The Scenic and Historic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia

American history was shaped on Shenandoah Valley Civil War battlefields

Union Civil War troops in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia


The solid 19th century stone houses and buildings that still stand in the Shenandoah Valley, as well as in other places in America, could illuminate what the Founding Fathers had in mind with their “built to last” U.S. Constitution.

It may be true that the American “checks and balances” form of government has always appeared to operate with a kind of steampunk inefficiency, but it reflects something that may be flexible enough to survive unanticipated twists and turns in the lives of successive generations of Americans.

Yet the United States had not even reached its centennial when it faced its biggest crisis of unity. National political processes began to boggle down in the mid 1800s, largely over the issue of slavery. Talking through the problem wasn’t working. The only means of settling the issue took the form of Balkinization and military violence. Thus began the American Civil War, a national tragedy. From that experience, parts of the national psychology even by now have not fully recovered.

Abraham Lincoln’s successful reelection in 1864 finally provided real assurance that the Union would in fact endure. After four years of death and destruction, the outcome had still not been clear. Had the “Peace Democrat,” George B. McClellan defeated Lincoln, the U.S. undoubtedly would have steered toward recognition of the Confederate States as an independent nation.

As late as the summer of 1864, Lincoln himself had begun to fret aloud that he may not win. The result was a landslide in his favor. Two very eleventh-hour Union battle victories had occurred just before the election: Atlanta in July and the Shenandoah Valley’s Cedar Creek in October. They proved to be a critical boost that the Northern cause had needed at this watershed moment.

In a war as complex as the Civil War, it may be hard to point to a single tipping point toward its resolution. The tide had indeed started to turn a year earlier at Gettysburg. But there is no doubt that at least part of what had happened in the Shenandoah Valley immediately before the 1864 election helped Lincoln win his second term of office. The imporant thing was that the Union had been preserved.

Although the end of the Shenandoah Valley’s role of a significant Southern military asset is defined by the Battle of Cedar Creek, what had happened at that time was actually a series of battles, along with an unprecedented “scorched earth” policy of devastation leveled by the Union Army directly against non-Native American civilians. The Cedar Creek battle marked the actual conclusion of Confederate offensives in the Valley, and virtually eliminated thoughts of any war of attrition.

In Sept., 1864, Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early’s exhausted, undernourished and under-supplied troops had furiously pursued the retrograde movement of the Union Army that followed The Burning. They then established a stronghold in proximity to the bivouacked Union Army, along a series of low ridges that blocked the narrowest area of the Valley, at Fishers Hill.

The strategic and protective geography of Fishers Hill earned it the nickname, “Gibraltar of the South.” Gen. Early thought that he could make a stand there. Although by this time, the handwriting may have been on the wall for the Confederates.

Fishers Hill battle map


But what had been intended to be a secure base for the outnumbered Southerners, soon became the scene of their disorganized retreat, and then it became a route. Attacking Union troops flanked the Southerners’ lines in just a few hours of battlefield action.

Union troops on the move during the Civil War Battle of Fishers Hill


The outcome of Fishers Hill may be the first real end point of meaningful military action in the region, even after a final Confederate assault and an initial victory less than a month later at Cedar Creek. That battle’s outcome was a resounding and final defeat for the South in the Shenandoah Valley.

The Shenandoah Valley Civil War Battle of Cedar Creek


Unlike the battles that had names like Gettysburg, Atlanta, Shiloh and Vicksburg, the Shenandoah Valley battles that significantly helped preserve the American Union are perhaps not as well known. Yet, the battlefields are still here, and many parts of them still appear virtually unchanged from the time they were overrun by bitter and deadly combat.

At the end of the last century, Congress had designated a Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Historical District, identifying the region as a preservation heritage area. This happened as the size of Washington D.C. urban and suburban sprawl already had been mushrooming, spilling across the Blue Ridge Mountains and eating up more and more open space that included Civil War battlefield lands.

