Geography and Identity
By 1860, and thanks in part to antebellum travel and adventure literature, plantation fiction, and romantic landscape art, the Shenandoah Valley was already a unique and "Southern" place in popular imagination. Its associations were arcadian: admirers called it a place of unrivaled beauty, pastoral tranquility, and plenteous abundance. Those associations were given vital force in the war's early years by the exploits of such Confederate heroes as Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Turner Ashby; in fact, one historian has suggested that the Valley possessed a revitalizing power for Confederate soldiers and civilians alike.
Despite its Confederate identity, however, the Shenandoah Valley was home to a substantial number of reluctant secessionists before the war, as well as a considerable population of Unionists, pacifists, and free blacks during the conflict. The divisions—which centered on political and economic factors, long-simmering intrastate jealously, and the uneven distribution of slavery in the region—make any generalization a tenuous one.
The geography of the Shenandoah Valley was a military mirror: the advantages it
gave to one side were reflected in the advantages it offered the other. As the
western flank of Union operations in
Those advantages transposed Confederate ones. Because the Valley's direction is generally southwest to northeast, it pointed dagger-like at the North and especially at Washington, D.C., only sixty miles from Harpers Ferry. For the Confederates, to control it was to control a pressure point, a natural and physically protected invasion route northward. It was precisely this advantage that Jackson so aggressively seized in the Valley Campaign of 1862, in which his small army exploited the landscape to flummox more than 60,000 Union troops, threaten invasion and the U.S. capital, and thereby harass and stall the Union effort to capture Richmond.
On two other notable occasions, the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 and Jubal A. Early's raid on Washington in 1864, Confederates used the Valley to undertake offensive operations in the North. Further, as the so-called "Granary of the Confederacy"—the name suggests the increasingly powerful linkage between antebellum pastoral imagery and Confederate nationalism—the Shenandoah's abundance supplied wheat, corn, meat, and especially draft animals to the Confederate war effort.
Stymied by ill-starred commanders and an uncoordinated grand strategy, the Union high command was slow to use its advantages. Finally, and in part because the Shenandoah had become what one scholar called an "iconic Confederate place," the Union chose to take away enemy advantages rather than claim its own. This decision played out spasmodically, in stages, as the larger Valley Campaign of 1864 unfolded.
Hunter, opposed in his front by a Confederate force under Early sent from Petersburg to stop him and from behind by ravenous partisans and guerrillas who disrupted his supply lines, chose to leave the valley and retreat into West Virginia. That movement reopened the Shenandoah Valley to Confederate control and made possible Early's raid on Washington in July. Early's movement, though unsustainable, brought to a head three summers of frustration in the Union high command and set the stage for a climatic, fiery autumn of holocaust.
The Burning and the Historians
The devastation followed a line of forty miles between Harrisonburg in Rockingham County to Woodstock in Shenandoah County and accomplished first in Virginia what William T. Sherman would later accomplish in Georgia: by waging a so-called hard war on the land, a war in which it was undeniably apparent that the Confederacy could not stop him, Sheridan scorched the material and emotional heart of the Confederacy. Early's attempt to prove otherwise failed spectacularly at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864, an emphatic, demoralizing Confederate defeat and the last major military operation in the valley until the close of the war.
Historians disagree about the truth of Sheridan's assertions. At a basic level,
some argue that Sheridan did not destroy as much as he claimed to have destroyed;
to these scholars, his assertions were one measure propaganda and two dollops
personal promotion. Others insist that the Shenandoah Valley's abundance has been
exaggerated—and thus the importance of the Burning has been exaggerated as well.
According to this thesis, the
Those who lived through the Burning—those who experienced it as well as many of those who carried it out—tended to think in terms that mock contemporary historical controversy. Not only was the Burning understood as a culminating climax to a brutalizing war, it was understood that way precisely because the mythic, arcadian identity of the Shenandoah Valley had taken such deep root. Moreover, the wartime experience in the Shenandoah Valley had generated an intense if uneasy nationalism that tied these idyllic ideas of home and place to the Confederate war effort. In many ways the Burning succeeded in destroying those material ties only to see them endure spiritually in folklore and memory.
March–June 1862 - A small Confederate army under Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson defeats Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
May–October 1864 - Union forces ultimately commanded by Philip H. Sheridan defeat Confederate forces under Jubal A. Early and wrest control of the Shenandoah during the 1864 Valley Campaign. Sheridan embarks on "the Burning," which strips the Valley of its ability to supply the Confederacy and devastates Confederate morale.
October 19, 1864 - In a last desperate bid to drive Union forces commanded by Philip H. Sheridan from the Shenandoah Valley, Confederate forces commanded by Jubal A. Early are defeated at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Sheridan's victory marks the end of conventional operations in the Shenandoah Valley.
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First published: April 30, 2009 | Last modified: January 2, 2015