This was Nancy Sorrells’ presentation at the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign and the Burning Sesquicentennial Conference at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia.
She told us that in April of 1861, the Shenandoah Valley was the picture of agricultural riches. It was filled with prospering family farms which with mixed agricultural systems supplied flour and whiskey to places as far away as California, fodder to the Caribbean slave plantations, meat to urban markets, and leather points far and near. Although wheat was the cash crop the agriculture in the Valley was not wed to a single crop. The complicated of slave ownership and hiring practices ensured farm labor in the Valley was carried out by both white and black laborers working side-by-side on the family farms.
It quickly earned the nickname “breadbasket of the confederacy” because of its production of grains. But if it only produced wheat, corn, and oats, that would have been significant, but it was more than a breadbasket. Its agricultural bounty was the lifeblood of the soldier and the civilian alike.
Consider the bovine. Food, of course, meat, butter, cheese, and milk, but also think about tallow, candles, tallow for greasing wagon wheels, leather and everything leather including harnesses, belts, straps, and knapsacks, and consider draft power. Early on, the confederacy actually used cattle to pull artillery.
And the equine, pulling wagons, artillery and ambulances, not to mention officers’ mounts and cavalry mounts. Horses were incredibly important.
And the swine used for food both in the Valley and throughout America, and ovine for food and uniforms.
From the very beginning of the war that critical bounty was used and was targeted by both sides. John Ruckman of Pocahantas County wrote to Jefferson Davis in June of 1861, “Nothing but destruction awaits our houses and barns. Our waving fields of grain and grass, our thousands of cattle they will soon possess. On my own grass I have from one hundred fifty to two hundred head of good beef cattle. I have no hope of anything being saved unless you can send on a large force at once.”
The Valley’s roads and turnpikes were great corridors for moving animals back and forth, and in fact the superhighway of the Nineteenth Century the Staunton-Martinsburg Turnpike connected the Upper Valley with the Ohio River, and there was a lot of confederate raiding into West Virginia throughout the war and drove back droves of cattle and horses back into the Valley. The most successful of those operations occurred in April of 1863 when 3,000 captured cattle and 400 horses were driven back into the Valley from a raid in West Virginia. It was the largest single herd of animals ever to pass over the turnpike.
From the start of the war and throughout, foraging was integral to the existence of both soldiers and civilians. This is from James Taylor’s sketchbook. Foraging turned into generalized looting later in the war. Everybody was stretched thin for supplies. This sketch typified the unorganized looting from a family farm and showed what happened when, in this case, an infantryman and a cavalryman vied for the same prize. Taylor wrote this: “Our force went by Mr. Sells’ barn and stable. Near the latter we stopped for a moment to witness the deadly work of the forager which was in full blast. Some were industriously gathering hay from the loft and others grain from the crib, while others were giving their special attention to the livestock. The remarkable zeal in their work was surprising. It was oft pursued with such intentness, especially in case of the porkers, who to every soldier is the grand prize, that it frequently led to personal encounters when rival clans were in a race to posses the delicious morsel.” Foraging and looting were purposeful acts, but even unintentionally the movement of tens of thousands of soldiers destroyed crops and fences in the Valley.
A reporter from the New York Times described the landscape in Rockingham County after the Battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic in 1862: “It rather moves me to sympathy to see the trail of devastation that the two armies have left after them. Meadows of clover are trodden into mud; the tossing plumes of the wheat-fields along the line of march are trodden down, as though a thousand reaping-machines had passed over and through them. Dead horses lie along the road, entirely overpowering the sweet scent of the clover-blossoms, and flinging out upon the air a more villainous stench than could by any possibility ascend from the left wing of the Tartarian pit. Fences are not, landmarks have vanished, and all is one common waste.”
Take, for example, the Lewis Family in Port Republic. Being Unionists didn’t help in the way of protection. Both sides took plenty from them during the 1862 campaign. 1,000 fence rails went to soldiers’ camp fires, Federal soldiers took two horses and 600 bushels of corn, and then posted guards and promised monetary compensation. Neither one worked and by the end of the battle they had lost all their cattle, all their horses, all their sheep’s throats were slit, and all their farm tools were stolen.
Even if the battle was far away, all the farms suffered because all the labor was gone. Either the young men who were working the farms were in the army or the slaves who worked the farms had run off or were impressed to dig the trenches around Richmond. So all the farms suffered, and the task of holding the farms together fell to old men like Presbyterian minister Francis McFarland, who was in his seventies and had three sons in the military, or the wives, or the children. Francis McFarland wondered, in his diary, how he was going to manage the farm without his help. One unintended of the war on agriculture in the Valley was farms falling into disrepair. Another unintended consequence was disease among the farm animals. Historian G. Terry Sharrer of the Smithsonian Institute writes, “In the supply of horses, cattle, and hogs for the contending armies, the worst livestock diseases in the nation fell upon Virginia. Equine glanders and hog cholera, which seem not to have appeared in Virginia before 1860, and cattle fever, which had been negligible for forty years, became rampant by 1865.” Sharrer postulated that livestock diseases did more to inhibit agricultural recovery after the war than did any labor problems associated with the ending of slavery.
