Travel down I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, and you’ll find this corridor jam-packed with attractions: numerous caverns, a museum featuring reconstructed European houses intended to demonstrate their influence on American architecture, Cyrus McCormick’s farm, a warehouse filled with gaudy floats from inauguration parades, and much more. You’ll also pass through rolling hills and farmlands—the valley remains a place of agrarian beauty—and towns like Staunton, Luray, Bridgewater, and Lexington that boast historic Main Streets and lovely old homes.
In 1860, these towns were much smaller, and most of the valley’s rich land was given over to farming. An abundance of crops helped support these farmers, fed their hogs and cattle, and provided them with whiskey and beer. They were Scots-Irish, English, and German for the most part—thrifty, hardworking folks who built churches and schools along with colleges like Lexington’s Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee University after Robert E. Lee served as college president, and the Virginia Military Institute. It was a place of peace and prosperity.
And then war came to the valley.
Fire and Sword
Throughout the Civil War, armies from the North and South marched up and down the Shenandoah Valley. Winchester, originally settled by Pennsylvania Quakers before the American Revolution, was a place of particularly intense fighting because of its strategic location as the northern gateway to the valley. The town changed hands more than 70 times during the war, causing a British observer to dub it “the shuttlecock of the Confederacy.” Winchester saw three major battles conducted within the town limits and four others nearby. By the end of the war, Winchester was for the most part destroyed.
As the war intensified, Union forces attempted to burn and ravage this breadbasket of the South. Northern generals recognized that by laying waste to the crops and livestock of these farms, they might severely cripple Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. In the last year of the war, with the Confederate forces weakened by attrition, the soldiers in blue finally completed their mission to destroy the wheat fields and corn cribs that had fed their enemies.
On a hot afternoon in early July, my daughter, her husband and children, and I left the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, where we were pleased to find a Norman Rockwell exhibition, and traveled to an older part of Winchester to the house that once served as Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters. The docent greeted us, ushered us inside, and down we dropped into the rabbit hole of history.
In November 1861, Thomas Jackson, nicknamed “Stonewall” after the Battle of Manassas that summer, arrived in Winchester to defend the Shenandoah Valley from Northern forces and to raise troops for the South. He rented rooms in a local hotel, but after the clerk alerted the town to his presence and a crowd of well-wishers gathered outside the hotel, Jackson sought quieter quarters. Col. Lewis Moore, a friend of Jackson’s who had his knee shattered by a musket ball at Manassas, invited Jackson to use his home as his headquarters while he traveled south to receive better medical attention.
Inside this home, visitors will find the largest collection of Jackson memorabilia in existence, including the traveling desk that served as his headquarters table, various books, his prayer table and treasured prayer book, and many other articles from his life. Here, too, we learn that Jackson enjoyed playing with a neighbor’s children, often getting down on his hands and knees to give them pony rides, a scene shocking to those who picture this general as stern and puritanical. We also discover that the general read Scripture even while riding his horse from post to post, discussing various passages with those accompanying him.
And it was here that Jackson would prepare himself and his troops for the Valley Campaign in the summer of 1862, when, outnumbered and outgunned, his men marched 350 miles in 30 days and defeated three Northern commanders and their troops in five pitched battles. Even today, professional soldiers and students of military history study this remarkable campaign.
The Field of Lost Shoes
On another day that week, we drove 50 miles south down I-81 to the town of New Market. Visible from the expressway are the placid fields where once cannons roared, muskets cracked, and men from the North and the South fell screaming with pain into the mud. Today, visitors can tour the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, operated by the Virginia Military Institute, and take a self-guided walking tour of the battlefield itself.
It was here, on May 15, 1864, that Southern forces under the command of John C. Breckinridge clashed with the forces of Union General Franz Sigel. Though the Confederates won the battle, their victory only briefly protected the Valley from Northern aggression.
We remember this battle today not because of its outcome but because 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, summoned by Breckinridge, left their classrooms and marched over 80 miles north from Lexington to take part in the fight. Breckinridge had vowed not to commit these boys—some were only 15 years old—to battle, but soon realized he needed them. Eventually, they charged and helped drive their opponents north up the valley.
It had rained that day, and during that charge, many of the cadets lost their shoes in the muck of the newly plowed fields they crossed, giving the name “Field of Lost Shoes” to that part of the battleground.
The cadets who survived this battle soon joined Lee’s army. Two months later, Gen. David Hunter and his bluecoats looted and burned the institute in Lexington.
This was the first and only time in American history when an entire student body fought a battle as a unit under one banner.
When stripping away the wallpaper in the Moore house (Jackson’s headquarters) during renovations, a teenager unintentionally tore off the original covering, which Jackson had described in a letter to his wife: “The walls are covered with elegant gilt paper. I don’t remember to have seen more beautiful papering. …” Only a fragment, hanging behind a painting, was preserved.
During this renovation, a woman visiting from California asked if she might take that surviving piece of wallpaper home with her. Those restoring the house agreed, and she left. For months, no one heard a word from her. Then one day there arrived enough duplicated papering to cover the entire room. And Jackson was right; it is the most beautiful of papers, shimmering and changing color when the viewer moves about the room.
That woman’s name? It was Mary Tyler Moore, television star and a descendent of the Moore family who had owned the house. She saluted the past out of love and respect.
And on May 15 every year, the Virginia Military Institute honors the 10 cadets who died on the field of battle or of their wounds at New Market. The Corps of Cadets parades, and then the names of the fallen are called out. With each name, a cadet gives the now traditional reply: “Died on the field of honor.”
“The past is not dead,” William Faulkner once wrote. “It’s not even past.”
In the fields and hills of the Shenandoah Valley, the past still lives.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.