The Shenandoah Valley in 1864 by George E. Pond: Chapter 1: The Valley of Virginia

The Shenandoah Valley.

Chapter I.

The Valley Of Virginia.

The mountain region of Virginia, from the beginning of the war, held a close military relation to the broad plain that stretches from the foot of the Blue Ridge to the sea, and it eventually became the theatre of a series of campaigns at once picturesque and decisive. The State was like a vast fortress or intrenched camp, thrown out above the line of the other ten Confederate commonwealths to guard their capital. Its parallel rivers, flowing to the Atlantic, were water-barriers against attack from the north, while upreared to shield its western front were the rampart ridges of its highland domain. The valleys between these ridges furnished well-sheltered avenues for invading Northern territory.

Of these avenues the most commanding was the Valley of Virginia, called also, from the chief river that drains it, the Valley of the Shenandoah. Its eastern wall is the lofty Blue Ridge; its western, the North Mountains, a part of the main chain of the Alleghanies. Since its course is southwesterly, a Confederate army moving northward through it would at the same time draw nearer Washington, whereas a Union advance southward would diverge from the straight course to Richmond. The Potomac running at right angles to the line of the Ridge, a Confederate force crossing this border stream at the mouth of the Valley, as at Williamsport, would already be sixty miles north or in rear of Washington. State lines there are not determined by the highland configuration—what is known in Virginia as the Valley of the Shenandoah continues unbroken north of the Potomac, taking there the name of Cumberland Valley, while its protecting wall is also prolonged with a simple change of appellation from Blue Ridge to South Mountain; and one day’s march through the Cumberland Valley would carry a body of Confederate horsemen among the peaceful farm lands of Pennsylvania.

Beautiful to look upon, and so fertile that it was styled the granary of Virginia, rich in its well-filled barns, its cattle, its busy mills, the Valley furnished from its abundant crops much of the subsistence of Lee’s army. When Confederate forces occupied it, their horses fattened on its forage, and in quitting it to invade the North, the commissaries filled their wagons from its storehouses and farms. While a few of the people of the lower Valley shared the sentiments of loyalty which animated West Virginia, the inhabitants as a whole became bitterly hostile to the Union. There was, however, a large population of Dunkards, with whom non- resistance was an article of religious faith, and who were accordingly exempt from conscription on payment of a specified sum, even when the Confederate need of troops was sore. These became, in time, of hardly less military value than an equal number of combatants, for they raised the crops on which the Confederate armies depended for sustenance, and often, also, cared for the families of absent soldiers. At last their whirring mills and golden wheat-fields ceased to be at the service of the South; for the Valley felt the fury of war, and its fatal wealth of resources was laid waste.

Looking at the Shenandoah Valley in history, we observe that it was the scene of constant Confederate manœuvring, whether on a large scale, under Jackson, Ewell, and Early, or on a smaller one, under Ashby, Mosby, Imboden, and Gilmor. From the first it was a tempting field for the strategists of both armies. The initial campaign of the war turned on the use made of the Valley by the forces which General J. E. Johnston posted at its outlet under the name of “The Army of the Shenandoah.” There, too, Jackson began the campaign of 1862 by sustaining a check from Shields, for which he fully indemnified himself when, a few months later, he fell upon Shields at Fort Republic, defeated Fremont at Cross Keys, captured the garrison of Front Royal, drove Banks across the Potomac, and, by alarming Washington, broke up the intending junction of McDowell and McClellan, and the threatened capture of Richmond. It was from the Valley that Jackson, repeating on a bolder circuit the Manassas device of 1861, hurried to turn the Union right on the Peninsula. Lee found in the Valley a line of communications for his Maryland campaign, and captured at Harper’s Ferry 11,000 men, seventy-three guns, and thirteen thousand small arms; there, too, he sought rest and refreshment on retreating from the Antietam. The Valley was Lee’s route of invasion after defeating Hooker at Chancellorsville; Ewell, entering it at Chester Gap, took several thousand men and a score or more of guns from Milroy; and thither again Lee fell back after Gettysburg, pitching his camps along the Opequon.

