The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley
During the Civil War, military operations in the
Shenandoah Valley grew into significant campaigns. The fertile land was
valuable to the army which controlled it for food and forage, which made it
vital to the under-supplied Confederate army. The Valley was easy access
for the Confederates into important places in the North, but it didn't give
the Federals the same access into the South.
Confederate General Jubal Early’s successes in
the Shenandoah Valley caused the Federal Union to send General Philip
Sheridan to oppose him in 1864. Both were excellent commanders. They had
the respect of their officers and soldiers as well as the confidence of
their superiors. They both achieved spectacular successes, and are regarded
as among the very best of commanding generals in the field.
The necessity of military operations in the Shenandoah
Valley was proven early in the American Civil War. But many residents of
the Valley had never wanted the War, and there had been strong local
reluctance against secession from the Union.
Virginia was the last state to secede from the Union
after having voted many times not to do so.
Many residents of the Shenandoah Valley were against
secession, including Jubal Early. He was an elected public official
serving as the prosecuting attorney for mountainous Franklin County. He
returned to military service as a militia colonel strictly to defend
Virginia. Jubal Early quickly became a general for his battlefield
competence at First Manassas in August of 1861.
In the half-century political feud in Congress over
tariffs before the Civil War, the light manufacturing economies needed
tariffs when the south's cotton needed free trade. The Shenandoah Valley
was more similar to that of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for instance, then to
the deep south, and both had slavery. The deep south needed international
free trade for its exports. The light manufacturing of Virginia through New
England needed a 30% import tariff to survive against the surge of European
manufacturing exports after the Napoleonic Wars. The Shenandoah Valley,
like much of Virginia, was for compromise instead of coercion and war.
When Lincoln won the 1860 Presidential election in a
contest split among five candidates, it was a tough political struggle in
the Virginia legislature. Virginia had almost legislated slavery out of
existence in the 1820s, and the Virginia Supreme Court came within one vote
of declaring it unconstitutional in the 1850s.
The entire country, on both sides, hung in an uneasy
balance for and against the Civil War after South Carolina seceded from the
Union in December of 1860. President Buchanan expressed the sentiments of
many as several more Southern states seceded when he said “let our wayward
sisters go in peace.” When President Lincoln was inaugurated in March,
1861, he swore the oath of office to “... protect and defend the
constitution of the United States ...” Like the country lawyer he had been
who suddenly became President of a large corporation, he set about
protecting the corporate property of the Federal Government.
There were communications between the Federal and
Confederate governments about ships with relief supplies for the beleaguered
garrisons in the Federal property of the harbor forts of Pensacola, Florida,
and Charleston, South Carolina. The ship to Pensacola was to arrive first
in a less inflamed area, but as happens, the ship to Charleston arrived
first. But nobody know what would happen when those supply ships sailed
into those Southern Harbors.
A few hotheads in the South fired first. It turned out
to be important who fired first. Only after the firing on the relief ship
to Fort Sumpter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, and on Fort
Sumpter itself, did the North feel compelled to take up arms against the
South. The switch in mood was dramatic.
The North taking action tipped the sentiment in
Virginia to take up defensive arms. Articles of Secession were adopted by
Virginia on April 17, 1861, only a few days after the fighting erupted at
VALUABLE AREA AND ACCESS INTO THE NORTH
A first class road from Lexington through Staunton and Winchester to
Martinsburg gave the Southern Confederates easy access from the Shenandoah
Valley into Maryland. Railroads in Virginia to Gordonsville and Charlottesville
brought troops to within an easy marching distance over five good passes across
the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley.
The SouthWest to NorthEast geographical orientation of the Blue Ridge and
Appalachian Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley between them made the Valley
into a natural avenue for high speed Southern access into important areas of the
North, including the Federal capital of Washington, D.C., but when the North
used it to come south, the Valley going SouthWest into the mountains leads into
little of value and away from important Southern areas.
The North feared the presence of major Confederate armies in the Shenandoah
Valley, which reaches the Potomac River west of Washington. The Federal army
always had the task of protecting Washington, especially from Confederates in
the Valley. The South surprised the North every summer of the Civil War with
sudden major troop movements into the Valley and northward into Maryland, or
beyond into Pennsylvania. The two battles with the most casualties in American
history resulted from such maneuvers, which are Antietam in 1862 and Gettysburg
To explain a confusion, the “lower” Valley means lower in elevation, which is
at the north end where the Shenandoah River joins the Potomac River. The
“upper” Valley is at its southern end.
1862 Military Operations >