The Antebellum Shenandoah Valley

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series The Shenandoah Campaigns of 1864
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The antebellum Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was considered one of most richest agricultural regions in the entire country. Flanked on the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the west by the Allegheny Mountains, the Valley runs southwestward from the Potomac to the James River, south of Lexington. It is 165 miles long and from 20 to 40 miles wide. The valley is easily accessible from the east and west by the many passes and gaps that cut through the guardian mountain ranges.

Shenandoah_Valley by William Louis SonntagOnce, the Valley was a vast grassland covered with clover and bluegrass. There were forests and stands of timber along the banks of the rivers and streams. Wild game, such as deer, elk, buffalo, wolves and beaver grazed in the rolling country.

Before the white men arrived, there were a number of native American tribes inhabiting the Valley. The tribes hunted the migrating herds up and down the length of the Valley. They regularly set fire to the grasslands to prevent the growth of choking undergrowth and encourage the growth of fresh grass in the spring. They named the Valley, “The Daughter of the Stars” believing that it was a gift from heaven.

It is believed that Europeans first entered the Shenandoah Valley in 1716. Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood was believed to have led a party of thirty horsemen over the Blue Ridge Mountains through the Swift Run Gap and down to the Shenandoah River where they camped for the night.

The Virginia colonial government found it difficult to persuade settlers to cross the Blue Ridge into the Valley. They resorted to recruiting settlers from neighboring Maryland and Pennsylvania where they found willing colonists. An overwhelming number of these were Germans and Scots-Irish. These people had come to America in search of religious freedom and cheap land. They were to find both in the Shenandoah Valley.

The Germans settled in the northern half of the Valley while the Scots-Irish populated the southern end, calling it the “Irish Tract”. In addition, a Modern Map of the Shenandoah Valleysignificant number of Dutch settlers moved to the Valley. Small groups of English settlers also came across the Blue Ridge.

A word about directions in the Shenandoah Valley. The Shenandoah River runs from south to north, so moving north both on the river or in the Valley is referred to as “going down the Valley”. The northern end of the Valley is always called the Lower Valley, the southern end is the Upper Valley. It does take some getting used to but once it becomes second nature, you’ll find it easier to understand the events that transpired there.

With the settlement of the Valley by increasing numbers of colonists, small towns sprang up. Most started with a courthouse, a church, several residences, perhaps a tavern, some stores and a blacksmith shop. Over time these small towns grew into commercial centers for the surrounding countryside. They became connected by roads that branched out through the Valley.

Winchester was founded in 1743. It was the first city in the Shenandoah Valley. North of Winchester, Charlestown, Martinsburg, Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry sprang up. South of Winchester, the towns of Woodstock, Front Royal, Mount Jackson and Edinburg were established.

In the southern end of the Valley, Lexington, Staunton, Port Republic and Harrisonburg were founded. Staunton, founded in 1761, was considered the most prosperous town in the Shenandoah Valley. Due to its numerous road and rail connections, the town developed into the leading transportation center in the Valley.

Shenandoah Valley Railroad MapThe main north-south road was completed by 1840 and named the Valley Pike. It was a total of 93 miles in length, a formidable engineering feat. The completion of the Pike stimulated further urban growth along its length. The macadamized pike was to play an important role throughout the Civil War and was used by both armies to speed troops in both directions. Today, you can travel on the Valley Pike using US Route 11.

Railroads had a profound impact on the Shenandoah Valley. During the period from 1840 to 1860, the Valley witnessed the construction of a number of rail lines that criss-crossed the landscape.

The first railroad to run through the Valley was the Baltimore & Ohio, at the time the largest railroad operation in the region. The B&O was built across eastern Maryland from Baltimore and it crossed the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry. After passing through Martinsburg, the line swerved back to the Potomac and headed west to Ohio.

Valley leaders quickly built a spur line that ran from Winchester to Harpers Ferry in order to ship goods and agricultural products to eastern markets. Farmers and merchants shipped goods from as far away as southwest Virginia and Tennessee to Winchester for transshipment.

The next line to be built was the Manassas Gap Railroad in the 1850s. The line originated at Manassas Junction, 25 miles southwest of Washington, where it joined the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. It traveled west across the Piedmont and crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at Manassas Gap. It crossed the Shenandoah River at Front Royal and continued to Strasburg. From there the line ran south to Mount Jackson where it terminated.

The third railroad to provide service to the Shenandoah Valley was the Virginia Central Railroad. Serving the towns of the Upper Valley, the Heavy Traffic on the Valley Pikerailroad connected Harrisonburg, Lexington and Staunton with the Gordonsville, Charlottesville and Richmond. The railroad crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at Rockfish Gap. The line passed through Staunton, then curved to the southwest all of the way to Covington, at the base of the Allegheny Mountains.

The excellent transportation both within the Valley and to outside markets, encouraged the growth of agriculture and industry. The profits that they made gave them added incentives to increase their production. With increasing labor came increased financial rewards. In the case of farmers, their yields were among the highest in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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