These events, described in preceding volumes of the present series, show that, though subordinate to the main scene of operations east of the Blue Ridge, the Valley of Virginia had always played an important part in the drama of the war. It had yielded so many captures of Union garrisons and so many disasters in the field, as to be called the Valley of Humiliation; and not until it was wrested from Confederate control did the problem of the Richmond campaign find a successful solution.

To set forth the manner in which Confederate power in the Shenandoah Valley was overthrown during 1864 is the purpose of the present volume. But before entering upon this narrative it is well to describe the terrain in detail.

The Shenandoah River rises a little south of the 38th parallel; but military operations extended nearly to the border of North Carolina. From this boundary northward to where, in latitude 37° 30′, the James crosses the Blue Ridge,the surface is broken by tumultuous upheavals, spurs pushing out from the main ranges in all directions; still, everywhere can be traced the familiar double chain of mountains, which becomes, indeed, a triple chain south of Floyd County, where the Blue Ridge forks. The landscape is now of surpassing beauty and again of savage grandeur; but though there are practicable passages in the mountains for all three arms, deep chasms being threaded by narrow roads that climb the sides of the precipitous bluffs, yet the region is hostile to campaigning. The chief strategic importance of the rugged southwestern angle of Virginia was an artificial one, contributed by the East Tennessee Railroad, which connected Lynchburg with Knoxville, and hence Richmond with the South and West. Southern Virginia, through which this road ran, was rich in minerals and grains, and full of supplies and manufactured products of many sorts, important to Lee’s army. The principal stations in Virginia, starting westward from Lynchburg, were Liberty, Salem, Christiansburg, Newbern, Wytheville, and Abingdon. All these became intimately connected with one of the Shenandoah campaigns of 1864; and though the latter three properly came within the scope of operations that have the Kanawha as a base, they held direct relations with the Richmond campaign, since at Newbern the railroad crossed New River, an affluent of the Kanawha, offering an important bridge for destruction, while the lead works of Wytheville and the salt works at Saltville, near Abingdon, furnished to the Confederacy valuable military stores.

In the mountainous country above and beyond the Shenandoah Valley proper, the rivers run to all points of the compass. The Roanoke and the New diverge from opposite slopes of the same range; the Kanawha and the James, from neighboring headwaters, take their several ways, after many turnings, the one to the Mississippi and the other to the Atlantic. A little south of where the James rushes through the Blue Ridge at Balcony Falls, the range also breaks apart at the Peaks of Otter. On a branch of the James, called North River, is Lexington, the seat of Rockbridge County. We are now in the Valley itself; for below Lexington the Shenandoah takes its rise in a multitude of streams that combine in three, called North, Middle, and South, these uniting in turn lower down, near Port Republic. From Lexington to Harper’s Ferry, at the foot of the Valley, the distance is one hundred and fifty-five miles; and at Staunton, thirty-five miles below Lexington, we strike upon the Valley turnpike that runs northward through Harrisonburg, New Market, Woodstock, Strasburg, and Winchester to Martinsburg—a fine, macadamized road, well worn by Northern and Southern troops and trains. West of the pike is the Back Road, with a Middle Road in some places between the two. Here at Staunton the Virginia Central Railroad crosses the Valley on its way to Charlottesville, Gordonsville, and Richmond, traversing the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap, near the village of Waynesboro.

Five-and-twenty miles north of Staunton, near Harrisonburg, an isolated chain, called Massanutten, rising abruptly to a height equal to that of the Blue Ridge, divides the Valley for a distance of more than forty miles, until, at Strasburg, this beautiful range suddenly falls again into the plain. The Massanutten Mountains are presently seen to follow the prevailing type of the Appalachian system, by breaking into two parallel ridges, Massanutten proper and Kell’s Mountain, leaving between them Powell’s Fort Valley, or the “The Fort,” a narrow, picturesque vale, through which winds Passage Creek to the Shenandoah below; while west of Kell’s is another parallel sub-range, Peaked Ridge and Three Top, allowing space between them and Kell’s for a Little Fort Valley. Massanutten was crossed by a good road, connecting New Market and Luray, which had military importance; but in other respects, since its enclosed valley was only the scene of minor cavalry operations, it may be remembered simply en bloc.

