Civilian Life during the Civil War

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The residents of the Shenandoah Valley witnessed 325 engagements and 14 battles during the Civil War. They faced large armies of both friend and foe. During the war it was heart wrenching to live amongst such scenes. Rampant devastation was brought to all aspects of civilian life.

Before the war the Valley was a land of beauty, diversity, and economic prosperity. A variety of people called the Valley home. The area was settled by Germans, Scots-Irish, Swissers, Mennonites, Quakers, Methodist, and Dunkers, making the Valley a multi-cultural region. The people who called the area home were hard working and ambitious. Economically the Valley was tied to the North, with easy trade access due to arteries such as the Valley Pike, Shenandoah River, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. These avenues drove most of the Valley's commerce to DC, Baltimore and beyond.

Life was disrupted in the peaceful Valley when John Brown attempted a slave insurrection at the armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia on October 16, 1859. This incident drove fear into local residents about other possible successful slave insurrections. Militia units started to spring into life as a way to monitor any possible threat.

When President Abraham Lincoln was elected in November 1860, cooler heads prevailed in the Shenandoah Valley, as the Valley was tied economically to the North and was not a slave dependent society. The nation began to crumble when South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860. The Virginia General Assembly convened in February 1861 to discuss secession. The Assembly stayed in session until April 1861. Virginia ultimately seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861 in the aftermath of the firing on Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops. While the majority in Virginia voted to secede, 12 of the 19 Valley delegates voted to remain within the Union.

The varied beliefs of the Valley residents made the area divided in their loyalties. During the war, approximately ten percent of Winchester residents remained loyal to the Union. There was also a large number of pacifists in the region due to the many religious beliefs. Overall, the area was largely pro-Confederate during the war.

An example of one couples’ disagreements with secession is best said by Caroline Heater of Middletown, "We shall have graveyards at every door. My husband and I had some discussion in regard to the merits of war in the beginning. He was a Virginian and perhaps his sympathies were more for Virginia than for the North but he never voted for the ordinance of secession. I was not a Virginian and opposed to secession."

As companies assembled through the Valley in the spring of 1861, people went on with their daily business, excitement in the air, still innocent to the realities of war. Industrial establishments in the Northern Valley were thriving in 1861. Yet, with trade cut off to the north and west, prices of commodities soon went sky high.

Julia Chase, a pro Unionist living in Winchester wrote in 1861, "Yet in spite of lack of military action, there was an ever increasing impact on the daily lives of Winchester residents. The war consumed everything and the simple everyday task of feeding one's family became troublesome, as food shortages were commonplace and the few supplies that can be found demanded a higher price. Our winter I fear will be a hard one. I hope we shall not have a severe one in regards to weather."

Stonewall Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign marked a great transition for Valley residents. No longer would they experience war from reading newspapers or letters; they would witness war's dreadful hand personally as the campaign transformed the valley region from a home front to a front line. From this point forward, the Valley residents would be caught between the constant struggle between the North and the South.

Mary Stickley commented after the war about her families struggles, "Yankees were here in '62. They broke into our granary and smokehouse in the night, and the doors were all open in the morning when our folks were astir. Besides, they destroyed the bolting cloths in the flouring mill. One army of the other got all of our horses, and we couldn't use our sawmill anymore because we had no teams to draw logs. We couldn't keep anything that was good, and we thought we were having a hard time, but affairs weren't quite so dizzy those days as they were later in the war. We planted our garden every year, but we never knew who'd gather what we raised in it."

The Civil War profoundly disrupted the lives of ordinary men and women in the Shenandoah Valley. Those that stayed during and after the war struggled to keep going. They did what they could to continue running the farms and industries. Although they had to make do despite shortages, in the end they emerged strong from the utter devastation of war.

Last updated: March 25, 2021

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