For Lucy Rebecca Buck, a 19-year-old living in Front Royal, Va., liberation came on May 23, when Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his troops swooped into Front Royal and sent the Union forces running for the hills.
“I cannot forget that sight, the first glimpse caught of a grey figure upon horseback seemingly in command, until then I couldn’t believe our deliverers had really come, but seeing was believing and I could only sink to my knees with my face in my hands and sob for joy,” she wrote that day in the diary she kept through the war years.
The hated Union troops had occupied her town a month earlier to protect the main camp at Strasburg. By then, Front Royal’s men were largely gone, as brothers, cousins and neighbors had all joined the Confederate army. The Union forces set up camp in her family’s front yard, pulling down fences, chopping down fruit trees for firewood and seizing their horses. What had been a beautiful, manicured estate turned into muddy fields.
Buck and several other well-educated women in the Shenandoah Valley kept daily records of their lives as the war unfolded. The joy she felt that day in May was short-lived; once Jackson had driven the Yankees out of Front Royal, he quickly moved north, and the occupiers returned.
The women did their best with defiance and insults to keep the “creatures in blue,” as they referred to the Union men, away from them and out of their houses. Stories circulated before the occupation that Union men grew horns and were evil and vile. Many a child was surprised to see they looked like ordinary men who sometimes gave them treats and shared photographs of their own children.
About 25 miles away, in Winchester, where Jackson and his troops had spent the winter, occupation came earlier, in March. As soon as Confederate forces moved out, Union troops marched in with bands playing and flags flying. The few supporters living in Winchester met them with cheers and waved handkerchiefs.
“All is over and we are prisoners in our own homes,” wrote 42-year-old widow Mary Greenhow Lee. “My first Sunday in captivity has been a long, long day; I believe I am loosing my mind, for I find it impossible to fix it on any subject, but the one dreadful idea that we are surrounded by these very enemies who have for months kept us in a state of terror . . . ”
Things got worse. Soon after the first battle of the Valley Campaign at Kernstown on March 23, wounded soldiers in both grey and blue began to fill the public buildings in Winchester, then the churches, and sometimes homes. The women, already living in relative privation, were thrust into roles as nurses and caregivers.
“The dead, the dying, the raving maniac, and agonizing suffering, in its most revolting forms, were all before us; our men and the Yankees, all mixed up together, in the same rooms,” Lee wrote. “I have found myself down on the floor, by the Yankees, feeding them; you remember how I always said, I would not go to their Hospitals, but I never thought of our men being at them, nor could I give to one sufferer, and pass another by in silence.”
Her niece, Laura Lee, described her own mixed feelings. “Two other of our men have died as have many of the Yankees,” she wrote on March 26. “There are many more who must die. They are very patient and uncomplaining and grateful for kindness. Before they came here, we thought nothing would induce us to enter the hospitals, but we never thought of having our own troops and their wounded and dying together.”
They shared what they had, homemade soup and bread, but a town once filled with markets now had almost no food for sale. And with no firewood, Mary Lee begged her diary to forgive some missed days in the winter because her hands were too cold to write.
By then, the faltering Confederacy had suffered a string of defeats in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Arkansas. So when Jackson turned his small, underdog army into a fighting machine that racked up a string of victories, the diary writers swooned. They had found their savior. There was real hope the Confederacy would not only survive but triumph.
Forced to live in the company of their enemies, the secessionist women of Winchester came up with a plan to wage their own war. They knew the soldiers were starved for female attention and companionship because they often tried to get them to stop and talk.
In a concerted effort, the women shunned them. They began by turning their faces away. Next they began wearing “Jefferson Davis bonnets,” large sun bonnets with veils that concealed their faces. When the Provost Marshal outlawed the bonnets, more women wore them. Next came parasols, which women could artfully twist to obscure their faces.
The women also refused to walk under a U.S. flag, stepping into the muddy street instead. The soldiers added more flags and watched to see what the women would do. When there was no way to avoid walking under a flag, the women, who seemed to enjoy this game immensely, went out their back doors and got around town by using the alleys.
One evening Mary Lee and some family members sat on the porch as a military funeral procession passed. They listened to the band play but were careful to show no interest. A corps of Union officers followed the band, and the soldiers stared at the women until they jumped up and ran into the house.
“They are so annoyed by the ladies secluding themselves, being so closely veiled when on the street, that when they have an opportunity of seeing ladies, on their own premises, they . . . throw aside every feeling of delicacy,” she wrote that night, describing how the men stared.
By then, the occupiers had a name for the female residents of Winchester. They called them she-devils.June 8-9: Jackson and Union forces clash in the Battle of Port Republic. After Jackson’s victory, the Union withdrew from the Valley.
Stonewall Jackson’s assignment was to keep several divisions of the Union army tied up in the Shenandoah Valley so they could not reinforce Gen. George B. McClellan for his siege of Richmond, the Confederate capital. Jackson’s underdog campaign, which succeeded in routing forces three times his size, is still taught by the military.
Feb. 28, 1862: Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks crosses the Potomac River into Virginia and advances on Winchester.
March 11: Jackson abandons Winchester, where he and his men had spent the winter.
March 23: Jackson attacks Union forces at Kernstown, near Winchester. The Union victory in First Kernstown is Jackson’s only loss in battle of the Civil War.
May 8: Jackson and the Union clash at McDowell, which results in a Confederate victory.
May 23: Jackson attacks Union occupiers at Front Royal, and the Battle of Front Royal goes down as another Confederate victory.
May 25: Jackson attacks Union forces as they reach Winchester after abandoning Strasburg. The First Battle of Winchester results in a Confederate victory.
June 8: Jackson and Union forces clash at Cross Keys, resulting in a Confederate victory.