The larger branch of the Shenandoah, the South Fork, flows through the easternmost of the two valleys created by Massanutten—called Page or Luray Valley—while the main or Strasburg Valley, west of the range, is drained by the other affluent, the North Fork, which, rising in the North Mountains, winds along the west flank of Massanutten, until, escaping around the base, at Strasburg, it joins the South Fork near Front Royal; and the main river thus formed skirts thenceforth the foot of the Blue Ridge, till it swells the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry.

At Strasburg, the Valley, relieved of the Massanutten, recovers its usual breadth of twenty miles. Here we observe an historically important stream, Cedar Creek, which, having taken its rise and its early course behind Little North Mountain, has found its opportunity at Sydnor Gap to enter the Valley proper, where, flowing southerly, it joins the North Fork at Strasburg. Following down the pike, we leave the river on the right, and, crossing Cedar Creek, pass through Middletown, Newtown, and Kernstown to Winchester, a place of consequence, from which the Winchester and Potomac Railroad had run to Harper’s Ferry until torn up, like the Manassas Gap road, by the Confederates, in 1862. From Winchester the pike proceeds through Bunker Hill to Martinsburg, the chief city of the lower Valley, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. A good macadamized road leads from Winchester to Harper’s Ferry through Berryville, and one from Martinsburg strikes the Potomac opposite Williamsport, at the extreme north end of the Valley. Another road, proceeding easterly from Martinsburg, reaches the river at Shepherdstown, after crossing Opequon Creek—a stream, which, rising south of Winchester, drains in its exceedingly tortuous course the western portion of the lower Valley, being separated from the Shenandoah by Limestone Ridge. The picturesque town of Harper’s Ferry, at the junction of the Shenandoah with the Potomac, is dominated both by the lofty Loudoun Heights on the south bank of the Potomac and by the towering and precipitous Maryland Heights on the other.

Military operations were aided by the fine roads that connected all the important towns with each other and, through the leading gaps, with those of Eastern Virginia. The Valley was also so largely cleared and cultivated that troops could march almost where they liked through the fields, on both sides of the roads, leaving these for the guns and wagons, the whole column thereby advancing very rapidly. The creeks and rivers could be waded nearly everywhere during the summer and autumn, the military significance of the fords being in most instances simply that of levelled approaches to the crossing-places; for often even small streams ran between high and precipitous banks.

In the Blue Ridge there are practicable gaps all the way from the James to the Potomac, that connect the Valley with Eastern Virginia. Beginning with Rockfish, the outlet of Staunton, and passing Jaman’s, Brown’s, Semons, Powell’s, and High Top, which give access from Port Republic to Charlottesville, we come to Swift Bun Gap, through which a turnpike leads from Conrad’s Store to Stannardsville, and there branches to Orange and Gordonsville. A little farther north two more turnpikes cross the Ridge through Milani’s and Thornton Gaps, one leading from New Market, across the Massanutten to Madison, and the other diverging from it by way of Luray to Culpepper. From Luray a very good road runs northward between the Ridge and the South Fork to Front Royal, where another pike gives access to the country east of the Ridge by Thoroughfare and Chester Gaps. A few miles farther on, through Manassas Gap, ran the railroad of that name. From Winchester turnpikes led through Ashby’s and Snicker’s Gaps to Aldie, while Gregory’s and Keyes Gaps are nearer Harper’s Ferry. Doorways in plenty, therefore, opened through the Ridge. The best single point for commanding these passes was Gordonsville.

The Democratic Situation Explained to a Long-Absent Member of the Nasby Family: White Cloud Kansas Chief, September 17, 1863, page 1

[For more information on the Nasby Letters, see Nasby Letters.]

The Democratic Situation Explained to a Long-Absent Member of the Nasby Family.

Church uv St. Valandigum,    
Wingert’s Corners, Orgust 9.    

