Return to contents page


8. Threats to Battlefield Resources

In many parts of the Valley, the 19th century lies close to the surface with merely a veneer of changes. The land is farmed, as it was a hundred years ago. Old houses, mills, and churches survive, or their foundations may be located. The new road network is congruent with the old. Paved county roads follow the winding courses of old farm roads. Small villages have grown into larger towns, yet preserve their core as a historic district. Most importantly, the scenic beauty of the Blue Ridge, North Mountain, and the Shenandoah River continues to enhance the quality of life of Valley residents and to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. When one knows where to look, the Civil War history of the Shenandoah Valley is everywhere. This study shows that the integrity of the Valley's historic resources is generally high, but several significant battlefields have suffered severe degradation, and most are threatened in the near future. The causes of degradation are rooted in population growth and economic expansion. These trends were used to establish risk categories for the battlefields as described in Part Four.

Population Trends The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia has changed since the Civil War, but until recent decades, the rate of change has been relatively slow. Until well into the 1950s, agriculture remained the primary economic activity in the Valley, and although farming technology improved, residents continued to use the land much as their predecessors did--to grow crops and raise livestock. At the time of the Civil War, the Valley was already fairly densely inhabited, much of the land that could be farmed was being farmed, and the transportation network was firmly in place. The Valley's towns ranged in size from a few hundred inhabitants to a few thousand, with Winchester and Staunton being the largest towns in the region.

When examining the pattern of change in the Shenandoah Valley region as a whole, it is important to note three distinct battlefield clusters, comprising eleven of the fifteen battlefields studied: five in the vicinity of Winchester (three Winchesters, two Kernstowns); four near Strasburg at the head of Massanutten Mountain (Cedar Creek, Fisher's Hill, Tom's Brook, and Front Royal); and three south of Harrisonburg at the base of the Massanutten (Cross Keys, Port Republic, and Piedmont). In addition, ten of the fifteen battles were fought on or within a few miles of the Valley Turnpike, modern US rte 11 (Winchesters, Kernstowns, Cedar Creek, Fisher's Hill, Tom's Brook, New Market, Piedmont), underscoring the importance of this thoroughfare for the movement of troops. The same transportation routes and limiting geographic features that contributed to the meeting of Civil War armies in these strategic areas continue to influence population growth and density, and land use decisions in the twentieth century.

The Shenandoah Valley's population increased threefold from 107,660 in 1860 to 347,750 in 1990 (see Figure 3). Population growth in the Valley has not been uniform, but centered in and around the major cities. The population of Highland County, for example, has declined since the Civil War. In general, the population of the Lower (northern) Valley has increased more rapidly than that of the Upper (southern) Valley, growth that was partly linked to the explosive development of the Washington Metropolitan area in the 1980s. Winchester continued as the dominant city of the Lower Valley. The population density of surrounding Frederick County increased from 69 persons per square mile in 1970 to 110 in 1990 (See Figure 4), spurring much new residential and commercial construction. The Front Royal area witnessed similar growth.

In the 1970s Harrisonburg emerged as the economic center of the Upper Valley. After decades of low growth, Harrisonburg's population nearly doubled between 1960 and 1990, making it the largest city of the region with a population of nearly 31,000. So far, this growth has had minimal impact on the nearby battlefields of Cross Keys, Port Republic, and Piedmont.

Current projections suggest that the population of Virginia will grow to 7,800,000 by the year 2020, an increase of more than 1,620,000 or 26 percent in the next 30 years. The population of the Valley will grow at a slower rate. Current projections suggest that the population will grow from 347,750 to 410,900 in 2020, an increase of 18 percent. Much of this growth will continue to be associated with the cities of Winchester, Front Royal, and Harrisonburg. Population densities for Frederick and Warren counties, in particular, will increase from 110 and 122 to 136 and 143 persons per square mile, respectively. Growth elsewhere in the Valley will be more uneven but undoubtedly will be concentrated along the interstate highways, as it is today.

