The Old and New Challenges Faced by Civilians During the 1864 Valley Campaign

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This is Jonathan Berkey’s presentation in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and the Burning Sesquicentennial Conference held on August 2, 2014 at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia.

He started off by quoting from a letter Stephen Dodson Ramseur wrote from New Market on October 10, 1864 to his wife:  “This beautiful and fertile valley has been totally destroyed.”  Union forces under Major General Philip Sheridan had burned some houses, mills, and barns, rendering the Valley “one great desert.”  Ramseur admitted, “I do not see how these poor people are to live.”

Several weeks before Ramseur wrote this letter, on August 15, confederate cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss wrote to his wife, Sarah, from Fisher’s Hill about the latest war news.  Having learned that Sheridan had been assigned command of the forces in the Shenandoah Valley, Hotchkiss believed that he would conduct the campaign “on the track so well beaten by Banks, Fremont, Shields, Milroy, Crooks, and company.”  Like Hotchkiss, many civilians in the Valley expected the campaign to fit the pattern of the previous campaigns that had been conducted in the Valley, both in conduct and in outcome.  A communication from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to Major General Henry W. Halleck in July might have given Hotchkiss and the region’s civilians pause.  In the wake of Jubal Early’s Maryland Raid, Grant famously urged the Federals should “eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go so that crows flying over for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender with them.”  In the Valley, Sheridan would ruthlessly carry out this directive.

The Valley was the seat of a major campaign in 1862 and had seen sporadic fighting ever since.  By 1864, in their own way the Valley civilians could claim to be veterans.  Sheridan’s 1864 campaign presented Valley civilians with many challenges they were familiar with, but also new challenges that were especially daunting.  Sheridan’s offensive brought the destruction of resources, irregular warfare, and Union reprisals to the region on an unprecedented scale.  By the campaign’s end civilian morale and wherewithal had been severely tested.  The 1864 campaign dwarfed Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 campaign in terms of casualties.  Gary Gallagher estimated both sides suffered approximately 8,650 casualties during the campaign in the Valley in 1862 while casualties in 1864 exceeded 25,000.  After the Third Battle of Winchester, Laura Lee wrote, “Again our town is one vast hospital.”  By the end of September Winchester had about twenty hospitals administering to at least 3,000 wounded confederates.  Civilians did what they could to alleviate the suffering in their midst, but the sheer numbers alone made it difficult to comfort the wounded.

While the total numbers of soldiers operating in the Valley in the 1862 and 1864 campaigns would remain fairly even, about 45,000 in 1862 compared to about 53,000 in 1864, their distribution was quite different.  In 1862, Union forces numbered about 28,000 split into a force of 20,000 in the Lower Valley and about 8,000 in the Allegheny Mountains.  At the height of the campaign Stonewall Jackson could count on about 17,500 effectives.  In 1864, the number of Union soldiers operating in the Valley ballooned.  As the campaign began, Phil Sheridan could muster about 43,000 men, about 35,000 infantry and artillery and about 8,000 cavalry, while Jubal Early estimated he had about 8,500 infantry and 1,700 cavalry.  The much larger Federal army and its early success in the campaign suggests that foraging would be much more devastating to Valley residents in 1864 than it was in 1862.  Having had previous experience with foragers, by 1864 many residents could quickly secure their goods if given fair warning of approaching soldiers.

Guerrilla warfare posed another challenge that increased in magnitude in 1864.  Sheridan’s forces faced disruptive guerrilla attack from the campaign’s beginning.  In October, Sheridan wrote to Grant in frustration, “Since I came into the Valley every train, every small party and every straggler has been bushwhacked by people, many of whom have protection papers from commanders who have been hitherto in this valley.”  Federal officer Elisha Hunt Rhodes shared Sheridan’s characterization of guerrilla resistance in the Valley.  He said, “The people are honest farmers during the day but at night they arm themselves, and mounting their horses are guerrillas and fire upon pickets and destroy our wagon trains.”