I hed a brother who left his paternal roof in 18forty-nine, for the perpus of makin a fortin a follerin the briny depe. He didn’t make a fortin, however, makin fortins being a thing for which the Nasby family is not sellibrated. He hed bin absent all uv the time, and hed never a word frum his naytiv land. He went from this Country, and when he landed at Noo York he cum strate 2 this place. I reseaved him with opun arms.

“Josef,” sez I, “do you still remain troo in the dimmecratic faith?”

“Petroleum,” sez he, “I do. Ez wus resolved in our Konvenshun the yere before I started. I beleave that Slaivry is an evil, and that the Dimocrisy uv Ohio shood use all constooshinal menes to mittygate and finally eradlycait it, and—”

“Hold,” sez I. “times is changed. The Dimocrisy now looks on slaivry ez a blessin, but, go on.”

“I beleeve,” resoomed he, “that the settlin uv the question uv slaivry by the Missory Compermise wus rite, and—”

“Hold on,” sez I, “we repeeled the Compermise.”

“I beleeve,” retorted he feebly,” that slaivry is the creecher uv lokle lejislashen, and should be exclooded from the territoris, and—”

“Stiddy,” sez I, “the Dimocrisy is in favor uv extendin it all over the territoris.”

“Well,” sez Josef, sez he, “I’m for the Union wun and indivisable—that’s Dimocrisy, aint it?”

“Yes,” sez I, “with several ifs and much buts. We are jest now ez a party engaygd in the deliteful work uv splittin up the Union in2 4 parts as per Vallandigum. Josef, your behint the age.—You see, Josef, we wus fer the Union wun and indivizible jest so long ez the Dimocrisy, wich wus mostly lokated Sowth, had controle uv sed Union. In them days Noo England wuz under. THen things changed. Noo England spred over the West, and ther was danger uv losing the controle. To check em we commenst legislatin; fustly repeelin the Compermise so they might take niggers ther if they cood get in fast enuff. That was a failyer, then we decided that the Constitooshen pertected slaivry, and that it cood go ther anyhow. Still Noo England beet us, electin a Abolishn President, and we bolted so that we cood get shet of Noo England. And that’s what’s the war’s about.”

Sez Josef, sez he, “Petroleum, to me it doth seem that all that’s left uv the Dimocrisy to which I wunst belonged is the naim.”

2 which I sentenshushly replide, “it air.”

Sez Josef, sez he, “Petroleum, I can’t git it thro me. Ef I had stayed at home, perhaps I mite hev took these changis down wun at a time, but at wun dose it is 2 much. Therefoar, Petroleum, consider me owt. The old flag’s good enuff for me, I thank you, and Androo Jxn was abowt the style uv a Dimokrat you mite bet yer bottom dollar on. I repoodiate the hull on’t. I don’t like egg shells, ner nuthin wot ain’t got no meet into it, by which strikin’ mettyfor I meen to day thet a party that hez disposed uv its prinsipples and lives on an empty naim aint the assosiashen for anybody but a low graid of jients, and a high graid uv skoundrels, such ez would garrotte the Goddis uv liberty for the white cotton nite gownd she’s picktorellly represented ez wearin’. Petroleum, adoo.”

*   *   *   *   *   *

The next day he enlistid. I saw hime depart with a bloo kote on. Ez he haddent a dollar that I cood borrer, I was rejoist to see him go.

Petroleum V. Nasby.  

Nasby Letters

The Nasby Letters are a long-running series of fictional letters, written by David Ross Locke, in the character of “Petroleum V. Nasby”, a lazy, bigoted, alcoholic, semi-literate Copperhead Democrat.  Locke uses a odd, semi-literate style of spelling, in order to depict Nasby as not too bright.  Locke started writing the Nasby Letters during the Civil War, and continued well into reconstruction.  They are quite humorous, although the odd spelling may prove a bit of a barrier for modern readers.  I’ll be publishing several of these on American Civil War @ 150, so I felt that an introduction would be apropos.  View a list of letters available here.