Confederate observers on Signal Knob at the north tip of Massanutten Mountain were in a position to view battles and movements in three counties throughout the Civil War.
The Massanutten is a 60-mile-long, north-south range that splits the Shenandoah Valley along its spine from Strasburg to Harrisonburg. Front Royal on the east and Strasburg on the west are located at narrows formed by the mountain and the two forks of the Shenandoah River. These choke points channeled opposing armies’ movements and influenced commanders’ operational decisions throughout the war.
The terrain explains why some of the largest and most significant battles of the Valley’s 1862 and 1864 campaigns occurred within sight of Signal Knob.
In 1862, Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson used the Massanutten to screen his movement northward, successfully attacking a small Union garrison that was stationed at Front Royal, disconnected from the larger Federal force at Strasburg. Weakened, the northerners lost to Jackson again at Winchester two days later.
In the fall of 1864, Confederates under Gen. Jubal Early made a futile stand at Fisher’s Hill on the west side of Signal Knob after suffering a stinging defeat at Winchester just days earlier. After watching Union forces lay waste to the Valley’s bounty, Early’s cavalry attacked the Federals at Tom’s Brook but was forced to retreat. Finally, Early used Signal Knob as a vantage point from which to plan a surprise attack on Union forces encamped around Cedar Creek—an assault that came very close to succeeding in one of the largest battles west of the Blue Ridge. The decisive Battle of Cedar Creek effectively ended the major Confederate war effort in the Shenandoah Valley.
Today, the road networks are much the same and vestiges of these military events have survived sufficiently to allow modern visitors to retrace these famous campaigns.
Front Royal and the Cedar Creek battlefield each have visitor facilities open daily that help explain Civil War events, while Belle Grove Plantation, open seasonally, can tell you about life in the antebellum era. With information provided at these places about walking trails, driving tours, and interpretive signage, visitors can walk parts of these and other battlefields and explore the sites that tell this part of the Shenandoah Valley’s Civil War story.
In addition, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park is a newly created “partnership park” in development. Free self-guided tour route brochures and other interpretive materials are available from the National Park Service (NPS), and NPS ranger programs are offered during the summer. Contact the park at 540-868-9176 or check the park web site (www.nps.gov/cebe) for a schedule and brochures.