The valley in which we rode was once a fiery battleground.
The rolling fields, like grassy ocean swells, which give way to imposing mountains on both the left and the right were just as scenic and stoic as in the mid-1800s. Men fought and killed each other on that very same ground over slavery and the preservation of the union.
It was upsetting to think such a beautiful landscape was formerly demeaned by the horrors of war. I couldn’t fathom what residents thought in the midst of it; the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Appalachian Plateau to the west illuminated with cannon and mortar fire, droves of ragged military men charging and hollering and killing, patches of farmland saturated with blood.
It sounds sensationalized but indeed the Shenandoah Valley was the crux of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. At the mouth of the valley to the north, the town of Winchester, Virginia is said to have changed hands more than 70 times throughout the conflict.
Aside from the complete lack of 19th century militarization, though with the presence of modern technologies like telephone lines, paved roads, and automobiles, much of what could be seen from our roving vantage struck me with the feeling that most of it remains exactly the same as it was for generations past.
Shenandoah is the regional name for a much larger valley — aptly called the Great Valley or Great Appalachian Valley — which is as expansive as the mountains among which it’s nestled, extending its reach from Alabama to Quebec.
We entered via I-81 heading southbound, by way of Pennsylvania Amish country, Western Maryland, and West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle.
The Pennsylvania portion of the highway, much like the Shenandoah ahead, appeared as if untouched by the passing of time, though stuck perhaps in a rustier era. From Allentown to Harrisburg down through Chambersburg near the state border, farmland along the side of the road was interrupted by regular intervals of empty stockyards, corroded silos, and sizable lots full of semi-trailer trucks for sale.
The experience was a novelty for someone all too accustomed the modernity and perpetual redevelopment of New England cities. There was an eeriness to the land, as if decades ago a mass evacuation was staged and only a handful of stubborn, homegrown families opted to remain.
People still tend to these lands and these buildings. Every so many miles, we passed large corporate depots that are likely to employ much of the surrounding community members who cannot make their living by farming alone.
As we continued south, the wide Pennsylvania basin funneled us into the narrower Shenandoah. Roadside signs spring up for Civil War battlefields and monuments, as well as natural caves, gorges, and hillside respites.
The modern Shenandoah still commands a rustic, antebellum charm. The fertile land is populated with farming equipment scattered throughout, belonging to rural homes that are few and far between from north to south. It’s easy to see why so much of the Civil War hinged on controlling the Shenandoah. It boasts lush and verdant agriculture, is naturally fortified, is central to a network of tributaries and watersheds, and doubles as a north-south highway — all of which is still true today.
In that sense, the scenery moonlights as a time machine. Squinting off in the distance, we could almost make out the amorphous shape of belligerents marching into combat.
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In the spring of 1862, Confederate hero and soon-to-be-legend General “Stonewall” Jackson made a nuanced play for the valley.
He engaged a southbound Union force under the command of General Nathaniel P. Banks in Kernstown outside of Winchester, almost 75 miles west of Washington D.C. Although Jackson technically lost this battle, his troops largely outnumbered, it proved a strategic swing in the south’s favor.
Jackson was some 40-plus miles south of Kernstown, Virginia when he received intelligence that a sizable chunk of Banks’s army was being sent to reinforce infamous Union commander General George B. McClellan’s as he undertook his doomed Peninsula Campaign against the Confederate stronghold of Richmond.
As such, Jackson was ordered on the offensive and moved against Banks at Kernstown. Jackson’s army was eventually overwhelmed and retreated but not without a subsequent consolation that proved significant. His dash and daring caught the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, who sent Banks’s partitioned forces back to the valley to defend the not-so-distant capital and reinforce armies throughout western Virginia.
As three Union commands descended down the valley Jackson was able to pivot backwards from one to the other, essentially conducting a series of southward zig-zagging maneuvers. This kept the Union from consolidating its forces, and Jackson able to maintain the element of surprise.
Ultimately Banks would retreat from the valley having pursued Jackson down through most of it and, as such, controlled it. But Jackson pushed Banks out, stealing the valley for the time being and garnering something much more strategic and valuable than an enemy retreat: the reputation of a creative, perceptive, and triumphant pragmatist.
In 1863, Robert E. Lee used the Shenandoah to divert attention away from his Army of Northern Virginia as it undertook an invasion of the north which culminated with the grisly Battle of Gettysburg.
Inn 1864, Union General Philip Sheridan levied against the valley the same scorched earth tactic that enabled William Tecumseh Sherman to bend the south to his will and “make Georgia howl.”
According to the National Park Service ”Sheridan’s overwhelmingly successful campaign… crushed further Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley… For the Confederacy, the campaign was a humiliating disaster, and one of a string of setbacks that fall and winter which ultimately lead to final defeat less than six months later.”
I blinked and saw plumes of black smoke rising from military columns discharging rifles, as well as from homes and crops incinerating the surrounding terrain as far north and south as I could view from a moving car, and as far east and west as the imposing valley walls would allow.
I blinked again and saw but green sparsely populated with farmhouses and barns all looking crisp and fresh in the early spring sunshine.
We continued driving south, past such attractions as the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, the Virginia Safari Park, and the James River. We crossed the river and careened through a rugged mountain gap until we had officially passed through the Shenandoah.
It’s no surprise that this precious, natural wonder was what so many natives, settlers, militants, and pioneers depended upon for survival. It was and still is a terrestrial breadbasket.
In conducting further research, I realized that the area is much more accommodating than solely for those who live in and pass through the valley. The encompassing ridges attract trailblazers year round for hiking and camping in the temperate months, and winter athletes in the frigid ones. The abundant hillsides and slopes are like a miniature Napa, home to a blossoming winery and viticulture scene. The small towns are rustic and picturesque, the people warm and welcoming, both mirroring the best attributes of the surrounding valley.
Indeed spanning south-central Pennsylvania and northwest North Carolina is a swath of paradise, fortified by peaks hundreds of millions of years old.
The spirit of the Shenandoah’s grave years still shrouds the land but it’s overwhelmingly suffused with elegant beauty. Time has since proceeded on, but somehow also remained paused. As we drove through it was the present, but it was also the past and the future.