The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF) had also been created to manage the historical district, as well as develop and implement a strategy of protecting the nearly 30 thousand acres of battlefield land, or at least what had not already been lost to development.

“Battlefield preservation is a multi-pronged, multi-faceted operation,” says SVBF Executive Director Keven Walker. “There is land acquisition and land preservation, itself. The direct preservation of parcels of battlefield land. And we do that day in and day out. Like in the last two years, we’ve been preserving about an acre and a half a day.”

Walker describes Shenandoah Valley battlefield preservation efforts as a race against time. Most landowners have been cooperative by the time they become able or willing to consider some sort of preservation protection or even outright sale of their land. But it is often difficult to coordinate the wishes of landowners with whatever forces may be brought to bear, in order to make it all happen the way it should, at any given moment.

“Another thing that we’re facing is kind of the new political reality. And that affects, or could potentially affect the base funding that we still receive from the Federal government. And there’s a new public temperature related to the American Civil War,” he says.

As the memory of the Civil War starts to recede among contemporary Americans, it has become necessary for the SVBF to work in different ways to stoke the support it needs to continue, including history education and heritage tourism promotion. It’s not going to get any cheaper to do as time goes on.

Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation Visitor Center in New Market, Virginia


“But, really, although it’s difficult to bring a lot of these projects to fruition — to keep that torch lit — at the end of the day, there’s a lot of people out there willing to help us do it,” Walker says.

Over recent years, the SVBF played a role in the creation of the Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park, which essentially preserves the Cedar Creek Battlefield. The SVBF also took ownership of and now manages over 5,000 acres of Third Winchester battlefield land. That’s the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley, one that led up to the Battle of Cedar Creek.

Fishers Hill Battlefield, as it appears today


Most recently, the SVBF has turned its sights back to Fishers Hill. The main part of the battlefield had already been preserved, but an additional 177 acres are needed, preserving land around the historic Valley Pike (U.S. Route 11) and additional, key battlefield positions. It’s also part of a plan to eventually link battlefield lands in Shenandoah County via a visitor-friendly trail system.

The trails reflect a long-term goal of opening up preserved lands for a variety of uses, such as for outdoor classroom or recreational use. These are places where people already go to simply enjoy the serene, natural beauty of the Valley.

In such a recreational setting, it’s possible for visitors to look at field signage that may whet their interest about history. They may simply be out for hike, but they may discover how they are retracing the footsteps of fellow Americans who bled and died on that same ground. It’s a different kind of exposure to history education.

“Witness Tree” on a Fishers Hill Battlefield ridgetop


Beyond this sort of historical awareness by osmosis, formal education and interpretation efforts continue to be a major effort for the SVBF. Without this form of outreach, the important historical lessons of the Civil War could very well die away, lost in the buzz of contemporary life. For this reason, Walker explains, the mission is not just about education, but “inspiration.”

Which brings us to the “why” of battlefield preservation. Why bother? Recent political controversies have captured public attention, including the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag, and even roads and buildings named after Southern army soldiers. In some ways of current thinking, Civil War history may now be little more than a dark family secret to be locked away. But the lessons for our nation are still there.

Walker notes how the nation grappled with the Civil War, the war of “brother against brother.” It somewhat resembled a family suffering a personal loss. Ever since the War ended, successive generations have struggled to comprehend its meaning. The search for the War’s meaning does continue today.

“I don’t think it could be argued by anyone that saving the places where our nation struggled to become the nation that it is today, is important. You know, a democracy is a very messy thing. And we know that from our current political situations. And we know how hard it is to be a democracy. We all have different ideas and different opinions,” Walker says.

And, there is much work yet to be done on behalf of Shenandoah Valley battlefield preservation. “It’s extremely rewarding,” he adds. “Because we’re doing something, that if we’re successful, we will help ensure the success of our nation for many years to come.” blog content by Hank Zimmerman, copyright Shenanadoah Valley Productions LLC

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