The Valley of the Shadow

“Now at the end of this valley was another, called the Valley of the Shadow of Death; and Christian must…go through it…now this valley is a very solitary place. …Thus he went on, and I heard him here sigh bitterly; for besides the danger…the pathway was here so dark, that ofttimes, when he lift up his foot to go forward, he knew not where, nor upon what he should set it next…”  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress   

The Shenandoah Valley  (Attribution: http://www.ForestWander.com)

The Shenandoah Valley
(Attribution: http://www.ForestWander.com)

This week we lay aside the discussion of ethics in The Burning of the Shenandoah Valley and focus only the some of the effects on the civilians. There’s a time for long-winded debate, but there’s also a time to reflect on the loss and sacrifices caused by war.

The following quotations will speak for themselves, telling the story of the civilian experience in the Shenandoah Valley during the autumn of 1864.

Laura Lee, a Confederate resident of Winchester, made the following entries in her journal: September 20, 1864 – Again our town is one vast hospital….All day the streets have been filled with ambulances and wagons of their wounded. They have been taken to the Taylor Hotel and six churches besides other houses. They brought in 4,000 [wounded] without doubt, and over….The citizens are indefatigable in attending to our wounded, but of course there must be a terrible amount of suffering in the confusion of such a time, and many must die for want of proper attendance….The Yankees moved up the Valley [going South] early this morning and there has been skirmishing.     September 27, 1864 – We know nothing in these dreadful days but Yankee rumors of their progress up the valley….

The next quote comes from “A Youth’s History of the Great Civil War, 1866” and, though written and published after the conclusion of the war, contains a vivid description of the civilian experience. “And now General Sheridan, with the instincts of savage warfare, determined to utterly devastate this beautiful valley. He therefore set his troops at work, and all the way from Staunton to Winchester was soon one scene of desolation. He burned every house***, every barn, every mill, all the corn cribs, haystacks, and the entire food crops of all kinds for the year. Not only this, but he seized all the ploughs, harrows, spades, and every description of farm implement, and putting them into piles, made his soldiers burn them. He then drove off all the cows, horses, oxen, cattle, sheep, pigs, and every living animal for the use of man in all that wide valley. In fact nothing that devilish ingenuity could invest was left undone to transform the loveliest and most fertile valley in the world into a desolate and howling wilderness. Not less than ten thousand innocent women and children were by this savagery reduced to starvation, and thrown, in the fall of the year, out of comfortable homes, to perish in tents and caves by the cold of the winter.”

(***Not every house in the Valley was burned, but maybe in the writer’s area this was the experience.)

Henry K. Douglas, a Confederate Officer, wrote: “I try to restrain my bitterness at the recollection of the dreadful scenes I witnessed. I rode down the Valley with advance after Sheridan’s retreating cavalry beneath great columns of smoke which almost shut out the sun by day, and in the red glare of bonfires, which, all across that Valley, poured out flames and sparks heavenward and crackled mockingly in the night air; and I saw mothers and maidens…shrieking to Heaven in their fright and despair, and the little children, voiceless and tearless in their pitiable terror. I saw a beautiful girl, the daughter of a clergyman standing in the front door of her home while its stable and outbuildings were burning, tearing the yellow tresses from her head, taking up and repeating the oaths of passing skirmishers and shrieking with wild laughter, for the horrors of the night had driven her mad… …It is an insult to civilization and to God to pretend that the Laws of War justify such warfare.” 

The Civilians of the Shenandoah Valley could have truthfully said they lived in a valley shadowed by death in the year 1864. It was a time of uncertainly, bitterness, pain, and fear.

However, returning to the phrasing and imagery borrowed from Pilgrim’s Progress… In the allegorical tale the Pilgrim emerges from the valley victorious because of his trust in God and he sees a new day dawn. The same is true for many of the Shenandoah Valley’s civilians. They were stronger people because of the trials. Their faith was strengthened. They survived.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts on the Shenandoah Valley experience of 1864?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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