Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Gen. Sheridan. This version has been corrected.


"Shenandoah Valley, Sept. 1864," by artist Alfred R. Waud, 1828-1891. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The residents of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley were in for the worst the Civil War could unleash on them in the autumn of 1864. The war was coming to their doorstep. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the new commander of the Union armies, was fulfilling the mandate from President Abraham Lincoln: Win the war and win it now

The Union victories at the battles of Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill had abruptly ended the Confederates’ long dominance of the lush and productive valley and given Grant and his hand-picked commander, Gen. Philip Sheridan, the opportunity they needed. Rebel Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, the audacious commander who had briefly terrorized the nation’s capital with his bold invasion in July, was humiliated by the twin losses and was now on the run, trying to save what was left of his broken army.

Before Early could regroup, Sheridan launched what would become known as the Burning, a 12-day period when Union forces brought war to the residents of the valley. Mills, barns, homes, crops, supplies and anything considered a possible aid to the Confederate effort was systematically torched by Union cavalry.

No amount of mothers’ crying and children shrieking would deter the soldiers, who quickly got used to the response and efficiently went about their business.

It was total war.

The destruction was part of Grant’s new war plan. By bringing the war to civilians, he believed, he could end the conflict more quickly because the Southern army could not sustain itself without a stable food supply. Grant’s order was to “eat out Virginia clear and clean.”

He later expanded on that, saying, “if the war is to continue another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”

In the valley, as winter was coming on, the destruction included food of any description as well as the means to make food. Wheat was burned in the fields and in the barns. Mills used to grind grain into flour were destroyed.

Thousands of farm animals were either slaughtered in their pens or taken for the army’s use. Horses were rounded up.

Furnaces that produced iron for military use were wrecked. Tanneries were burned.

Although Sheridan’s orders directed soldiers to leave houses alone, many were burned either on purpose or by accident when fire spread from farm buildings. If the occasional officer was persuaded to spare a house, the next one through might not be so kind.

The valley was not the first place to experience total war between 1861 and 1865, but historians say that the situation in the valley was different because the destruction was systematic. Sheridan planned it as carefully as any military campaign.

When Sheridan broke camp near Harrisonburg, he assigned his infantry to take the Valley Pike that ran through the center of the valley. Each of his two cavalry units took lesser roads that ran more or less parallel to the pike.Few places would be missed.

Between the beginning of the campaign on Sept. 26 in Staunton and its end at Fisher’s Hill on Oct. 8, residents and soldiers reported seeing as many as 100 fires burning at one time, filling the sky with smoke. At night, the fires created a lurid red light along the horizon.

Mount Jackson resident Amanda Moore watched the inferno and later wrote, “I shall never forget that day it looked to me like the day of judgement, our Father’s old mill & barn and [cloth] mill and all the Mills and barns ten miles up the creek were burning at once and the flames seemed to reach the skies it was awful to watch.”

A Union soldier wrote in his diary, “The whole country around is wrapped in flames, the heavens are aglow with the light thereof.”

Overhead, hundreds of vultures circled and swooped. For them, the Burning meant an extended feast.

Residents who lived north of where the soldiers were working knew they would be next. Some tried guile or defiance to dissuade the burning parties. Others tried outright bribery.

Valley native John L. Heatwole, in his book, “The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley,” tells some of those stories.

John Koontz, an elderly man whose family owned a house, mill and large barn just off the Valley Pike, knew the importance of food to a soldier. On the day he expected the arsonists to reach his place, his wife had already prepared a hearty, harvest-style meal. When the men arrived, Koontz greeted them in a friendly manner and invited them into the house for dinner.

At first, the sergeant in charge said no, because he had orders to fire the barn and mill and he would feel bad doing that after accepting a meal. Koontz said he understood that a soldier had to obey orders and he would not hold a grudge, but a meal was important to a working man. The young soldiers were hungry and accepted the offer. They ate well.

As Mrs. Koontz cleared the table, she told the men that now they could return to duty. Outside, the officer looked over at the barn and reminded his men that their orders allowed them to skip an empty barn. They all agreed this looked like an empty barn to them although there was a lot of corn inside.

The men mounted up and moved on to the next site.

At least one resident was able to stare down the burners. An elderly woman near Edinburg met the soldiers outside her farmhouse. An officer who was present asked her how many sons she had in the “Rebel army.”

According to Heatwole, she “fixed on him a steely-eyed, defiant gaze and replied she had only seven but wished she had seven more. Her courage so impressed the officer that he waved his men off, and the barn was still standing when her sons came home.”

Just outside Harrisonburg, an elderly man approached the burners at the gate of a fine-looking farm. “I see what you are doing,” he said. “My barn is full of grain. I have a lot of women and children and slaves here who will starve if you destroy my barn; not only that but you will burn my house.”

He then offered $1,800 in gold coins to the lieutenant in charge. “Take my gold and spare my barn,” he said.

The officer refused the bribe and ordered his men to get to work. He then rode away as the barn burst into flames. He expected the house would be burned also, according to Heatwole, but “did not wait to see.”

Exactly how much damage was done by the Burning will never be known. Sheridan reported: “The whole country from the Blue Ridge to the North Mountain has been made untenable for a rebel army. I have destroyed over two thousand barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements, and over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat, have driven in front of this army over four thousand head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops over three thousand sheep.” Various county governments reported many houses had also been burned.

Even farmers loyal to the U.S. government were wiped out in the Burning, but Sheridan offered them a way out. He would furnish a wagon with horses and protection if they chose to leave the valley. More than 400 families, many of them pacifist Dunkards and Mennonites, took him up on the offer. Their wagons covered 16 miles of road as they left. The long train of misery followed Sheridan’s army through a barren land and into Union territory.