The Burning: “The Fire and Sword of War”

John L. Heatwole

By noon on September 26, 1864, the population of Rockingham County, Virginia, more than doubled overnight. Close to 28,000 men of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s triumphant Union army went into camps around Harrisonburg, the county seat. During the previous six days Confederate Gen. Jubal Early had been defeated in two successive battles. In the Union lines around Petersburg Ulysses S. Grant ordered 100-gun artillery salutes in honor of Sheridan and his men and their victories in the Shenandoah Valley.

Between the Battle of Fishers Hill on September 22 and the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19 another campaign took place in the Valley. It was largely forgotten in the annals of military history because it involved intentionally taking the war to the civilian population.

After the war, the thirteen-day burning of the richest agricultural counties in Virginia was only mentioned in passing, if at all, in the regimental histories of the units who had an active part in it. After detailing the Battle of Fishers Hill in their accounts, historians went almost directly to the cavalry battle at Toms Brook, which took place on October 9, perhaps to forget the time in between those two fights and what they had been required to do. Even in more modern times the devastation of such a large part of the Shenandoah Valley has been overshadowed by other campaigns, but recently scholars have taken note. Stephen Starr wrote in his Union Cavalry in the Civil War: “The deliberate planned devastation of the Shenandoah Valley has deservedly ranked as one of the grimmest episodes of a sufficiently grim war. Unlike the haphazard destruction caused by (Gen. William T.) Sherman’s bummers in Georgia, it was committed systematically, and by order.” The residents of the Valley remembered. If nothing else stuck in their minds, the time the burners came did, and individual stories of the sufferings of the people were passed from generation to generation.

Almost from the beginning of the Civil War Union authorities had seen the Valley as a region from which Confederates could easily threaten Washington and the North. Even feints toward the Potomac River line could draw U.S. troops away from other theatres where they were needed most. For a while, after he took command of all Union troops and oversaw the war effort, U.S. Grant had looked at the resources of the Shenandoah Valley as a military dilemma. The Valley fed, clothed, and provided materials to help keep the Confederate war machine alive. On July 14, 1864, Grant wired army chief of staff Henry Halleck in Washington that a force should be assembled “to eat out Virginia clear and clean . . . so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.” Grant’s subsequent actions showed he was more interested in coming to mortal grips with Southern armies. Unwittingly, his appointment on August 6 of Philip Sheridan to command in the Valley would cause his earlier communication with Halleck to rematerialize.

As Sheridan and his army moved south after Fisher’s Hill they passed through rich farmland—fields, barns, and mills filled with hay and grain and corn waiting for the harvest. When he entered Rockingham County Sheridan beheld the abundance in one of the nation’s top ten agricultural counties. After establishing his headquarters in Harrisonburg, he began to petition Grant to allow him to change the direction of his campaign. His original orders were to take and wreck the Confederate supply base at Staunton in Augusta County, tear up the Virginia Central R.R. while moving east, and then destroy the rail center at Charlottesville before rejoining the main army.

He had already sent more than a division of cavalry south to Staunton to do as much damage to that important rail center as could be done. One squad came upon a Confederate bakery going “in full blast” as one Northern trooper put it. They urged the Southern bakers to renew their efforts so there would be bread to go around. With that goal reached they proceeded to dismantle the ovens. The Confederates were extremely sad, it was reported, “because they had worked hard for their dough.” The railroad tracks were torn up as far east as Waynesboro where Confederate cavalry drove the federals back. Before this detachment of Sheridan’s cavalry returned to Rockingham County they had burned a great number of barns and mills in the northern half of Augusta County in addition to the damage in Staunton.

Sheridan argued with his superior that if they did not destroy the Valley’s harvest and everything that supported it, they would have to deal in the future with other Confederate armies using the Valley to threaten the North. For a while Grant held rigid. He wanted Sheridan to follow the original orders, but Sheridan was persistent. Eventually Grant gave in and told his subordinate to perform a retrograde movement back to Strasburg, burning as he went, and then to send some of his troops on rail cars there and at Front Royal to be returned to the Union lines at Petersburg.

Grant did not realize Sheridan had already started his campaign of devastation. From September 26 to the close of October 8 there were thirteen days of continuous burning of property and confiscation of livestock in four Valley counties; Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah, and Page. As the top two wheat-producing counties in Virginia, Augusta County and Rockingham County deserved the nickname of the Breadbasket of the Confederacy. A tremendous amount of Valley grain was processed in Richmond in eight mills, including the Gallego Mill, the world’s largest. Much of what passed through them came from the Shenandoah Valley. In one three-week period a Confederate purchasing agent bought 32,000 pounds of corn from just one Valley farmer. Other Virginia farmers in the Shenandoah Valley were just as productive. By the time of the Civil War many belonged to agricultural societies, corresponded with farmers in other parts of the country, even with producers overseas, about modern techniques in land use, crop cultivation and animal husbandry. In 1864, Shenandoah Valley grain, livestock, iron, wool, and leather were making a strong contribution to keeping the Confederacy alive. Union commanders were starting to see the Shenandoah Valley as more than campaigning ground. Its agriculture and industries were also dangerous enemies.

