in the South, Union gunboats had captured New Orleans.

Then Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson came into the scene.

He’d fought in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) with distinction, and then spent 10 years teaching physics and artillery tactics at Virginia Military Institute.

He was an excellent teacher but the students didn’t like him much because of some quirky habits.

Nevertheless, he earned a reputation as an honest and dutiful man of devout faith, who didn’t drink, gamble or smoke.

When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Jackson joined the Confederate cause and accepted a commission as a colonel in the Confederate army.

He quickly established his reputation as a brilliant military tactician in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

His genius was embodied in two maxims: “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy” and “never fight against heavy odds” if you can “hurl your own force on the weakest part of your enemy and crush it.”

Jackson put both strategies to use when he was given the daunting assignment of defending the Shenandoah Valley, while at the same time preventing Union troops there from being sent to either Fredericksburg or Richmond.

Jackson’s creative battle tactics constantly baffled the Union commanders.

His finest hour was from March to June 1862 when he won a series of five swift battles in the Shenandoah Valley by leading 17,000 Confederate troops 650 miles through the valley for 48 days and threatened Washington, D.C.

“We made a forced march … that resulted in aching limbs, sore feet and empty stomachs,” wrote Cleon Moore of the Second Virginia. “For one day and a half we marched — as only Jackson’s men could march.”

Jackson’s victories included the battles of Kernstown, McDowell, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic.

The Battle of Port Republic was particularly significant, because it helped stop the Union plan during the Peninsula Campaign to capture Richmond, Va., the heart of the Confederacy.

Stonewall Jackson become a Confederate hero, while Robert E. Lee’s star was still yet to rise.

After Jackson’s Shenandoah Campaign — Confederate General Jubal A. Early continued driving out the remaining Union forces, and then proceeded to raid Maryland, Pennsylvania and D.C.

However, his successes ended in the autumn of 1864 when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered General Philip Sheridan to remove the Confederates once-and-for-all from the valley. He said to use the “scorched earth” tactic of burning the mills, crops and barns — like William Tecumseh Sherman did in Georgia.

“Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can,” he said. “If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”

Sheridan obeyed the order, declaring, “The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war,” promising that the valley “from Winchester to Staunton will have but little in it for man or beast.”

He attacked from Winchester in the north to Harrisburg in the south, and the Shenandoah Valley battles became some of the most pivotal and memorable campaigns of the American Civil War.

Sheridan’s Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 included the battles of Guard Hill, Berryville, Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, Tom’s Brook and Cedar Creek — all Union victories that gave the Union forces control of the strategic valley, that they held for the rest of the war.

The last battle in the Shenandoah Valley was on March 2, 1865, when General George Armstrong Custer’s 3rd Cavalry Division destroyed Jubal A. Early’s troops at Waynesboro.

The final battle that ended the Civil War was a Union victory at the Battle of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant at a gentlemanly ceremony in a farmhouse owned by Wilmer and Virginia McLean.

Stonewall Jackson’s last hurrah was at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, when he attacked Union General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac from the rear, inflicting heavy casualties. Within days, Hooker pulled his troops out.

During that battle, Jackson was on a scouting mission when a North Carolina Confederate regiment mistook his band as the enemy and fired on them by mistake.

His left arm was shattered below the shoulder and had to be amputated.

While trying to recover, he developed pneumonia and possibly a pulmonary embolism and started to fade.

His bedside was surrounded by his wife, Anna, baby daughter Julia and several surgeons holding a vigil as he lapsed in and out of consciousness.

When he awoke and noticed the others, he said, “I see from the number of physicians that you think my condition dangerous, but I thank God, if it is His will, that I am ready to go. I am not afraid to die.”

Stonewall Jackson died on May 19, 1863, at age 39, and his body returned to Lexington in a casket for burial.