In an effort to curb this guerrilla activity and gain information about the enemy’s intentions in the region, Sheridan utilized a tactic that was familiar to many Valley residents.  He employed scouts who wore confederate uniforms, popularly known as Jessie Scouts.  Names after the wife of John C. Fremont, the Jessie Scouts visited civilians to gain information, capture hidden rebel soldiers, and entrap disloyal civilians.  Not surprisingly, Jessie Scouts did not enjoy a good reputation among Valley residents.  Jessie Scouts added one more level of uncertainty to interactions between civilians and soldiers in 1864.  When a civilian answered the door and found a man in a gray uniform, the civilian had to determine very quickly if the man was a confederate soldier, a deserter, a Jessie Scout posing as a confederate soldier, or a simple outlaw.

Guerrillas continued to harass and frustrate the Union forces in the Valley.  Fearing the only way to eliminate guerrilla activity was to “burn out the whole country and let the people go north or south,” he adopted a harsh retaliatory policy against the Valley’s civilians for guerrilla attacks.  The most well-known example of this policy occurred in early October after the death of Sheridan’s staff officer, Lt. John Rogers Meigs.  Initially believing civilians had murdered Meigs, Sheridan ordered all homes within a five-mile radius of the murder burned.  Similar acts of reprisal occurred elsewhere in the Valley.  After a group of John S. Mosby’s raiders attacked a squadron of 5th Michigan Cavalry, a Federal unit was sent to Berryville to burn houses and barns.  Sheridan also arrested civilians in attempts to discourage guerrilla activity.  In late October, Sheridan arrested about 100 men in Winchester for suspected guerrilla activity.

Sheridan’s harsh policies had a decided effect on the Valley’s civilians.  While they generally supported guerrilla activity in the region, they became less than enthusiastic when it occurred in the area of their immediate neighborhoods, fearful of reprisals.  In late September, after a guerrilla attack on a Federal wagon train, Sue Pitman wrote that Federal soldiers vowed to retaliate against civilians.  “I hope that those people will confine those operations to the high hills, for I don’t want to come in for a  share of their vengeance.”  Learning that a group of Mosby’s men was in the woods planning another attack on a wagon train and fearing reprisals, Pitman herself went into the woods to appeal to the rangers to cancel their plans.

The increased frequency of guerrilla activity in 1864 led to these reprisals.  Sheridan’s policy didn’t stop partisan warfare in the Valley, but they did cause the regions residents a great deal of worry and consternation.  Further, they demonstrated to the Valley civilians that confederate military power was limited in its ability to protect them.

Valley civilians tried to adopt survival strategies.  Residents learned to interact cautiously with any military force in their midst, keeping their loyalties to themselves.

The Valley’s agricultural abundance became targets for both sides in 1864.  While the confederates weren’t burning barns, they were taking crops, livestock, and grains to feed Early’s and Lee’s armies.  For Union forces, the Valley’s crops would supply Sheridan’s army, and the surplus crops would be burned in order to discourage confederate guerrillas who were operating behind Union lines and to eliminate the region’s usefulness as a supply source for the confederacy.  In his memoirs covering the final year of the war, Jubal Early noted his army subsisted almost entirely on food supplies from the Valley.  “Nearly the whole of our bread was obtained by threshing the wheat and then having it ground by the details from my command,” Early recalled.  “And it sometimes happened that while my troops were fighting, the very flour which was to furnish them with bread for their next meal was being ground under the protection of their guns.”  Early’s troops were quite thorough in their attempt to harvest the Valley’s agricultural bounty.  In August, Marcus Buck reported from Front Royal the confederates were “threshing out the wheat of Jefferson and Frederick counties with twenty machines” as well as operating in Augusta.  Buck worried, “if this continue we will have almost a famine.”  Buck himself was able to secure an order to stop the collection on his farm, but he feared that his family would not have enough wheat to survive the winter.  Confederate surgeon Abram Miller noted the army had threshed 200-300 bushels of wheat from his farm seven miles southwest of Winchester.  At his camp, Miller observed, “The army is taking the corn and hogs of the citizens and I can’t see how some of them are to get along next spring.”  Joseph Longwell expressed the discouragement that even an ardent confederate could feel as the result of Early’s practices.  In November of 1864 he wrote, “Great difficulty in procuring the sustenance for Early’s Army.  Nothing could be obtained from Rockingham, and Augusta is relied upon almost exclusively.  It is impossible however for this country to feed the army, the military hospitals here, the other public institutions, about one-half of Richmond City, and our own population to boot.  Yet all this seems to be expected of her.  Even if the Burning had not taken place, survival in the Valley would have been difficult.

