There is plenty to see amid the pastoral farms and hills of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which, even today, looks as though it could be 1864 all over again.
Stretching 150 miles from Winchester to Roanoke and sandwiched between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, the valley was host to 15 Civil War battles between 1862 and 1864, as Union troops fought to prevent the Confederates from using the area to strategic advantage. The October 1864 battle of Cedar Creek, 12 miles south of Winchester, resulted in a badly needed Union victory. The North was weary of war, and President Abraham Lincoln was resisting growing political and public sentiment to seek peace and recognize the Confederacy.
My wife and I have visited Cedar Creek, following the paths of our Civil War ancestors, Alexander Watson, a Union soldier who served in the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, and Carter Braxton, commander of the Confederate Fredericksburg Artillery. We knew that both Watson (her ancestor) and Braxton (mine) had fought at Cedar Creek, and we were eager to learn what roles their units had played in this final act for control of the Valley.
The Shenandoah Valley was the ideal route north for the Rebel Army, whose persistent presence forced Lincoln to keep troops there to protect Washington to the east. In 1862, Southern troops under Gen. Stonewall Jackson had moved freely through the friendly valley terrain, foraging off the land as they moved north; and Gen. Robert E. Lee's advances and retreats during the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns were protected by the valley. In July 1864, Lincoln and Union Gen. Ulysses Grant tired, finally, of Confederate operations in the Shenandoah, then commanded by Gen. Jubal Early. They sent Gen. Philip Sheridan to the valley with orders to drive Early south for good -- a mission that Sheridan carried out successfully, if barely, at Cedar Creek that October.
It's a battle whose significance is sometimes underestimated. By 1864, fighting in the Shenandoah Valley had become more intense. The Confederates had lost Jackson at Chancellorsville the year before and, with the Union Army finally threatening Richmond, were seeing the beginning of their end; Sheridan's victory at Cedar Creek would hasten the Southern surrender at Appomattox Court House the next spring. This battle inspired the legendary poem "Sheridan's Ride," by Thomas Read, in which Sheridan rallied his men in the face of Early's audacious pre-dawn surprise attack on the morning of Oct. 19, 1864.
A good place to start exploring the battle of Cedar Creek is at Hupp's Battlefield Park and Study Center on Route 11 (the old Valley Pike), two miles below Middletown. Despite its name, Hupp's is privately owned and operated, and it's the first stop on a splendid self-guided auto tour that includes a dozen stops in the area (three or four hours at a leisurely pace). The center features a gift shop with books, a museum with authentic clothing and weapons, hands-on exhibits for children, a large topographic map and a lively 45-minute Cedar Creek re-enactment video (also for sale). Visitors can still see the defensive trenches on the hill dug by Sheridan's troops during the campaign.
My wife and I arrived at Hupp's one sunny morning during an enlistment and training re-enactment in which about 50 eager men, sporting period clothing, facial hair and muskets, were joining the Confederate Army of the Valley. We spied on their induction ceremony and, as their breakfast campfires smoldered front of their white canvas tents, watched the new recruits learn to shoulder arms and march in formation.
Also on Route 11, closer to Middletown, is the nonprofit Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, now consisting of a small information center with a bookstore and exhibit space.
The foundation owns 158 acres of the original battlefield, a small fraction of the 20,000 that comprise the Cedar Creek and nearby Fisher's Hill sites, an area larger than Gettysburg. (Most of the Cedar Creek battlefield remains in the hands of private individuals.)
Both the Battlefield Foundation and Hupp's are excellent places to learn about these battles and, indeed, any aspect of the Valley Campaign. For us, detailed battle maps revealed the location of the formidable Union 6th Corps that included Watson's unit during the Cedar Creek engagement. Intense Rebel artillery forced the 6th Corps off the banks of Cedar Creek and north toward Middletown. Just hours later, however, Watson's regiment helped turn the tide and drove the Rebels back, in heavy fighting in close quarters, during which -- we concluded -- Braxton could have been raining cannon fire upon Watson.
