Ramble On

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Civil War History Moment

It is hard to get away from the topic of the US Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley:  there is a weekly column in our own Page News and Courier newspaper that features some aspect of the action; along the Hawksbill Greeway in Luray there are two markers commemorating nearby battles; and nearby at New Port there is the Catherine Furnace, a supplier of Confederate pig iron during the war.  Those are just a few reminders - they are truly all over, up and down the Valley.

A few months ago a colleague at work told me he'd had a project a few years ago to do market analysis for a museum on the Civil War located in the Valley - I don't recall which one or even where the museum was to be located.  Among the items he referred to during the research stage was a book by Michael G. Mahon, entitled The Shenandoah Valley 1861-1865:  The Destruction of the Granary of the Confederacy. (Amazon link below).

There is plenty of lore about the agricultural wealth of this region - and I was fortunate enough to see the modern status of this reputation during my agribusiness internship this summer.  That experience, coupled with the Civil War anecdote that I heard at Skyline Premium Meats during the Page County Grown farm tour only made me more interested in the topic.

In the anecdote, Mr. Burner shared the story of how the current barn was saved after Sheridan's calvary marched through the Valley in 1864, with the mission to destroy every element of agricultural production that could be useful to the Confederate war effort.  He told us that the men had fled in advance of the cavalry's march and went into hiding in the mountains, with the women and other family members left behind.  In this case, the family offered a "Sunday dinner" to the raiders, who spared the barn in gratitude.

Mahon's book is well researched, drawing from anecdotes like this that he was able to discover in letters and other documentation in various Virginia libraries.  His version of the story contradicts the traditional view of the Valley as the Conferderate breadbasket, based on the argument that while there was a strong agricultural tradition as the war began, by 1864, the years of conflict had taken their toll on the Valley so that there was barely enough food to support the local population.  There are plenty of tables and charts with data that help make the point.

Having read a few books on the impact of World War II on Eastern Europe, I'm not surprised by these findings and find them easy enough to accept.  Still there seems to be some discussion about Mahon's findings, they are disputed in the literature and anecdotally.

I'll close with a short passage from the book, which is actually part of the back cover material:

"Sheridan has been credited with burning out the Valley and denying the Conferderates the use of its resources, and his statements of what he destroyed have been readily accepted as fact and have never truly been challenged.  But on closer examination, it is clear that he grossly magnified - and in numerous instances invented - the figures of what his forces captured or destroyed during the campaign....The prevailing vie of the campaign has been that...Sheridan dispersed his three divisions of cavalry across the width of the Valley with orders to destroy anything that could support the enemy....But the reports of his officers disclose that Sheridan's three divisions of horsement actually spent very little of their time savaging the countryside."

Here's the Amazon link to the book if you would like to check it out:

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