Early’s effective and thorough requisition of supplies, combined with typical Union foraging efforts, made securing sustenance difficult for the Valley’s families.  Sheridan’s determination to carry out Grant’s orders to systematically destroy supplies that could be used to sustain an enemy army in the Valley turned a difficult task into a nearly impossible one.  The series of destructive operations collectively known as “The Burning” provided the campaign’s greatest new challenge to Valley residents.  While they could draw upon their previous experience with foragers to make some sense of what they were facing, the scale and scope of Sheridan’s actions put their ability to survive the winter at great risk.  As his campaign began in August, Sheridan had two main objectives: the first was to drive Early’s army out of the Lower Valley as far south as possible.  The second was to destroy the Valley’s capacity to supply the confederate armies.  Toward the end of August Sheridan had already begun to clear out the Lower Valley as Grant reiterated his bleak vision for the region.  Not only was Sheridan to burn civilians’ grain, but also to carry off livestock and slaves to prevent future farming.  “If the war is to last another year,” Grant wrote, “we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”

The destruction wrought by Sheridan’s burners was thorough, and they devastated a wide swath of the Valley.  Union details burned barns and mills.  They appropriated livestock to meet their needs and destroyed the surplus.  On a hill just north of New Market, a trooper from Major General Thomas Devin’s division of Union cavalry looked toward Mount Jackson and counted 167 barns burning simultaneously.

Valley residents struggled to stop or minimize the destruction of their property at the hands of the burning details.  If they had warning, and many residents could trace the path of Union troops by the lines of billowing smoke in their neighborhoods, they tried to save their property.  They gathered horses, cattle, and sheep and moved them to woods, mountains, and ravines.  Frequently the men in the Valley households who were not already fighting in the confederate army would lead the stock away, leaving women and boys at home to confront the Yankee burning details.  Some quick-thinking residents made efforts to save their barns.  One of the most common strategies was generosity.  On his farm between Eatonburg and Woodstock, John Koontz received word that the burning details were getting close.  He set his wife to work cooking large meals for the Union soldiers.  When the detail arrived at his farm, Koontz came out to greet them, and offered them a meal.  The sergeant in charge of the detail refused, saying he would feel bad about burning Koontz’s barn after eating at his table.  Koontz’s persistence in urging them to eat, and perhaps the smell of the food, proved irresistible.  They did sit down to a meal, and after finishing the meal the detail decided against burning the barn.

While some residents hoped generosity would dissuade the Federals, others took to bargaining.  In Rockbridge County, Alexander Botteler pleaded for the burning details to spare his barn, claiming that his son was serving in the Union army.  When this tactic failed, he offered to lead them to a buried barrel of brandy if they would pass by his barn, and the soldiers found this prospect much more persuasive, and they spared his barn.  One detail arrived at the farm of the ironically named John Burn and began assembling kindling to burn his barn.  John’s son Davey asked the soldiers if he could save some eggs from the barn before they burned it.  He rushed into the barn and came out with a sack of four or five dozen eggs.  The officer leading the detail offered to spare the family barn if he could have the eggs.  Young Davey quickly agreed to this transaction.  Such deals did not always guarantee success, though.  Some Union soldiers were simply not tempted.  On one Rockingham County farm, Lt. Charles Vale was offered $1,800 in gold in exchange for saving the barn.  He refused the offer.  Even if one detail agreed to spare a barn, the next group that arrived might not.  John Heatwole suggests some details worked together to extort from the residents.  One detail would show up and demand money or other valuables to spare the barn and then getting paid would move on while the next detail would arrive and burn the barn.  Then the two details would meet up and split the booty.