Belle Grove Plantation, another stop on the tour, sits a mile north of Hupp's Hill, a half-mile west of U.S. 11, and was an integral part of the Cedar Creek conflict. Now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the mansion was built in 1794 by Maj. Isaac Hite. One of the few buildings to survive Sheridan's destruction of the northern valley, Belle Grove served as his headquarters before and after Cedar Creek. Its Federal-period design was influenced by Thomas Jefferson, and its rural setting makes it easy for visitors to visualize the hundreds of Union tents and campfires that, during the battle, filled the yard and adjacent fields where cows now graze. One of its front columns sports a bullet hole from the battle. Belle Grove also offers the chance to see a beautifully preserved 18th-century plantation house, complete with gardens, ice and smoke houses, blacksmith shop and winter kitchen.
The battlefield itself remains relatively unscathed by 20th-century blight, although industries are gradually appearing on the east side of U.S. 11 (the foundation gradually is paying for the 158 acres it currently owns). This unspoiled site helps one imagine the resilient Rebels slipping off the north end of Massanutten Mountain in the pre-dawn darkness to rout the sleeping Federals on the banks of Cedar Creek, and Sheridan rallying his men in the afternoon to clinch the battle.
A Yankee victory two months earlier, in September 1864, occurred at Fisher's Hill, five miles south of Cedar Creek and two miles west of Strasburg. Fisher's Hill lies on Route 601 (Ramswure Road) in the narrowest part of the valley and, although it is crossed by Interstate 81, is in surprisingly pristine condition. It offers a self-guided, mile-long walking tour, complete with markers and brochure showing points of interest. Locals swear that the peculiar shape of the massive oak atop Fisher's Hill results from a Confederate crow's nest.
The Shenandoah Valley is home to a number of non-Civil War attractions, too. These include Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive (which connect directly to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Waynesboro), the Natural Bridge, and the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum, in Staunton.
Winchester, at the northern tip of the valley, changed hands more than 70 times during the Civil War and was the site of three major battles during the Shenandoah campaign.
It also features two noteworthy headquarters: Washington's during the Revolutionary War and Stone
wall Jackson's during the Civil War.
IF YOU GO . . .
Getting there: from Baltimore, Interstate 70 west to U.S. 340-- south, through Harpers Ferry and Charles Town, to Route 7 into Winchester. From Winchester, south on U.S. 11 (the Valley Pike, route traveled by the armies) or I-81 to Middletown, and Strasburg. Fisher's Hill is two miles west of Strasburg.
Places to visit: Hupp's Battlefield Park and Study Center, U.S. 11, admission $3.50, (703) 465-5884; Belle Grove Plantation, U.S. 11, admission $3.50, (703) 869-2028; Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, no admission, (703) 869-2064. Other nearby Civil War battlefields: New Market, Kernstown, Cross Keys, Tom's Brook, Winchester battles.
Cedar Creek living history and re-enactment: occurs this year Oct. 21-22 and is one of the very few Civil War re-enactments to be held on an actual battlefield. It features authentic encampments (visitors encouraged), demonstrations and sutlers in addition to the battle. In 1994 the re-enactment involved 5,000 soldiers (including cavalry and working artillery), and 1,000 civilians in period garb. Admission is $8; 12 and under are free. Call the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation at (703) 869-2064 for details.
Tracking Civil War soldiers: Many battlefields have forms that can be sent with $10 to the National Archives for information about soldiers who fought in the Civil War (or to request NATF Form 80, "Order for Copies of Veterans' Records," you can write National Archives II at 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, Md. 20740-6001, (301) 713-6800; or you can conduct your own search there and skip the $10 fee). With a name and home town, the National Archives can supply military service records for Union and Confederate soldiers, but pension records for the Union Army only; Confederate pension records must be obtained from the state for which the soldier fought. Pension records, if available, can reveal a good deal of information.