The campaign of destruction, misunderstood from the very beginning, continues to be little understood today. It is often referred to as a “raid,” although it was well planned and involved 5,000 cavalrymen and a brigade of infantry doing the actual destruction, while thousands of additional soldiers in blue were called upon to drive off or kill livestock. To an individual farm family watching hogs slaughtered in the pens and barn and other outbuildings going up in smoke, it must have seemed a random orgy of destruction. In reality, Sheridan had given specific orders: barns and mills containing grain or forage were to be reduced to ashes; but, the properties of widows, single women, and orphans were not to be molested and private homes were not to be harmed. Evidence shows that most of the soldiers followed orders, though there were a number of instances of looting.

The order did not preclude the Anabaptist Mennonites and Brethren; members of pacifist sects who opposed the killing of other human beings and rebellion against established authority as a part of their religious beliefs. They were also some of the finest farmers in the Shenandoah Valley. While Sheridan sympathized with their plight he told their representatives that they would all have to suffer a bit longer if the war was to end.

Sheridan and his officers determined the best way to cover as much territory as possible in his campaign was by using cavalry. In areas where his three cavalry divisions could not operate in concert because of road systems, time was set aside to bring ruin to those specific sections outside the main roads.

There were many actions by Confederate rangers, guerrillas, and bushwhackers during the destruction that sent Union soldiers and their officers into frenzied acts of retribution above and beyond they original plan. In the middle of the burning period, on the evening of October 3, Sheridan’s chief engineer, Lt. John Rodgers Meigs was killed in a firefight with Confederate three scouts. The scouts from the 1st and 4th Virginia Cavalry had been sent into enemy lines to determine the location of Sheridan’s forces. Gen. Early regrouped as best he  could after Third Winchester and Fishers Hill. He also had been reinforced with an infantry division from the Army of Northern Virginia. Early planned to attack Sheridan somewhere near Harrisonburg on October 6.

Young Meigs, first in his class at West Point in 1863 and son of the quartermaster-general of the Union Army, had been out checking troop placements in preparation for the withdrawal to Strasburg on the morning of October 6. Upon seeing three men in gum coats riding away from him and his two orderlies he became suspicious and pursued them. He paid with his life. It was erroneously reported that he had been ambushed by civilian bushwhackers.

In retaliation for Meigs’ death, Sheridan ordered the town of Dayton and all the homes around the scene of the incident burned to the ground. As a result thirty houses near Dayton in Rockingham County were destroyed. The 5th New York Cavalry of Gen. George A. Custer’s Third Cavalry Division received the order to burn the houses, which many carried out reluctantly. Sheridan rescinded the order to destroy the town, but let stand the order to burn surrounding houses. Barns, mills, stables, corn-cribs, sheep sheds, and shops continued to burn on all sides.

Two days after the conflagration, a civilian refugee train of 400 wagons left Harrisonburg for points north in hopes of surviving the coming winter. One woman who had three sons in the Confederate army left the Valley with her four daughters, aged thirteen to twenty-six. One of the daughters remembered, “We took a pillow case and put into it some flour and a few other ingredients for pancakes.” As they walked toward Harrisonburg, a Union wagon master came along with two wagons and took the ladies back to their home and loaded trunks and “two feather beds” into the wagons. They finally settled in Ohio.

On the morning of October 6 the withdrawal to Strasburg began. That night local people remarked that it looked as if all the stars had fallen to earth because of the fires still burning in every direction. In Shenandoah County the wind picked up on October 7, and eighteen houses were destroyed by accident. From a hill near Mt. Jackson Union cavalrymen counted 168 barns burning at one time. When it was all over Sheridan’s men had systematically destroyed around 1,400 barns, countless other farm structures, seventy mills, several factories, three iron furnaces, warehouses and railroad buildings, and hundreds of thousands of bushels of wheat, oats and corn, and crops standing in the fields. In Rockingham County alone over 10,000 head of livestock were driven off.

What did it all mean? It meant that a weakened Confederate cavalry would lose the Battle at Toms Brook on October 9 because horses and men had not eaten for three days while they followed in the path of destruction. Early would suffer defeat at the last significant battle in the Valley on October 19 at Cedar Creek partly because of the famished condition of his army. Supplies to Lee’s army and to Confederate armies farther south would slow to a trickle. Most important of all, the success of Sheridan’s actions would help reelect Abraham Lincoln, and America would finally take the first steps toward keeping the promises expressed at the founding of the nation.

The Shenandoah Valley farms would blossom again with the help of family and friends living elsewhere and, oddly enough, by Northerners willing to invest in the new potential of the Valley after the war. By 1870 agricultural production rates were back to pre-war levels, the railroads had linked the Valley with strong markets to the north and east. In time, even those who should have been the most unforgiving of what Sheridan and his men had done in the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864 came to realize its purpose. An ex-Confederate cavalry officer when asked about “The Burning” replied, “What is the worst in war, to burn a barn or kill a fellow man?”

About the Author:

John L. Heatwole was the author of numerous works in Civil War history, settlement, and folklife of the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia including The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley. He served as consultant for Time Life Books and a number of historical documentaries including the Emmy Award winning “Field of Lost Shoes: The Battle of New Market.” He was a member of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District Commission and received the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s Carrington Williams Preservation Award in 2006.

This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, “Give the enemy no rest!”: Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Campaign.  Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.

Further Reading:  The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley by John Heatwole, Howell Press, Inc., 1998