He was a true hero of the Confederacy.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Saving sovereignty — not Slavery…

“It was not for the defense of slavery that these men left their homes and suffered privation and faced the peril of battle. Bred in whatever school of American politics, these men believed, to a man, in the integrity and sovereignty of the commonwealth, and, men like Robert E. Lee, they laid down everything and came to the borders to resist invasion at the call of the Mother. The troops that Stonewall Jackson led were like him, largely, in principle and in aim, and he rode among them as one of themselves – a war genius of their own breeding.”

— James Power Smith, Confederate officer, writing in 1920

Nickname “Stonewall” …

At the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 — also called the First Battle of Manassas — Jackson boldly charged his army into the defensive line to shore up a hole and stop a Union attack. Confederate General Barnard E. Bee, who was later killed in the battle, was watching all this and was impressed with Jackson’s quick thinking and told his men to take heart and to look at Jackson standing there “like a stone wall.” The nickname stuck.

Sheridan’s “scorched earth” tactic…

“We burnt some 60 houses and all most of the barns, hay, grain and corn in the shocks for 50 miles (south of) Strasburg… It was a hard-looking sight to see the women and children turned out of doors at this season of the year… the burning does not seem real soldierly work. We ought to enlist a force of scoundrels for such work.”

— Union soldiers in Shenandoah Valley (1864)

Shenandoah Valley attractions…

Rivaling California’s Napa Valley, the Shenandoah Valley has 14 wineries scattered throughout the valley, and interesting attractions include Civil War battelfields, the Luray limestone caverns, a 105-mile skyline drive with incredible vistas of the picturesque valley, a limestone arch called Natural Bridge, worshipped by the Monacan Indians, owned by Thomas Jefferson, and defaced by a young George Washington, and the valley is home to Black Bears and endangered salamanders.

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VR IMAGE BY RICHARD THORNTON

As the climate warmed during the last part of the Ice Age, large mammals such as the Mastodon migrated into the Shenandoah Valley and were hunted by the Indians.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

This re-creation of frontier life in the Shenandoah Valley by the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Va., depicts early settlement in the valley mostly by English, Irish and Germans starting in the 1700s.

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HARPERS WEEKLY

Tennessee rifleman heading from Strasburg through Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley to join the Virginia Army early in the Civil War (1861).

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek effectively ended the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns when Union Major General Philip Sheridan routed Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, thus preventing any further threat to Washington, D.C., and eliminated a major source of food for the Confederacy.

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VIRGINIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Artist Charles Hoffbauer's epic mural depicts Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and his troops marching 650 miles to the north through the Shenandoah Valley in 1862.

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SHENANDOAH VALLEY BATTLEFIELDS NATIONAL HISTORIC DISTRICT

The Federal victory at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill on Sept. 22, 1864, led by Union General Philip Sheridan was followed by the Union forces “scorched earth” burning of the Confederacy’s crops and food sources in the Shenandoah Valley.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Confederate prisoners captured at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill in Virginia being guarded by Union troops.

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Lower Shenandoah (1890)

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Late in the Civil War, Union General Philip H. Sheridan, shown here, led his troops in a series of battles that took back control of the Shenandoah Valley and cut off a major source of the Confederacy’s food supply.

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FRONTIER CULTURE MUSEUM OF VIRGINIA

Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia in Staunton, Va., exhibit of replica of typical frontier cottages of original immigrants to Shenandoah Valley.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

General “Stonewall” Jackson (1803-1863), riding Little Sorrel in this painting, led victorious battles by Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley.

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PUBLIC DOMAIN

Stonewall Jackson had only two portrait photographs taken during the Civil War, one in Winchester, Va., in November 1862 and the other near Fredericksburg, Va., this photo may be a third, Jackson on left leaning on rail.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on his deathbed in 1863 after his left arm was injured in battle by friendly fire and amputated, with the wound leading to pneumonia and possible pulmonary embolism.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Staunton, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley today.

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Civil War played a big role in Shenandoah Valley’s history, but less known history is that it didn’t pay to be a stylish-looking con-man in Staunton, Va., as “F.T. Wister” found out in 1878 when he was caught after bilking several hotels and boarding houses — earning five lashes in a public whipping.

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NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Shenandoah National Park