In this romantic evocation of the Shenandoah Valley by the painter W. L. Sonntag, a dilapidated cabin is the only evidence of human encroachment on the landscape. The painting, entitled Shenandoah Valley, portrays no actual place but a composite of different locations in the Valley. Sonntag created this bucolic scene in the decade leading up to the Civil War, but the Valley would become the locus of much fighting and destruction during the war.
The Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia stretches about 140 miles north to south between the Allegheny Mountains on the west and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east. During the Civil War, the strategically important Valley was the site of two major campaigns and numerous battles. Because the Valley's direction is generally southwest to northeast, it points dagger-like at the North, and especially at Washington, D.C., which is only sixty miles from Harpers Ferry. For the Confederates, it was crucial to control the Valley because it served as a natural and physically protected invasion route northward. During the 1862 Valley Campaign, Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson exploited this pressure point and successfully diverted Union troops away from Richmond. The victorious campaign provided a huge boost to Confederate morale.