Shenandoah Valley: Introduction

Well, folks it’s the first Friday in October and time to launch our new topic for the month….The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley – 1864. One hundred and fifty years ago General Sheridan and his Union troops swept through the Valley and burned the farmland. The month of October was simply called “The Burning.” (By the way, if you to learn about an early American history hero from the Valley, check last week’s post about Daniel Morgan).

Painting of a Shenandoah Valley farm by William L. Sonntag (c.1860)  Image in Public Domain

Painting of a Shenandoah Valley farm by William L. Sonntag (c.1860)
Image in Public Domain

I’d like to add a personal note here: I love the Shenandoah Valley and its Civil War history! If you don’t already know, in my living history group I portray a young woman who lived in Winchester, Virginia, which is in the northern end of the Valley. The land, civilians, troops, commanders, battles, and entire war-experience of the Shenandoah Valley fascinates and inspires me. I hope by the end of this month, you’ll appreciate the amazing history of this location…and beg me to write more posts on the topic. (Please?)

Now, I have a feeling that we may need a quick introduction to the beautiful Virginia Valley, the 1864 army commanders in this region, etc. So this post will provide the setting and in the following weeks, we’ll dive deeper into the autumn campaign and the motivations of “The Burning.”

  1. What’s the American Civil War? (I always give the quick facts when I do a historical presentation, so here’s a quick review…it’s just habit for me now) The American Civil War – aka “The War Between The States” if you’re a rebel – was fought between the years 1861-1865. Basically, 11 Southern states (Virginia included) seceded and decided to form a separate nation called The Confederate States of American. The remaining 22 states stayed part of the United States of the America (the Union) and tried to coerce the return of their sister states. Confederate troops typically wore gray uniforms and Union troops usually wore blue uniforms. Oh, and slavery was not the main cause of the war; it was a factor in the States’ Rights debate which was the focus issue at the time.
  2. Where’s the Shenandoah Valley? Excellent question – 10 points to the reader who thought of it first! The Shenandoah Valley is located in the western part of Virginia, between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains.
  3. Why’s the Shenandoah Valley Important? Short answer #1: food supply. The Shenandoah Valley was an important agricultural region, and wheat was the number one cash crop. The Confederate army was fed with supplies coming from the Valley. Short answer #2: avenue of armies. The mountains provided a good shelter and hiding place for armies. Marching through the valley could bring either sides army to the backdoor of the enemy’s capital: Washington City or Richmond. It was a very strategic region to control, and both sides realized that.
  4. Who’s fighting in the Valley in 1864? Well, by the time we get to the autumn it’s basically Union General Sheridan (and army) against Confederate General Jubal Early (and army). We will probably mention more commanders in the coming weeks, but for now, Sheridan and Early.
  5. What happened in the Shenandoah War in the previous years? Here’s the oversimplified answer: 1861=a lot of men enlist in the Confederate army   1862=Confederate General Stonewall Jackson defeats three Union armies in the Valley Campaign (troops march 646 miles in 48 days!); General Lee, a Confederate, uses the Valley to make a “semi-sneaky” invasion of Maryland   1863=Union troops occupy the north Valley area for 6 months; General Lee uses the Valley to “secret” march into the north – he ends up at a little place called Gettysburg.

With its rich agricultural land, patriotic people, and strategic location, the Shenandoah Valley was an important and heavily contested area during the war. As one of the Valley’s best defenders General “Stonewall” Jackson said, “If the Valley is lost, Virginia is lost.” We could add to the statement by saying, “If Virginia is lost, the Confederacy is lost.” Union army commanders knew this. Thus, as Sherman prepared for a March to the Sea through Georgia, and Grant sieged Petersburg, Sheridan fought to win the Valley and cripple its ability to support the Confederacy. The Confederates where facing hard times, but determined to struggle on to defend their “breadbasket” Valley.

Now, the stage is set –

Join us next week for a discussion of the Autumn 1864 Valley Campaign.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Don’t forget that the Historical Snowmen Creative Writing Contest is now OPEN for story submissions! Start writing…

13 thoughts on “Shenandoah Valley: Introduction

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