Other residents determined that pluck gave them the best chance to save their property.  Sarah Anderson greeted the burning detail that arrived on her farm with her hands behind her back and a belligerent attitude.  When the detail’s officer asked her where all the men in the household were, she tersely replied, “Off fighting you all.”  When a trooper began to unhitch a horse from her fence, Anderson drew a large butcher knife from behind her back and slashed the reins.  Impressed, or perhaps somewhat intimidated, the officer let her keep the horse.  Anderson watched the detail ride off that day with her property undisturbed.

Most residents watched helplessly as the details did their work.  Many were impressed by the speed of the soldiers.  By the time they realized what was happening it was too late to save their property.

Others believed acceptance was the only realistic option for them.

Sheridan’s burning campaign caused an enormous amount of destruction.  Sheridan claimed to have destroyed 71 flour mills, 1,200 barns, captured or destroyed 435,802 bushels of wheat, 20,000 bushels of oats, 77,176 bushels of corn, 874 barrels of flour, 20,397 tons of hay, 10,918 beef cattle, 12,000 sheep, 15,000 swine, 12,000 pounds of bacon and hams, and 547 miles of fence rails.  Jubal Early acknowledged Sheridan’s effectiveness in a letter to Robert E. Lee dated October 9.  Early informed Lee that Sheridan “laid waste to nearly all of Rockingham and Shenandoah Counties.”  Early had to rely on Augusta County for his supplies, which he noted were “not abundant there.”  As Gary W. Gallagher notes, while Sheridan’s army did not burn all the grains, mills, and barns of the Valley, he “severely damaged the Valley’s logistical output.”

Sheridan’s burning marked the end of the Union’s deliberate campaign against the Valley civilians.  In addition to causing massive material destruction it also critically affected civilian morale.  Sheridan’s campaign had turned the tables in terms of the fortunes of Unionists and rebels.  Valley residents were accustomed to a pattern of military activity featuring Union invasions and brief occupations followed by a confederate resurgence, and the 1862 Valley Campaign is a prime example of that.  Winchester Unionist Julia Chase feared this pattern would continue when Sheridan began his first retrograde movement in the Valley in August.  “The same thing has taken place today that we always see,” she disappointedly confided to her diary.  “Our army never advances in the Shenandoah Valley but to take a backward move.”  After Sheridan defeated Early at Third Winchester in late September, Unionists realized the typical pattern of military activity in the Valley had been broken.  General Sheridan himself recalled that as he entered Winchester with General George Crook on September 19, they were greeted in the street by three girls “who gave us the most hearty reception,”  and “their delight being irrepressible, they indulged in the most unguarded manifestations and expressions.”  General Crook, who knew the girls, urged them to exercise caution and “reminded that the valley had hitherto been a race-course—one day in the possession of friends, and the next of enemies—and warned of the dangers they were incurring by such demonstrations.”  The Unionist girls assured Crook they had no fear, asserting that Early’s army was so demoralized it would never enter Winchester again, and they were correct.

Valley secessionists experienced this change in fortunes as well.  Shortly after Early’s defeat at Third Winchester the Staunton Vindicator published an editorial titled, “Can We Be Conquered?” It reminded readers who may be wavering after Early’s defeat of the many times the Valley had been overrun by Yankees since the war began and how residents had continued zeal for the confederate cause.  Judging from the private reactions of Valley residents, the Vindicator‘s pep talk was desperately needed.

Sheridan’s campaign caused many residents to doubt their ability to survive another winter in the Valley in addition to losing confidence in the confederate cause.

This was another excellent presentation.

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