Everyone seems to know that Gen. William T. Sherman marched across Georgia to the sea in December 1864 and left ruined buildings and lives along his 300-mile route. Less well known is the devastation wrought by Gen. Philip H. Sheridan on a sliver of Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, where homes, barns and mills were burned and dozens of families were left destitute in September and October of the same year.
Although the destruction in dollars was greater in Georgia, the human impact was far more intense in the Shenandoah Valley, because family farms and small towns were targeted, according to author and historian John L. Heatwole.
The 140th anniversary of "the Burning," as Sheridan's campaign became known, as well as the battles of New Market, Second Kernstown, Third Winchester, Cedar Creek and others, will be commemorated this year in the Shenandoah Valley, about 80 miles west of Washington at its northern end.
The Shenandoah Valley, a part of the Great Valley of Virginia, is about 125 miles long, running from the northern part of Rockbridge County in the south to the Potomac River in the north. It is only 25 miles wide at its widest point and is bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains to the west.
Well before the war, the Shenandoah Valley was known for its network of family farms, which produced huge amounts of wheat, corn and livestock. During the war, that agricultural wealth supported the Confederate armies that often moved through the narrow valley.
By 1864, the Union realized that it had to oust the southern army from the valley to protect nearby Maryland and Washington and destroy the resources that had supported the enemy for so long.
On Aug. 26, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Sheridan to "give the enemy no rest, and . . . do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all description, and Negroes, so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste."
His command was followed.
Sheridan, after two weeks of torching private property, reported to Grant that his men had destroyed "630 barns; 47 flouring mills; 4 sawmills; 1 woolen mill; 3,982 tons of hay, straw and fodder; more than 400,000 bushels of wheat; 3 furnaces; 515 acres of corn; 750 bushels of oats; more than 3,000 head of life stock; 560 barrels of flour; 2 tanneries; 1 railroad depot; 1 locomotive engine; and 2 boxcars."
Although Grant did not order homes to be destroyed and Sheridan did not account for any, that was what happened, according to Heatwole's book "The Burning: Sheridan's Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley." His accounts of homes burned for spite or vengeance or through carelessness come from diaries, letters, military reports and newspaper stories.
A Pennsylvania cavalryman wrote home in mid-October: "We burnt some sixty houses and all most of the barns, hay, grain and corn in the shocks for fifty miles [south of] Strasburg. . . . It was a hard-looking sight to see the women and children turned out of doors at this season of the year."
Among the unfortunate was John Alexander Herring Sr., who was ill in bed in late September when soldiers showed up at his 1776 estate, Retirement, near Dayton. The soldiers carried the owner out of the house and dumped him onto the lawn. From there, he and his wife watched as household possessions were thrown through smashed windows and the house set afire along with the barn and other outbuildings.
Some families were given a few minutes to grab furniture and clothing before their homes were set ablaze. They loaded whatever they had saved onto wagons supplied by Sheridan and joined the long line of refugees following the Union army north, camping with the soldiers for the limited protection that provided against highway robbers out to steal what little they had.
A correspondent traveling with the army wrote: "Hundreds of nearly starving people are going North. Our trains are crowded with them. They line the wayside. Hundreds more are coming; not half the inhabitants of the valley can subsist on it in its present condition."
Grant's strategy worked. The valley could no longer sustain the Confederate army or supply Gen. Robert E. Lee as he defended Richmond.
The end was just a few months away.
The Burning is the subject of two conferences being held in the valley.
One, "Smoke and Sorrow: Shenandoah Valley 1864," is scheduled to run May 21 and 22 in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County (www.ShenandoahAtWar.org or 540-568-8043). The other, the "140th Anniversary Tour of Sites of the Burning of the Shenandoah Valley," is planned for Oct. 22-24 in Rockingham County (www.cwea.net or 800-298-1861).
For information on other events planned for the anniversary, contact the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation at www.ShenandoahAtWar.org, or call 540-740-4545.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.