10 July 2012

Why History Still Matters In The Shenandoah

Alfred Waud's depiction of Custer's burning of a
Valley farm 7 October 1864.

Such was the account given by Sheridan of his operations in Augusta and the Valley. A correspondent, who was with the army, thus describes the scenes of their march:

“The atmosphere, from horizon to horizon has been black with the smoke of a hundred conflagrations, and at night a gleam, brighter and more lurid than sunset, has shot from every verge. The orders have been to destroy all forage in stacks and barns, and to drive the stock before them (the Federal army) for the subsistence of the army.  Indiscriminating (for with such swift work discrimination is impracticable), relentless, merciless, the torch has done its terrible business in the Valley. Few barns and stables have escaped. The gardens and corn-fields have been desolated. The cattle, hogs, sheep, cows, oxen, nearly five thousand in all, have been driven from every farm. The wailing of the women and children, mingling with the crackling of flames, has sounded from scores of dwellings. I have seen mothers, weeping over the loss of that which was necessary to their children’s lives—setting aside their own—their last cow, their last bit of flour pilfered by stragglers, the last morsel they had in the world to eat or drink. Young girls, with flushed cheeks, and pale, with tearful, or tearless eyes, have pleaded with and cursed the men whom the necessities of war have forced to burn the dwellings reared by their fathers, and turn them into paupers in a day. The completeness of the desolation is awful. Hundreds of nearly starving people are going North. Our trains are crowded with them. They line the wayside. Hundreds more are coming. Absolute want is in mansions used in other days to extravagant luxury.”

The desolation of the Shenandoah Valley was thus sketched at the time:
We have conversed with an intelligent friend, who formerly resided at Edinburg, in Shenandoah county, and who has been compelled to bring his family into a more favored locality, to keep them from starving, and he gives a deplorable picture of the sufferings and privations of these unfortunate people. But a small amount of grain is in possession of the inhabitants, and what little they have it is hardly possible to get ground for want of mills, all having been burned except five or six, in the extent of the country of which we speak. In many instances corn has been pounded, baked, and consumed in a rough state, and our informant states that he is familiar with instances where the people have mixed middlings with bran and baked it into bread, in order to stretch the food. Cattle, hogs and sheep have been swept away, and but few horses remain with which to cultivate the ground and raise a crop the present season. It is hard to realize and believe that such a state of things exist, but it is nevertheless fearfully true.
Another says: With the exception of small enclosures of one or two acres, here and there, there is scarcely a fence worthy of the name from the Rapidan to Bull Run; and the fields, once the pride of the farmers’ hearts, and shut in by ten rails and a rider, are now broad commons, with old landmarks obliterated, ditches filled up, quarters, corn-houses and barns in ruins, while the lone and blackened chimneys of the once happy homestead stand like some grim old sentries on guard until the last. The once majestic forests of oak, hickory, chesnut and pine along the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad have disappeared, and given place to the rude huts and cabins improvised by the armies of Lee and Meade; and instead of whortleberries, chinquepins and chestnuts, one kicks upon canteens, worn-out knapsacks, old shoes, bread-boxes, suggestive of the inevitable hard-tack, bayonet-scabbards, with here and there a stand of grape, a ten-pounder Parrott shell, and everywhere almost the hollow-base little Minnies, whose whistling tones are so familiar to us all. The village of Raccoonford is a village no longer; Stevensburg is Stevensburg only on the military map; and all along the route, crossing and recrossing the railroad, one sees nothing where man’s agency is concerned but utter desolation. The people are returning to their once happy homes, after such hardships as only refugees can know, and are patching up any out-buildings at hand for a temporary residence until the great house can be rebuilt and former comforts collected around them. The negroes in Orange county can be hired for their food and quarters; but this does not pertain in Culpepper and Fauquier, where labor is scarce and in demand, as nearly every negro,—man, woman and child, left home early in the war with the hope of an improved condition in the crowded streets of Alexandria and Washington. The supply, however, will be equal, and perhaps more than equal, to the demand, when the farmers are once more prepared to cultivate their lands; but just now there is a feeling of oppressive uncertainty hanging over every man’s head, and until courts are established, magistrates, sheriffs, surveyors, commissioners, etc., are appointed, this feeling will prevail, and then materially to retard the development of the agricultural resources of the country and of that desire to do their duty as good and loyal citizens, which is the sincere and hearty wish of nine-tenths of the people {typo corrected} of Virginia, now that the terrible struggle is over, and which has been decided finally against them. The farmers need nearly every article necessary to a successful cultivation of their lands, and with but very limited means for purchasing them, no credit, and an entirely new system of labor to contend with, the problem of success seems to be one of difficult solution; but with industry, skill and integrity, the prolific soil will soon supply their wants, and in a few years one will scarcely be able to recognize this as the classic battle-ground of the two celebrated armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia.”

I've walked and explored these same woods and fields for close to 50 years. I've walked over the very ground, perhaps the very spot, where my great-great grandfathers shed blood to protect their families, homes, and to defend their state. And I've pulled bullets, buttons, shell fragments, and other relics from that same ground which have not been touched by a human hand since before the smoke cleared on the day of battle. Despite what others may believe, there is a connection to this history which is unique to those who have such experiences and heritage. I consider myself blessed to be among that group.


Brother Juniper said...

"What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world."

If I may quote the greatest of Americans. - Peter

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Peter.

paragonremodeling said...


Home Additions Virginia

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

You're welcome.