Lessons from the Civil War still need to be learned

Memorial markers commemorating the Battle of Cedar Creek.

My wife and I moved to the Shenandoah Valley more than three years ago to be closer to our three grandchildren. We also drew closer to the Civil War.

I remember studying about the Civil War in school, of course. But places and battles like Antietam, Gettysburg, Manassas, Petersburg, and Appomattox overshadowed any Civil War engagements that occurred in the breadbasket of the Confederacy.

That agricultural label was apt. The Shenandoah Valley, especially the area where we live near Harrisonburg, played a vital role in keeping the Confederate States Army fed. The valley is still one of the prime agricultural regions of the Commonwealth.

Agriculture continues to be an economic priority in the Shenandoah Valley.

Many of the citizens of the valley joined in fighting for the south. Others from the Rockingham County area remained neutral, however, preferring to tend their farms. When troops from both south and north moved through the valley, they often bought or helped themselves to foodstuffs, produce, corn, and even livestock.

I recently completed an online university course on the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. I saw the class as an opportunity to learn more about what some locals still call “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Indeed, the class taught me much about the war, local mores and history, and just how much military action occurred on and along roads we regularly travel. At times, it felt eerie to know the exact number of casualties on both sides in settings we frequent.

I sat up straighter in my chair when the instructor shared a map that showed troop encampments around Harrisonburg, the central city in Rockingham County. When he pointed to where one of George A. Custer’s cavalry divisions camped, I took notice. It was the area where we live. A friend who grew up here told me that he only remembered our housing development as a pasture with lots of limestone outcroppings. He said it had never been plowed.

The most significant battles in the valley took place in the northern section near Winchester, where the photos above were taken. Lesser skirmishes happened in and around Rockingham County.

One such engagement happened near Cootes Store along the north branch of the famed Shenandoah River. I have a new reverence for the place that we occasionally drive by now that I know Confederates chased Custer and his cavalry across the river as Union soldiers forded absconded livestock. For the record, Confederate flags still fly all around that location.

The small historical town of Dayton, five minutes south of where we live, played a defining part in one of the valley’s darkest events of the Civil War. General Phillip Sheridan, commander of the Union Army in the valley campaign, learned that one of his top aides, John Rodgers Meigs, had been murdered near Dayton.

In retaliation, Sheridan ordered the burning of barns, mills, homes, and crops in a five-mile radius around the town. Most of the residents there were Mennonite farmers who had remained neutral during the war. Nor did they own slaves.

Another aide to Sheridan, Lt. Col. Thomas E. Wildes, begged the general to rescind the order because the residents had treated Union troops well. Sheridan relented, but only for the Dayton area. In appreciation, a plague was placed in Dayton honoring Wildes. Elsewhere in the valley, the Union Army implemented the burning. This action devastated the residents and crippled the Confederate food supply.

Those events are known as “The Burning.” Not surprisingly, hard feelings remain today. That attitude mirrors the current political animosity in the U.S.

As I viewed some of the local battlefields where thousands of casualties on both sides occurred, I couldn’t help but compare that violence to today’s heated rancor and divisiveness.

So how long should we hang on to hate? Isn’t it time to intentionally be more peaceable with one another?      

Union cannons at the Battle of Third Winchester.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

   

Meditating while driving

A balmy day in the Shenandoah Valley.

When I drive alone, I often meditate.

It’s not what you might think. I don’t close my eyes, of course. I just enjoy the peace and the time alone to think. I don’t forget about driving. It would be both foolish and dangerous to do so.

I try to allow extra time for a more leisurely drive. I avoid superhighways. Backroads are my preference because I never know when I might need to stop to take a few photos of the fantastic scenery that Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley affords.

Unlike my younger years, I drive silently. No radio, no CDs playing. I enjoy the quiet unless the road surface is too rough. Then I take in the music that my tires sing to the tune over the various macadam surface textures. The octaves change by the mile.

I’ll use the GPS when I have to. Once I know the way, however, I am on my own, like the other day when I had a doctor’s appointment 35 miles away.

