The City of Winchester during the Valley Campaign of 1862
| Located in the lovely lower Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, Virginia is beautiful and historic. It nestles in lush countryside; historic homes and buildings line its streets, linking the charming town with the early years of Virginia when young George Washington served as a surveyor and a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Militia. There, as well, walked General Daniel Morgan, the "Ranger of the Revolution."|
To the student of the War for Southern Independence, though, the city of Winchester is the focus of even greater interest. No city was more intricately and critically involved in the War in the East than Winchester. Its location at the foot of the great Shenandoah Valley - the eastern breadbasket of the Confederacy - made it an important center of commerce before the long, dirty and weary columns of butternut and blue-clad soldiers marched through its streets of dust and mud and fought across its neighboring pastures and farmlands. The important Valley Turnpike (present-day U.S. Route 11) crossed a host of east-west roads and met the Winchester & Potomac Railroad here.
The town's location determined its fate in the War. Tucked in the northern stretches of the Shenandoah Valley, the town lay on a natural transportation corridor used first by nomadic American Indian tribes, then by westbound settlers, and finally by Confederate armies. Winchester was also close to key military sites. About 70 miles from U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., and 20 miles from the important Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Harpers Ferry in western Virginia, the town was a natural jumping-off point for Confederate army campaigns.
Another geographic feature would magnify in importance during the War: Winchester was surrounded on all sides by low hills that hid the approach of armies. Occupiers found it almost impossible to mount a defense, so they usually had to flee quickly, sparing the town from prolonged, destructive sieges.
The northern frontier of Virginia could never have been maintained without a reliance upon the city of Winchester as a base of operations and supply; the same holds true for the invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania. As well, any attempt to damage the ability of the Confederacy to feed itself and its armies required neutralization of the Shenandoah Valley. That meant taking the city of Winchester and using it as a base for penetrations into the upper Valley.
Winchester was a prosperous commercial center of 4,400 people that lay at the junction of several important roads. The main street through town featured an imposing Greek Revival courthouse, gas lights, solid brick shops, taverns, and the two-story Taylor Hotel. The inhabitants were hard-working, sociable churchgoers. The surrounding fields of fertile limestone soil supported lush wheat crops. Abundant pastures fattened the valley's cattle and sheep, and gave the people a diet rich in meat.
The irony of Winchester's experience is that the townspeople were reluctant to go to war. Established in the 18th century by Scottish and German settlers from Pennsylvania, the town and its surrounds were populated mostly by small-scales farmers, artisans and merchants, who had little use for slaves and who retained strong ties to the North. Thus they had sharp political and cultural differences with the slaveholding tobacco planters of eastern Virginia who dominated the statehouse. Anyway, local volunteers formed four companies of what would eventually become the renowned Stonewall Brigade. They and the other enlistees from the valley would harden into resilient but highly individualistic soldiers. Their cavalry especially was notoriously undisciplined. These valley men would spend much of the war on familiar ground. "In few wars have the soldiers maintained as intimate contact with their homes and with the community from which they came as did the valley soldiers," one historian wrote.
In March 1862 Winchester experienced its first enemy occupation. Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's 3,500 Confederates, who held the town since the previous summer, retreated after a sharp clash with Brigadier General James Shields' 9,700 Federals at Kernstown, to the south. The streets of Winchester were suddenly crowded with blue uniforms. The Union commander, Major General Banks, imposed a strict curfew on the townspeople, and food, hay, and grain were confiscated to feed the Northern troops and horses. Daily life was ruled by provost marshals. The structures of the occupation hardened secessionists sentiment and tipped many fence-sitters to the Southern Cause.
The town's first occupation came to abrupt end in late May, when 17,000 hard-marching troops under Stonewall Jackson suddenly stormed out of the Luray Valley to the south. Most of Banks' force was in nearby Strasburg, leaving only 6,000 men in Winchester. Banks backpedaled his main contingent furiously and had barely got his men into position on the south hills when the boom of Jackson's artillery at dawn on May 25 opened the 1st Battle of Winchester. The Federal lines soon broke, and civilians watched with glee as their occupiers fled through the streets panic-striken. A few townspeople took potshots at the retreating Federals.
The dramatic liberation was the high point of the War for Winchester. Jackson's troops were welcomed as conquering heroes. Even dour Jackson was swept up in the celebration. The people "seemed nearly frantic with joy", he wrote his wife. "Our entrance into Winchester was one of the most stirring scenes of my life." Jackson's bold foray in the valley wrecked Union plans to link McClellan's Army of the Potomac with another force under McDowell for a concerted drive on the Confederate capital. After seizing a hoard of Union supplies at Harpers Ferry, Jackson moved back south through the valley, eluding and defeating his pursuers. Winchester was left deserted, exposed and grief-stricken over the loss of cherished hero Turner Ashby.
With memories of their treatment in Winchester just two weeks before still fresh, returning Federal troops were not in forgiving mood. They searched and looted homes, ransacked stores, and roughed up citizens. The situation got so bad that Banks ordered his army out of town and sealed off the flow of mail and contraband. Federal artillerymen practiced their trade by firing wooden cannonballs over the town. A few fell short and hit houses, suggesting the damage that could occur with live ammunition.
After a long and difficult summer of 1862, Winchester braced itself for another battle as General Robert E. Lee marched his Army of Northern Virginia into the Valley after the Second Battle of Manassas in August. But this is another story...