Shenandoah Valley Campaigns: Summary, Timeline & Significance

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  • 0:05 The Strategic Shenandoah
  • 0:55 The Valley Campaign of 1862
  • 2:02 Back to the Shenandoah in 1864
  • 3:27 Battles and Burning
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

Virginia's Shenandoah Valley became a battleground more than once during the Civil War. In this lesson, we will explore the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1862 and 1864.

The Strategic Shenandoah

Located in Northern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley runs about 140 miles northeast to southwest from the Potomac River south to Rockbridge County. It is bordered by two mountain ranges, the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Alleghenies on the west. The Valley was a Civil War strategic hotspot. The Union wanted it because it offered a road to Richmond, the Confederate capitol. Further, if the Union controlled the Valley, the Confederates would be penned in, unable to move north.

The Confederacy also desired to take charge of the Valley. For Southerners, this little stretch of land provided a road into the North, especially Washington, D.C. The Valley also offered an abundance of much-needed agricultural resources. The Union and Confederacy battled for the Shenandoah Valley in two major campaigns, one in 1862 and another in 1864.

The Valley Campaign of 1862

In 1862, Confederate General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson recognized the significance of the Shenandoah Valley when he remarked, 'If this valley is lost, Virginia is lost!' Jackson led a four-month-long campaign in March through June of 1862 to secure the Valley for the Confederacy.

Jackson and his men clashed several times with Union troops. Typically, the Northerners outnumbered the Confederates, but Union efforts often proved to be uncoordinated, flimsy and filled with strategic errors. This gave Jackson, who was an excellent strategist, the advantage.

Five major battles took place during the 1862 Valley Campaign: Kernstown on March 23, Front Royal on May 23, Winchester on May 25, Cross Keys on June 8, and Port Republic on June 9. Kernstown was the only Union victory. The other four battles were triumphs for the Confederacy. When it was all over, Jackson had secured the Valley and its resources for the South, boosting Confederate morale and giving Southerners the time they needed to build up defenses around Richmond.

Back to the Shenandoah in 1864

By 1864, the war was heading in a very different direction for the Confederacy. Jackson was gone, killed by friendly fire in 1863. Union General Ulysses S. Grant was marching through Virginia and bearing down on Richmond. The Confederates were losing men and resources every day with no way to replace them. The Shenandoah Valley was more important than ever for the South.

The Union, however, was determined to finally seize the Valley for itself. On May 15, 1864, Union troops, under Major General Franz Sigel, clashed with General John C. Breckinridge's Confederates at New Market. The battle was intense, and the Union finally poked a hole in the Confederate line. Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute rushed in to fill the gap. These young men, who were between the ages of 15 and 25, saved the day for the Confederacy as they plowed ahead into heavy Union fire. Eventually, Sigel's troops retreated. Breckinridge held the field victorious.

Next in for the Union was Major General David Hunter. He took his revenge for the Confederates' victory at New Market by burning his way through part of the Valley and reducing the Virginia Military Institute to a pile of burned rubble. Confederate General Jubal A. Early stepped up to challenge Hunter, forced him back and made it all the way to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where he was finally stopped by reinforcements sent up by Grant.

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