The Rockingham Area, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, experienced the Civil War in all of its phases. Its position north of the huge Confederate rail and supply center at Staunton made it an inevitable battleground.
Two major highways crossed at the county seat in Harrisonburg. The Rockingham Turnpike (modern-day U.S. 33) connected Rockingham County, one of the most prosperous agricultural counties in the nation, to markets in eastern Virginia across the Blue Ridge. The other, the Valley Turnpike (modern-day U.S. 11), provided a north-south corridor for the movement of Confederate troops to threaten the heart of the North.
Rockingham County would be the scene of the last two battles of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous 1862 Valley Campaign, the operation that would give him a permanent place in the chronicles of military history.
And in 1864, when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant changed the direction of the war, the Shenandoah Valley was recognized as one of the keys to Union victory. But a Federal win at Piedmont, east of Staunton, was one of the few northern successes that spring and summer. Finally, with the Union Army of the Potomac entrenched outside Petersburg in the late summer, U.S. victories in the Valley under Gen. Philip H. Sheridan in the fall brought renewed commitment by the North to the war effort and contributed to the reelection of Abraham Lincoln.
When Sheridan ordered the destruction of barns, mills, crops, factories, warehouses, and furnaces in a thirteen-day campaign to neutralize the bounty of the Valley, the central Shenandoah took a devastating blow. Hundreds of structures were burned. Tons of grain and thousands of farm animals were seized or destroyed. Sheridan’s efforts reduced to a trickle the flow of crucial supplies to Southern armies.
What became known as The Burning did not distinguish between friend or foe. Unionists – including a large community of pacifist Mennonites and Brethren – suffered along with Confederate sympathizers. The remarkable renewal of the Shenandoah Valley following the close of hostilities is a tribute to the strength and character of her people.
During the war, this area experienced three significant battles, a score of cavalry actions, and repeated military operations that eventually devastated its civilian agricultural base. It had two renowned Confederate leaders die within its borders: Gen. Turner Ashby and partisan ranger chief Capt. John H. McNeill. These people and events, along with the area’s association with Stonewall Jackson and Philip Sheridan, ensure its place in the annals of the war that defined us as a nation.
The Rockingham Area has a wealth of battlefields, historic sites, interpretive signage, and museums where you can experience its incredible Civil War history. To explore those sites, you may want to begin your journey at the Civil War Orientation Center at the Hardesty-Higgins House in downtown Harrisonburg, where you can get a fuller introduction to the area’s Civil War story – and to the places you can visit that tell that story today.