While portions of the Valley's battlefields have been steadily eroded over the years by residential, industrial, and commercial activities, the most destructive event in the history of these battlefields was the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1960s. I-81, which runs the length of the Valley parallel to the old Valley Turnpike (US 11), intersects the study areas of First and Second Winchester, Opequon, Second Kernstown, Cedar Creek, Fisher's Hill, Tom's Brook, and New Market, and borders on the study area of First Kernstown. I-66 intersects the study areas of Front Royal and Cedar Creek. Ten of the fifteen battlefields selected for this study were degraded by interstate highway construction, several severely, e.g., the three Winchester battlefields and New Market. Only those battlefields that are not crossed by interstate highways received the highest condition ratings both on the field survey evaluation forms and in the GIS analysis. Residential and commercial development adjacent to interstate interchanges has multiplied the loss of integrity caused by highway construction. In the absence of a concerted effort to set aside battlefield lands along these highways, future growth and development will continue to damage these resources. Projects to widen the interstates or to add interchanges would have considerable impact on battlefield resources.

Loss of Agricultural Land Archivist Dallas Irvine observed that ``the Civil War was a rural social war.'' It is true that warfare in the Shenandoah Valley was largely a rural affair, acted out upon the mid-19th century agrarian landscape. In Valley history, the full range of agricultural possibilities were represented, from large-scale plantation farming, which was prevalent in the Lower Valley, to small-scale homestead farming more common to the central region. The importance of agriculture to the history and economy of the Shenandoah Valley, and the fertility of its soils, deserve special consideration when determining the direction of long-term growth and development.

From the time of the Civil War to the present, preservation of the region's historic battlefields has depended largely upon the survival of the rural landscape and the continued strength of agriculture. According to the 1987 Federal Agricultural Census, the Shenandoah Valley (9.9 percent of Virginia's land area and less than 6 percent of its population) accounted for 17 percent of the State's agricultural land and 31 percent of the market value of agricultural products sold. Agriculture remains the principal economic activity for several counties, in particular, Shenandoah, Rockingham, and Augusta. Although modern farming techniques have thoroughly supplanted the old, the landscape in many areas retains the distinctive open pattern of croplands, pastures, and woodlots, that would not have been unfamiliar to a Civil War soldier. So long as this agricultural landscape survives, the battlefields can be considered ``preserved,'' if not protected.

But there are clear indications that the rural landscape of the Valley is in decline, and in some places it has already disappeared. Between 1964 and 1987, the total acreage in farms in the region decreased from 1,302,946 to 1,060,056 acres, a decline of nearly 243,000 acres. This is comparable to removing all of the current agricultural land of Rockingham County from production. The amount of agricultural land dropped in all counties (see Figure 5), but these declines were most destructive (in terms of preserving open land) when coupled with higher rates of urban growth and increased population densities, e.g., Warren County (41% loss) and Frederick County (27% loss). In these counties, most of the lost agricultural lands were replaced by residential, commercial, or industrial developments.

Battlefield preservation is strongly linked to farmland preservation. While the effects of a loss of farmland on specific battlefields must be assessed site-by-site, it seems clear that the public cannot expect agricultural land uses to continue to preserve open land that conveniently coincides with the Valley's Civil War battlefields.

In many cases, agricultural use of battlefield land is synonymous with preserving the battlefields, since much of the land was farmed during the Civil War. Exceptions may be found in large scale agribusiness enterprises that erect massive sheds or factories. Still, if care were taken in situating new construction of this type within a battlefield landscape, the problem of overwhelming the viewshed could be minimized or avoided. Buildings could be placed below a ridge line or screened by trees. Establishing an agricultural preservation district also appears to be a viable approach to battlefield preservation. The Shenandoah Valley contains some of the richest farmland in the United States, land that should not be changed to commercial and residential uses without fully considering the farmer's role in the Valley's past and the nation's future.

The loss of battlefield resources is directly linked to population and land use trends. In many cases, county planners have lacked the documentation that might enable the preservation of significant parcels through zoning decisions that weigh historic and cultural resources with the need for new residential, commercial, and industrial construction. The 1990 Frederick County Comprehensive Plan was recently revised to include a new section that recognizes the importance of the county's Civil War sites. The revision notes that battlefields represent an important category of historic resources and that the dedication of open space to create battlefield parks would enhance public appreciation of these resources and promote educational and tourism goals. The plan adopted methods that allow property owners the option to participate in zoning or other regulatory decisions that would affect their historic properties.


Return to contents page

Creation Date: 3/13/95

Last Update 7/17/95 by VLC