The Conditions in the Shenandoah Valley, Part One

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series The Shenandoah Campaigns of 1864

The Conditions in the

Shenandoah Valley,

Part One

The war years from 1861 to 1863 were hard on the Shenandoah Valley and its inhabitants. By 1864, there was a food crisis in the Valley. The Confederate government had swept the Valley clean of food-stocks and livestock for their armies. Intermittently, Union forces had done the same thing.

The farmers were either paid in devalued Confederate currency or not paid at all. There were tales of horses and mules being requisitioned while farmers were using them to plow their fields. The Confederacy was literally eating the seed corn of the richest agricultural region in the South.

With the first major battle of the war, the families in the Valley were to learn the true cost of the war in the lives of their young men. The abstract The Shenandoah watershedthoughts of death were turned into the reality when it took on the face of a son, a husband or a brother.

Throughout the Valley, the Unionists had similar feelings plus the despair of defeat. They were scattered throughout the Valley, from north to south. In the Lower Valley, Unionists were more numerous, particularly in the city of Winchester where there were more foreign and northern-born citizens.

Across the Allegheny mountains and in Martinsburg and Berkeley County, there was strong sentiment for western Virginia to secede from the secessionists in eastern Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley was in the middle, a strategic prize that both sides needed, in order to achieve ultimate victory.

In the Lower Valley, a major factor for Unionism was the presence of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The employees, merchants, farmers and businessmen, who benefited from the presence of the railroad, saw their loyalty to the North and the Union tied in with the B & O Railroad. When the Confederates, led by General Thomas Jackson destroyed the railroad, it made their loyalty all the more firmer. They looked at the Confederacy as the instrument that took away their livelihoods.

The atmosphere in the Valley became oppressive for Unionists and many left for safer areas. Violence and intimidation fanned the flames of the oppression of Unionists. People had their farm machinery stolen, stores were looted of their wares and people were arrested by both sides for their beliefs.

By early in 1862, the basic staples of everyday life, coffee, sugar, salt and clothing, were in short supply. Price began to rise dramatically. By The Shenandoah Valley on June 9, 1862August, coffee had risen to $.25 per pound, more than doubling in a month. By early September, salt could not be obtained at any price. The price of something as commonplace as matches had increased almost ten-fold. Smuggling became common with items that were in short supply being brought across the Potomac River and sold for top prices.

The Valley was to be the scene of one of the most brilliant campaigns ever seen. But before it took place, the Confederates were forced to relinquish the city of Winchester to the enemy. The Union troops simply took what they wanted from the residents. Homes were used to quarter troops. Barnyards were used to house the cavalry. Hay and oaks was taken without recompense. To protect their livestock, many farmers chose to drive them over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the safety of the Confederate interior.

Slaves were seized as contraband of war by the Union Army. Those who could do so fled from their masters. Their masters could do nothing to stop them while the Union Army was in the area. By May 1862, the countryside in the Lower Valley was devoid of any slaves. Even the family house slaves had fled to either Winchester or north across the Potomac River.

Thomas J. Jackson, Winchester 1862By June 1862 Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson had carried out his brilliant Valley Campaign. He was able to drive the Union army out of the Valley for a a considerable period of time.

By March 1862, Virginia Governor John Letcher called for the raising of 40,000 men for the state militia. In the Valley the turnout was less than enthusiastic with only militia from Shenandoah and Augusta counties reporting for duty at Mount Jackson by March 21st. Some men refused to reenlist when their one year terms expired. By mid-April, the Confederate Congress had passed a conscription law. It was either join or be drafted. Most young men in the Shenandoah Valley entered the service, either voluntarily or otherwise.

However, conscription deprived the Valley of its most important resource: the farmers who worked the land and provided the food for  the hungry armies. By satisfying the need for soldiers, the Confederate government created a shortage of food.

By the middle of 1862, shortages began to appear in the food markets. Bacon was in extremely short supply and the Confederate Commissary Department was forced to trade precious salt supplies for it. Farmers in the Valley complained about the price they were being offered for flour. It was two and a half times higher in Richmond.

After Antietam in September, Lee rested his army in the Valley for five weeks before dividing it in two. Lee took the 1st Corps east of the Blue Ridge while Jackson and his 2nd Corps remained in the Valley. The good news was that the presence of the Confederates kept the Union Army out of the Lower Valley. The bad news was the Jackson’s men were like the biblical plague of locusts, stripping the land bare of crops, wood, fence posts and all of the animals that they could find.

By that winter the Shenandoah Valley was no longer the lush, productive “Granary of the Confederacy”. Coupled with the lack of rain, the trampled farm fields were no longer productive. One soldier from Mississippi wrote home, “It is really heart rending to look at this county. There is scarcely a cornfield for miles to relieve the waste and dreary monotony.”


Series Navigation<< The Shenandoah Valley: Granary of the ConfederacyThe Conditions in the Shenandoah Valley, Part Two >>

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