The Shenandoah River Valley during the Civil War

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2021-2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2022 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

“Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.” Many of you recognize these words as lyrics from the famous John Denver song, “Country Roads.” Some of you also might recall that on the annual field trip to Antietam and Harpers Ferry in 2018 during my presidential year, one of our guides, Jim Prentice, was quite certain that Mr. Denver wrote this song while sitting on a river bench in Harpers Ferry – the spot where these geographic features come together at the extreme northern end of the Shenandoah River Valley. I bring this up since our vice president, Lily Korte, is planning her field trip to the Shenandoah River Valley to cover Ohioan Union General Philip Sheridan’s 1864 Valley Campaign. After discussion with Lily, I decided to whet our members’ appetites for the September excursion by highlighting the Shenandoah River Valley during the Civil War. This history brief reviews the Valley, itself, and some of its most important features. The various places that are described in this history brief can be located on the map below.

According to none other than Mr. Edwin C. Bearss, former Historian Emeritus of the National Park System, in his book Fields of Honor, Shenandoah is an Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” John Denver was right to call it “almost heaven” as it has long been considered one of the most beautiful places in America, with its majestic mountain ranges, verdant forests, and free-flowing mountain rivers. During the Civil War, it was also one of the South’s most important agricultural areas, producing bountiful harvests of important foodstuffs and animal forage. Indeed, it became known as the “granary of the Confederacy” and was deemed by Richmond to be worth fighting for, although it was in some ways an awkward geographic appendage to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s operational area. On the other hand, if controlled by the South, it provided a potential route to outflank Washington, D.C.

As mentioned, the Valley is capped in the north by Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. The Shenandoah River and its tributaries flow northeastward for about 150 miles from the headlands of the James River. The Blue Ridge Mountains create an eastern border, and the North Mountains form a border on the west. Relatively narrow, the valley is 15 miles wide in the north and 30 miles wide in the south. About 35 miles south of Harpers Ferry, it becomes divided in two by what became during the Civil War an important military feature – Massanutten Mountain, which rises abruptly between Strasburg and Front Royal and stretches southwest until ending just as abruptly at Harrisonburg.

The Shenandoah River Valley

The Valley can be divided into three sections of about equal size from north to south. The northern section runs from Harpers Ferry to Massanutten Mountain. It is also referred to as the “Lower Valley,” since the Shenandoah River flows south to north. This section is dominated by the Shenandoah River, which is formed near Front Royal where the North Fork and South Fork rivers join. Military formations during the Civil War could relatively easily enter this part of the Valley on all sides except the southwest. The Potomac River on the northeast had fords at Falling Waters and Shepherdstown and a railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry. Mr. Bearss also stated that in ancient times, Indians traveling in north or south directions used these same fords as crossing points. On the southeast, the Blue Ridge Mountains are crossed by gaps wide enough for military movement known as Snicker’s, Ashby’s, Manassas, and Thornton’s Gaps. Maneuverable gaps also cross the North Mountains.

Harpers Ferry was situated in a key strategic position where the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal came together. They were major Union supply links between Washington, D.C. and the western states, and they can be considered a strategic military and communications “choke point” for the Union. Further, Harpers Ferry was the end point of a railroad spur to the Valley town of Winchester. However, Harpers Ferry was a poor defensive position, since it was dominated on the east by Loudon Heights and the west by Bolivar Heights. Another key town in the northern section was Front Royal, which controlled vital bridges over the North and South Forks as well as the Manassas Gap Railroad, which ran through that gap to Manassas Junction where it linked with the Virginia rail system. Lastly, the third important town in the northern section was Strasburg on the Manassas Gap Railroad, near a bridge which carried the railroad over the South Fork.

The middle section of the Valley was about 35 miles long between the towns of Front Royal and Harrisonburg and was unique in the fact that it was divided by the previously mentioned Massanutten Mountain. The eastern side was known locally as the Luray Valley. The western side kept the name Shenandoah Valley. The key town in the middle section was New Market as it had the only pass through Massanutten Mountain. Control of New Market therefore gave a military force strategic options for maneuver up or down the west or east sides of Massanutten Mountain. Further, control of the three towns of Strasburg, Front Royal, and Harrisonburg, in total, gave a commander control of the middle section and hence strategic options to move into the northern or southern sections.

Massanutten Mountain

The southern section was also known as the “Upper Valley,” since the waters flow northward, and this section is generally at a higher elevation than the northern section or “Lower Valley.” The southern section stretched about 60 miles from the southwest tip of Massanutten Mountain to the James River headwaters. This portion was the most agriculturally fertile part of the Valley and accordingly contained some larger towns. They were Staunton, which was located on the Virginia Central Railroad, Harrisonburg on the Valley Turnpike, and Port Republic, whose bridges controlled east and west movements over the North and South Rivers, the confluence of which forms the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

Lastly, the Valley Turnpike, which ran 80 miles from Martinsburg to Staunton, was at the time of the Civil War a marvel of construction in part because it was built to be as “straight” as possible. It was therefore more militarily efficient than most roads, and it was reliably and geometrically the shortest distance possible between two points. Moreover, it was paved in the modern way of the time known as “macadamized” – in this case layers of gravel on a cement bed with limestone curbs. The Valley Turnpike hence was also militarily significant, because it provided pavement for rapid marching and was especially valuable during rainy periods when other roads turned to mud.

The Valley Turnpike

In the months ahead we will highlight Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson’s brilliant 1862 Valley Campaign and find out just how much of an edge was given to this quirky commander by his serendipitous professorial tenure in the Valley at the Virginia Military Institute. Was Jackson’s brilliant success because of his outstanding generalship, poor Union generalship, better familiarity with the terrain, better intelligence, good maps, infantry as quick as cavalry, or all of the above? We shall explore the reasons why in this precursor campaign to Phil Sheridan’s 1864 campaign, which is the subject of Lily’s September 2022 field trip for our Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Related link:
Civil War Roads

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