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3. Overview of Military Strategy in the Shenandoah Valley

Throughout the Civil War, Confederate armies used the Shenandoah Valley as a natural corridor to invade or threaten invasion of the North. Because of its southwest-northeast orientation, Confederate armies marching down the Valley approached Washington and Baltimore, while Union armies marching up the Valley moved farther away from Richmond. The Blue Ridge served as a natural screen for the movement of troops. By defending the gaps with cavalry, Confederate armies could move swiftly north behind the protective wall of the Blue Ridge into Maryland and Pennsylvania; Gen. Robert E. Lee did this in the Gettysburg Campaign in 1863, as did Jubal Early in 1864. The Blue Ridge offered similar protection to Lee's army during its retreats from Antietam and Gettysburg.

When the need arose, Confederate defenders could hold the gaps in reverse against a Union army operating in the Valley. By withdrawing to the Blue Ridge near Brown's Gap to protect Charlottesville and eastern Virginia, the Confederates could threaten the flank and rear of any Union forces intent on penetrating the Upper Valley. The western gaps in the Allegheny chain were defended by Confederates against sporadic Union feints and incursions from West Virginia.

On the whole, Confederate armies succeeded in preventing deep Union penetration of the Upper Valley until late in the war, and Valley geography cooperated with the defense. Where the Massanutten Mountain rises abruptly between Front Royal and Strasburg, the width of the Valley is greatly decreased. With strong infantry at Fisher's Hill in the main valley south of Strasburg and cavalry at Overall (antebellum Milford) in the Luray Valley, a Confederate general could effectively hold the Upper Valley against a numerically superior enemy. Fisher's Hill astride the Valley Turnpike was an important strategic ``choke point'' throughout the war.

If Confederate generals chose to withdraw up the Valley Turnpike from Fisher's Hill, any pursuing Union general was forced to split his forces at the Massanutten in order to cover an advance up both the main and the Luray valleys. Once divided, he could not again reunite his forces for more than fifty miles because of the intervening mountain. Only a single rough road crossed the Massanutten--running from New Market to Luray through the New Market Gap.

Thomas J. ``Stonewall'' Jackson used Massanutten Mountain to screen his offensive movements in the 1862 Valley Campaign. Crossing from New Market to the Luray Valley in May, he advanced on Front Royal and then on Winchester, forcing the Union army, then at Strasburg, into abrupt withdrawal. Later in the campaign, he prevented two Union columns advancing against him up the main and Luray valleys from reuniting and defeated each separately in the climax of his campaign at the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic.

The Shenandoah Valley was referred to as the ``Granary of Virginia.'' It was the richest agricultural region in Virginia, and its abundance supplied the Confederate cause. Because a large number of the inhabitants of Frederick, Shenandoah, Rockingham, and Augusta counties were pacifist Quakers or Dunkers who refused to fight in the war, the Valley continued to produce horses, grains, and livestock even after other portions of Virginia were made barren by the flight of slaves or the enlistment and conscription of the farmers. As the war continued, the City of Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia, pinned down in the trenches at Richmond and Petersburg, came to depend more heavily on produce shipped from the Valley on the Virginia Central Railroad. Capturing the supply depot of Staunton and severing this railroad became a major objective of the Union armies in 1864.

As the war progressed, Lynchburg, too, became an important objective of Union campaigns in the Valley. In 1864, several expeditions--up the Valley from Winchester, and north from Bulls Gap, Tennessee--were devised to capture Lynchburg, but the city remained in Confederate hands until the end of the war.

For the Union, defending the vulnerable B&O Railroad and the line of the Potomac River were essential considerations for any operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Because of implicit threats against Washington, a small Confederate army in the Valley could pin down three to five times its number in Union defenders, threaten vital Union transportation and communication lines, and carry the war to the North, if opportunity presented itself.

As the war dragged on, the Shenandoah Valley increased in importance to the Southern cause, and correspondingly it became more urgent that the Northern armies succeed there after dramatic failures in 1862, 1863, and May 1864. Ultimately, the Northern army was forced to lay waste to the agricultural abundance of the Valley in order to destroy support for the Southern war effort.


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Creation Date: 3/10/95

Last Update 7/17/95 by VLC