Published on June 17, 2015

McDowell lies amidst the remote and scenic mountain terrain of Highland County, in a region known locally as “Virginia’s Little Switzerland.” Thanks to its location along the Staunton-to-Parkersburg Turnpike (modern-day US 250), Union and Confederate armies used Highland as a “back door” to the Shenandoah Valley.

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On the eve of the Civil War, Highland County was divided.  While George Washington Hull consistently voted against secession at the 1861 Virginia State Convention, he chose to serve in the Confederate militia once Virginia seceded, and Highland County voted to join the Confederacy after Jackson’s victory at McDowell.  Large numbers of the area’s young men were mustered into the Confederate army and ten Highland men joined the Federal troops.

Cemetary-Ridge_McDowell-battlefieldLike the rest of the nation, the people of Highland County—remote as they were—experienced this wrenching conflict in very personal ways, from the rising tensions before the war’s first shots to the effort to recover from its devastation.

In May of 1862, the town of McDowell experienced the Civil War first-hand when armies clashed on the hills and byways in and around the village as Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson moved to prevent Union forces from entering the Valley from the west. Jackson’s victory at McDowell was one of the opening salvos of his famous Valley Campaign.

Since its creation in the early 1800s, Highland has been one of the least populated counties east of the Mississippi River. Its extraordinary landscape has been virtually untouched since the Civil War—indeed, the McDowell battlefield is considered one of the most pristine in the nation.

Today, visitors can explore the region’s history at the Highland County Museum in McDowell, which also hosts a Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District Civil War Orientation Center. Serious hikers can scale the heights of Sitlington’s Hill, east of the village, and see the battlefield as Confederate soldiers saw it on May 8, 1862. And Virginia Civil War Trails markers allow you to follow in the footsteps of the Confederates using the old Staunton-to-Parkersburg Turnpike to the battlefield.