June 11, 2015

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One old story said that the word Shenandoah meant “Daughter of the Stars.” Whether it did or not, the definition was apt, at least from 1861 to 1865. Stars really shone in the Shenandoah in those years, led by perhaps the most brilliant point of light in the Confederate constellation, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. He hardly shone alone, though. Turner Ashby, Philip H. Sheridan, Jubal Early, and more, all glowed in their degree, and that only begins to take into account the thousands of others in uniform and out of it, who made the war in the Valley so storied. Unsung and all but anonymous men and women, white and black, Union and Confederate, made the conflict there a special story, even as it fit into the broader context of the war as a whole. They were all stars in their way.

For the Valley and its people the war began even before Virginia declared for secession, and thereafter the Shenandoah was seldom entirely free of activity, even after Appomattox. The reasons were many, but so far as the military operations were concerned, there were two chief reasons. First lay in its geography. The Great Valley of Virginia, of which the Shenandoah Valley is the most storied, runs northeast to southwest beginning virtually on the Potomac and ending in the depth of southwest Virginia. Shielded as it was by the Blue Ridge Mountains, and crossable only at a few passes, the Valley offered a natural pathway for invasion available to both sides. Both the great Antietam Campaign of 1862 and the even greater Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 began when Lee shifted major elements of his army west of the Blue Ridge, and then used the Shenandoah to steal northeastward to the Potomac, and then across it, while the Blue Ridge hid his movements from his foes. When Jubal Early launched his startling raid on Washington, he used that same Valley route to shield his movements until it was all but too late for the Yankees to stop him.

Meanwhile, in 1862 and again in 1864 Union forces moved “up” the Shenandoah [that is to say south, since the Valley floor rises from north to south, so one going south is locally said to be going up the Valley], though they could hardly move unseen thanks to thousands of loyal Confederate citizens who fed information of their movements to forces east of the Blue Ridge. And most spectacular of all, of course, had been Stonewall Jackson’s historic campaign in 1862 in which he used the Blue Ridge and his knowledge of its passes, to foil three separate enemy armies. Nowhere else in the Civil War, except in the case of the Mississippi River, was geography so crucially important to military movements.

The other reason for the Shenandoah’s importance being considerably out of proportion to its actual dimensions was what grew on the Valley floor. In a war that generated innumerable sobriquets and nicknames, the Shenandoah’s was “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” The ground enjoyed remarkable fertility, having been tilled for generations by farmers who made it wonderfully productive. Orchards produced the fruit that could fight malnutrition and scurvy, the fields produced corn and wheat in supplies abundant enough to make bread for millions, and the pasture lands hosted herds of livestock that afforded necessary protein to marching men. It may not have fed Lee’s army entirely by itself, as some have assumed, and it may not have provided as much sustenance to other areas of the Confederacy as has been claimed, but without the Valley the Virginia war could not have been waged. Eloquent testimony to that is that the Valley’s produce itself was a target of invading Union armies. An army starved was an army put out of action without a bullet being fired.

Manpower itself made the Valley important, because it raised regiment after regiment. Many of the men in the fabled Stonewall Brigade came from those Shenandoah farms and villages. Out of uniform, those who kept the fields producing were every bit as important to the war effort. And off the battlefield, the forces that kept those farmers plowing and harvesting made their own contribution. Behind every farmer there was a farm wife, and usually children, all working side-by-side. This was a family war, and everyone found a way to contribute—and to suffer. And it was a multiracial conflict as well. While the Shenandoah’s small farmers never had need of the large labor force that slavery saw grow elsewhere in places such as South Carolina and Alabama, slavery still played an important role in the Valley’s economy. Supporting the morale of those families, white and black, was their patriotism and their religion, and the pastors of the Valley went to war as well, their armor was their faith, their weapons were their bibles.

Meanwhile there was another, smaller, Shenandoah population, the Unionists who felt no liking either for slavery or for secession. Their numbers were small, and their hazards many, yet they managed to maintain their own loyalties and take their opportunities to aid and assist the Union war effort when opportunity presented itself. Theirs was perhaps the most hazardous trial of all, for they came to fear both their neighbors, and sometimes undiscerning Yankees who thought all Valley people were the same.

The Shenandoah offers in microcosm virtually every challenge of the war as a whole, only on a miniature stage. The hazards and hardships, matched only by the drama of its story, and all enacted on one of the most scenic landscapes in America, make the Valley’s story one of enduring fascination, truly a scene for stars to shine.

About the Author:

William C. Davis a native of Independence, Missouri, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sonoma State University in northern California, then spent twenty years in editorial management in the magazine and book publishing industry, before leaving in 1990 to spend the next decade working as a writer and consultant here and abroad. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books in the fields of Civil War and Southern history, as well as numerous documentary screenplays. He was the on-camera senior consultant for fifty-two episodes of the Arts & Entertainment Network/History Channel series “Civil War Journal,” as well as a number of other productions on commercial and Public Television, as well as for the BBC, and has acted as historical consultant for several television and film productions, including “The Blue and the Gray,” “George Washington,” and “The Perfect Tribute.” Since 2000 he has been Professor of History and Director of Programs of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. He is the only three-time winner of the Jefferson Davis Award given for book-length works in Confederate History. His most recent book, The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf was published by Harcourt in May 2005.

This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, Home Front to Front Line: The Civil War Era in the Shenandoah Valley.  Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.