A typical farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

I left nearly two hours before my 2 p.m. appointment. Besides a couple of brief planned stops, I knew there would be photo opportunities along the way. I had been that route before.

Driving in that contemplative state helps to clear my mind from all of life’s noisiness. Plus, I get to enjoy the mountains to my left and mountains to my right. In between, there is nothing but gently rolling countryside dotted by farms, fields, forests, and more gigantic chicken houses than I care to count.

Weather permitting, I ride with the windows down and the sunroof open. I sometimes pay the price if I pass a freshly manured field.

This trip turned extra-special. Once I passed Sulphur Pump Road, I turned south on the narrowest windy way with no ditches and farmers’ fences hard against the blacktop.

The paved path twisted and turned, rolled up, down, and around until I made a slight right onto Battlefield Road. In less than a half a mile, I crossed a short narrow bridge in the curve of the road. Ahead, an old plantation sat high on a ridge behind a grove of mature pines.

The spot where young men died in the Civil War Battle of Bonnie Doon.

At this exact spot at the bottom of the hill, Americans fought Americans in a Civil War skirmish. Hand-to-hand combat ensued, with heavy casualties on both sides. Today, fruit trees and fence line trees waved in the wind.

No historical marker identified the bloody spot. I knew it from a Civil War class that I am taking remotely. It was this week’s lesson.


Farther south, a couple of miles, two different historical markers on opposite sides of the road defined the facts and sight of a deadlier clash, the Battle of Piedmont. Field corn and an impressive planting of soybeans nearly hid both plaques, while the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park created an enchanting backdrop.

I wondered if people knew what had taken place here, the massive loss of life, the many casualties, and prisoners of war, the consequence of the Union victory. If they knew, did they still hold a grudge or even care?

Did they appear only as fields of corn and beans to them? Were people merely on their way from point A to point B in their daily lives as they passed?

I pondered all of this as I arrived at the impressive multi-storied medical office building. I donned my mask, had my temperature taken, responded in the negative to all of the required COVID-19 questions, and waited my turn for my 21st-century exam.

My nomadic meditation had ended.

The Union army engaged Confederate soldiers on this ridge.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Beautiful view, horrific history

Shenandoah NP, New Hope VA
The one thing that constantly amazes me is how much I learn by taking photos. And often what I learn has more to do with the setting than photography itself. This photo is the perfect example.

Anyone would be happy to take this shot. I certainly was. The late afternoon light was perfect shining on the Blue Ridge Mountains, highlighting the ice-encrusted trees along the undulating summit. This is the southern section of Shenandoah National Park.

I noticed a historical plaque close to where I had stopped to get the shot. So I pulled up to read what the plate said. I was stunned. Here among all these rolling farm fields against the backdrop of the mesmerizing Blue Ridge Mountains a bloody, decisive Civil War battle had been fought. Known as the Battle of Piedmont, Union soldiers defeated Confederate troops. This led to the fall of Staunton and control of the railways in the Shenandoah Valley, known as the Breadbasket of Confederacy.

The combat was costly on both sides. The Union suffered 800 casualties and the South nearly twice as many with 1,500. I wondered if passersby knew of the blood spilled all those decades ago. What did the farmers think as they plowed those fields?

I took the photo with mixed emotions. The scenery was marvelous, the history humbling. Without the marker, this would be just another beautiful rural scene. In reality, it is so much more than that.

“Beautiful view, horrific history” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Under the Sycamore Tree

Bridgewater VA, North River
Under the Sycamore Tree.

In our continuing exploration of the Rockingham Co., Virginia area, we found a riverside park in Bridgewater. The shape of this old sycamore tree caught my eye. With my friend, Rick, standing beneath the sycamore, it helped demonstrate just how massive this ancient tree was. Rick is a big man.

It was directly across the river from this tree that Conferdate soldiers attended a Sunday morning worship service in the field high on the hill.

“Under the Sycamore Tree” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017