The Shenandoah Valley was one of the most contested terrains of the war due to its strategic geographic location and its immense agricultural and industrial productivity for the Confederates. Within the valley there were many benefits derived from nature, such as rich soil for agriculture, plentiful forests that provide habitat for wildlife and many timber resources, and navigable streams that provided industrial power (6). Richard Taylor, a Confederate Officer, visited the valley in 1862 and described its beauty and productivity, “Fields of wheat spread far and wide, interspersed with woodlands, bright in their robes of tender green. Wherever appropriate sites existed, quaint old mills, with turning wheels, were busily grinding the previous year’s harvest; and grove and eminence showed comfortable homesteads. The soft vernal influence shed a languid grace over the scene” (37). Throughout the war, the Shenandoah Valley experienced “more than a dozen battles, hundreds of skirmishes and chronic guerilla activity” (6). Confederate General, Stephen Ramseur, described to his wife how the war began to change the landscape, “nature is triumphant—magnificent meadows, beautiful forests & broad undulating fields rich in grass and clover! Truly it does seem sac religious to despoil such an Eden by the ravages of war!” (32). Although there were many battles here during the war, most of the Union offensive maneuvers were ineffective at holding the valley, which caused Grant to order his soldiers to begin destroying the area’s resources in 1864. Grant wanted to render the valley useless to the Confederacy by laying its awesome productivity to waste, and waging war against the valley instead of across it. Grant ordered the implementation of chevauchee, an ancient French raiding method of medieval warfare for weakening the enemy, focusing mainly on wreaking havoc, burning and pillaging enemy territory, in order to reduce the productivity of a region (49). Maj. Gen. David Hunter began a campaign known as “The Burning” where he burnt mills, furnaces, storehouses, granaries, and all farming utensils he could find (6).
Although many of the descriptions of destruction during the campaign are likely exaggerated, they represent the prominent ideology that prior to the war the valley, and the nature within, had been improved by civilization and that the conflict represented a form of “uncivilized” war that reverted that land back in to a ghastly wilderness. Grant was explicit in his orders to Hunter, “eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them” (20). Hunter was effective at destruction, but ultimately ineffective in fighting Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, which forced Grant to enlist Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to finish the conquest of the Valley. Sheridan’s orders were to destroy the means by which the residents of the Valley managed the natural environment. Grant exclaimed, “Do all the damage to rail-roads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions 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” (21). A soldier in the Eighteenth Virginia Cavalry, Pvt. Norval Baker, writes in his diary about the destruction, “The dead horses lay in lines as they were killed and little mounds of fresh earth marked the resting places of dead soldiers. The weather was sultry and the dead animals were in all stages of decomposition and millions of buzzards gathered to the Lower Valley. We could always tell when the Yankees were coming by the birds raising high up and sailing around” (24). A Union soldier describes a similar scene, “The country has been pretty well devastated, fences destroyed (rails burned and stone fences thrown down) stock all driven off, orchards stripped of fruit and altogether it was the most desolate looking picture I ever saw. Dead horses along the roadside and new made graves gave evidence that it had lately been the scene of strife” (16). A farmer in the valley, Robert Barton, describes the damages to his property by soldiers “destroying everything before them. Hogs, sheep, and cattle were shot down and left to rot and horses were taken and carried away, whether needed by the army or not. Spring- dale was left like a wilderness, almost every living animal on the place either being driven off or else killed and left in sheer deviltry and wickedness” (34). These rampages across the land lead to many criticisms from the Confederate armies and the citizens living in the area. John Gordon, a confederate general claimed that Sheridan “decided upon a season of burning, instead of battling; of assaults with matches and torches upon barns and haystacks, instead of upon armed men who were lined up in front of him” (7).
Sheridan proudly inventoried his takings from the Valley to Grant after the campaign, “435,802 bushels of wheat, 77,176 bushels of corn, 20,397 tons of hay, 10,918 beef cattle, 12,000 sheep, and 15,000 hogs”(6). This list doesn’t include the vast reduction in productivity in the area that would prevent the area from being self-sustaining and profitable for some time after the campaign. The Shenandoah Valley campaign represents the changing tide of the war when the Union army discovered the effectiveness of ravaging the land, which brought them much military success but absolutely devastated the landscape.