Although Virginia had left the Union, they hadn’t left the government, and the citizens were not free from the taxes and regulations that were inherent in any organized government. Desperate to finance the war with ever dwindling revenues, the confederacy eventually turned to tithing as a means to get agricultural products and to confiscating farm products. In 1863 the confederate congress gave impressing agents the right to visit any farm they chose and confiscate products for military use. They usually visited the most prosperous farm that was closest to a railhead. Early that same year they also passed a new tax law. the tithe, a 10% tax or tithe on all your farm products including your slaughtered livestock. Every farmer was required to deliver his tithe to the closest quartermaster general. They would not accept money. It had to be an agricultural product. Jacob Hildebrand, a pacifist Mennonite farmer in Northern Augusta County with two sons serving in the confederate army, wrote in his diary on September 11, 1863, “Thomas P. Wilson was here to assess my property. I have to pay the tenth of wheat, rye, oats, hay, and fiber, etc.” Seven days later, he noted, “Bob Nelson impressed 50 bushels of my wheat, I considered it rather a farce.” On March 14, 1865 he wrote, “This evening the press master came with his team and took 15 bushel of my corn and if I had not got out at 3 o’clock and concealed about 25 I would have but 25 bushel left. I done this to keep my farming operations a going. So impressments continued throughout the war.
Quite the opposite from unintended destruction was the deliberate destruction of the breadbasket of the confederacy beginning in June of 1864. David Hunter’s destruction was actually worse than Sheridan’s destruction.
In late June, Hunter was pushed out of the Valley and calm returned, but only for a few weeks. Then came a new leader, Philip Sheridan. The first thing he destroyed was a government tannery.
Jacob Hildebrand stopped writing about the tithes that were bothering him and replaced it with first person accounts of the destruction that was happening around him. On August 19, 1864 he wrote, “The Yankees are burning every barn they come across that has either hay or grain in it. I see a good many are smoking yet as I pass up the Valley Pike.” Then later he said, “This afternoon the Yankees burned all the hay near the road. I saw them set fire to Mr. J. H. Carter’s haystacks.” And on September 30 he noted, “Yesterday the Yankees made a general burning of barns in the lower end of this county and the upper end of Rockingham County, and also some houses.”
By the time Sheridan left Augusta the destruction was $3.2 million. That was nothing compared to what happened in Rockingham. When he was finished in late October, the agricultural lifeblood of the Valley was drained out to the last drop. The destruction of that fall has come to be known as the Burning.
Sheridan used what he could of the livestock and killed the rest. As the soldiers moved from farm to farm their task was simple: make sure that farm would never again contribute to the confederate war effort. Every barn with hay or grain of any sort, and any mill was burned.
A confederate soldier was on a hill overlooking some of the destruction, and he wrote that he could see Yankees in the Valley driving off the horses and cattle, sheep, killing the hogs, burning all the barns and stalks of corn and wheat in the fields and destroying everything that could feed or shelter man or beast.
Just in Rockingham County these were destroyed.
Sheridan said, “When this is completed the Valley from Winchester up to Staunton, ninety-two miles, will have little in it for man or beast.”
There is a group of documents called the Southern Claims Commission which is useful for understanding the agricultural impact of the Valley. Since even Unionists were subjected to the tax-in-kind and forced to support the confederate war effort, their farms were targeted also. After the war the Southern Claims Commission was formed to try to compensate them in some way for what they had lost. They were compensated pennies on the dollar about a decade after the war. They detailed their losses in these papers.
Any picture from the time period will show many fences. Fence rails were important for keeping crops enclosed so animals didn’t get in to eat the crops.
The end result was that after 35,000 of Sheridan’s men moved like swarms of locusts through the Valley there wasn’t much left.
In April of 1865, citizens must have looked out across the landscape with despair. Their labor system, both black and white was depleted. They had no livestock, no grain to plant in the fields, no machinery to carry out basic farm activities. There were no smokehouses, barns, or corn cribs to store any harvest that fall. There was no fencing, no fertilizer, and no currency to even begin to buy supplies to start the rebuilding process. The recovery was slow, and the numbers were bleak. Five years after the war the agricultural census showed the numbers in the Valley were still down dramatically from 1860.
Except wheat. Five years after the war, wheat was up 10% from the 1860 levels. During the period from 1870 to 1900 Valley farmers continued to produce wheat in prodigious amounts. Indeed, they produced vastly more wheat during those three decades than they had during the three decades prior to 1870. Also remarkable was the degree to which levels of wheat production in the Valley exceeded those in Virginia as a whole during this period. From 1870 to 1900 as wheat production in the areas of Virginia outside the Valley rose by just 3%, Valley farmers increased their wheat production by 63%.
How did they do this? This was a totally unexpected result. There were a number of reasons: The easy transition of the labor force, increased mechanization, switching from manure to commercial fertilizer, continued diversity of agriculture, and the Baltimore Agricultural Aid Society which provided funds and assistance for recovery.
In the Valley, per person ownership of slaves was lower, but many participated through hiring policies. After the war, the farmers hired freedmen for labor and their labor really didn’t miss a beat.
As farm production slowly rose, farmers began to prosper again. After the war, dairy and beef production split and became very specialized. Postwar roads improved, allowing increased products to be shipped to places like Baltimore and Philadelphia. Memories of the war remained, though.
This was a very good presentation with some terrific information that we don’t normally see.