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1. ``The Crossroads of Our Being...''

Into little more than four years, from April 1861 to June 1865, were compressed the passions, the violence, the hopes, and the agonies of generations. More than 600,000 American soldiers of North and South died of battle or disease. Nearly 300,000 others were scarred by shot and shell but lived to return home at war's end, to begin their lives anew in a country now indissolubly united. The American Civil War, in the words of historian Shelby Foote, ``was the crossroads of our being.'' Former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Penn Warren once wrote:

The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense. There was, of course, the noble vision of the Founding Fathers articulated in the Declaration and the Constitution--the dream of freedom incarnated in a more perfect Union. But the Revolution did not create a nation except on paper; and too often in the following years the vision of the Founding Fathers, which men had suffered and died to validate, became merely a daydream of easy and automatic victories, a vulgar delusion of manifest destiny, a conviction of a people divinely chosen to live on milk and honey at small expense. The vision had not been finally submitted to the test of history. There was little awareness of the cost of having a history. The anguished scrutiny of the meaning of the vision in experience had not become a national reality. It became a reality, and we became a nation, only with the Civil War. The Civil War is our only ``felt'' history--history lived in the national imagination. This is not to say that the War is always, and by all men, felt in the same way. Quite the contrary. But this fact is an index to the very complexity, depth, and fundamental significance of the event. It is an overwhelming and vital image of human and national experience.

Fully one-third of the recorded events of armed conflict of the Civil War occurred in Virginia, where the proximity of Washington, D.C., and Richmond--capitals of the opposed camps--spurred campaign after campaign. The passing of the armies in Virginia left an indelible impression upon the American cultural landscape, endowing posterity with the resonance of such names as Manassas and Bull Run, Malvern Hill, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg--and others less well rehearsed--Seven Pines, Gaines' Mill, Cedar Run, Chantilly, North Anna, and Yellow Tavern.

Few places associated with the Civil War in Virginia evoke more recognition or response among students of the time than the Shenandoah Valley, where a Southern VMI professor-turned-general named Thomas J. Jackson defeated three Northern armies in a single month. The battles of Jackson's Valley Campaign of 1862 are known to students of the war, not only in the United States, but across the world. General Norman Schwarzkopf recently credited Jackson's campaign in a televised interview as one of the guiding lights behind his strategy in the Middle East. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the ``Desert Fox,'' is said to have been well versed in Stonewall's maxims, and an apocryphal story has Rommel visiting the Valley and following in Jackson's footsteps. To this day, the U.S. Army regularly conducts ``staff rides'' in the Valley for its officers, following the course of Jackson's famed ``Foot Cavalry.''

Less romantic, less well known than the 1862 campaign, but no less significant, were the events of the war's later years as the North tried to exorcise the ghost of Jackson and gain control of the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia's most important agricultural region. The war acquired a dark and desperate edge. In October 1864, Union general Philip Sheridan introduced total warfare to the Valley, a concept that Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman introduced in Mississippi and would bring to Georgia in November and December, during his ``March to the Sea.'' In Sheridan's words: ``I have destroyed over 2,000 barns, filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements; over 70 mills, filled with flour and wheat.... When this is completed, the Valley from Winchester up to Staunton, ninety-two miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.'' This bitter month became known to Valley residents as ``The Burning.''

Few regions in the United States have experienced the horrors of systematic destruction, and the memories are still close to the surface for many long-time Valley residents. Family histories are filled with stories that relate to the hardships of that time. It took a generation to repair the ravages of ``The Burning'' and another generation before life in the Valley returned to its pre-war condition. There can be found there today a fierce pride in ancestors who survived the war and who struggled to rebuild all that was lost.

Official chronologies record 326 incidents of armed conflict in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War: 6 battles, 21 engagements, 21 actions, and 278 skirmishes, on the average one conflict every 4-5 days (see Figure 7). This reckoning does not include many of the raids, ambushes, and partisan affairs that made warfare in the Valley a daily dance with death. More than half of the recorded armed conflicts occurred in the final year of the war. Map 6 shows how these events plot out in terms of frequency with the reddest areas showing most frequent fighting and the bluest areas showing least frequent fighting.

The total numbers of killed and wounded in these conflicts has never been tallied, nor do the records exist to allow it. Thousands more died in hospitals of disease than in battle. The Confederate and National cemeteries at Winchester alone account for nearly 7,500 dead, and it is difficult to locate a city or private cemetery in the Valley that does not comment silently on the commitment and valor of the Valley's soldiers.

The history of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley bears witness to the devastation and waste of warfare, but more importantly, it underscores the irrepressible human will to survive, to rebuild, to carry on. Lessons which will continue to have relevance for generations to come. The historic events and the human players of the Valley--the heroic and the tragic alike--have contributed significantly to the texture of our American cultural heritage.


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Creation Date: 3/10/95

Last Update 7/17/95 by VLC