1864: “My Heart Was Sad”

Oct. 2/64

Today Captain Bowen, Surgeon Smith and myself attended the Episcopal Church, it being the only one in use, the others having been taken for hospitals. This church has a fine organ and choir. The music was good, and we enjoyed it, but the sermon was a little rebellious….

Most of the ladies were dressed in black, and it seemed almost like a funeral. Several families have lost friends in the late battle, and the whole city is in mourning. It made me sad to see the people so sorrowful and weeping, but when I remember that they brought their troubles upon themselves and that the women encouraged the men to make war on the Government, I could not help feeling that their punishment was just….

Oct. 4/64

I have taken a walk through the cemetery near the city, and my heart was sad as I passed the newmade graves of Confederate soldiers and saw the wreaths of flowers which mourning hands placed there. I have seen more sad scenesof the war since coming to Winchester than ever before. I met a lady a few days since who has had three brothers killed and one maimed for life since the war began. She is still very bitter and desire to have the war go on. As we walked around some trees we came upon a party of ladies and paroled Rebel officers burying the body of a Rebel Colonel. It was too late for us to retreat, and so we removed our hats and stood near the party. A Rebel officer in uniform read the burial service. The scene was a sad one, and the people looked at us as if we were intruding, but I did not feel it would right to leave and so remained. The dead man was Colonel Funk of Winchester.

Wednesday Oct. 5/64

Today I took the 2nd R.I. [Rhode Island] Vols. and the 5th Wisconsin Vols. and went into the country to search the houses for arms. The people are honest farmers during the day, but at night they arm themselves and mounting their horses are guerrillas and fire upon our pickets and destroy our wagon trains if they can overpower the guards. The work was not pleasant, but we had to perform our duty. The people were often wild with rage, but we found that those who professed their innocence the loudest had the most contraband arms….

Elisha Hunt Rhodes, excerpts from his private journal

(Source: Rhodes, Elisha H., edited by Robert H. Rhodes. All For the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. Orion Books, 1985. Pages 188-190)

Side view of the McGuire Home in Winchester, Virginia

Bitter War

The Union troops held Winchester, Virginia, and would occupy the town until the end of war in 1865. This town had changed hands approximately seventy-six times during the conflict, but the final capture left the mostly pro-Southern civilian population “in the hands of their enemies.”

The Winchester civilians were not particularly known for good behavior around Union soldiers during previous occupations. By this 1864-65 occupation, the civilians were despairing and angry about the war’s losses. They needed a reason to justify the death and maiming of their family members, friends, and neighbors in the Confederate army, and with the Confederacy losing the war, their bitterness and anger mounted.

Outbursts of scorn and hatred flared while other civilians took a less noticeable, rebellious actions – like hiding weapons, sheltering Confederate partisans, or sending spy messages on to the Southern forces still lingering in the Valley.

Elisha Hunt Rhodes

An Enemy’s Compassion

Elisha H. Rhodes, an officer in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, recorded some of his interactions with these lower Valley civilians. He adopted a slightly compassionate view of the situation and offered respect when happening upon a Confederate burial scene. However, he stuck to his belief that the Southerners had brought the destruction upon themselves by their choices; still, as he looked on the faces of those civilians affected by the losses, he seemed to remember that they were people in distress who had lost much or everything.

Not all soldiers responded with this balance or understanding of emotions. But not all “Yankees” were the hard-hearted, brutal fellows that many stories portray. Rhodes’s journal gives us a glimpse into the mind and opinions of a Union officer who stuck to his beliefs, but still was affected by the scenes he witnessed in civilian Winchester.

Historical Musings

It was just the beginning of October 1864 when Elisha H. Rhodes penned these words and in the coming weeks, the war would take a darker turn in the Shenandoah Valley, leaving scars on the land and in the minds of the local civilians that would literally last for decades.

Union troops took all food provisions and burned barns and mills in a multiple week period remembered as “The Burning.” Civilian homes were supposed to be left untouched, but all food supplies and any items that could be used in support of the rebellion were destroyed, leaving many families and farms destitute and lacking food to get through the coming winter. The Shenandoah Valley – bread basket of the Confederacy – would not be sending food, cattle, hogs, or horses to the Army of Northern Virginia. Another vital supply area for the Confederates had been taken and destroyed as the Union armies started closing in and pushing closer to a victory.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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