The story of the American Civil War can't be completely told without mentioning the Shenandoah Valley. The so-called "Breadbasket of the Confederacy" was important strategically and militarily throughout the War, which lasted from 1860 to 1865.
Fertile farms in the Valley of Virginia helped sustain the Confederate army and abundant natural resources and productive mills helped equip them. The proximity of the Shenandoah Valley to Washington D.C., along with its role as a natural transportation artery, caused it be a constant threat to the Union until Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan marched into the Valley in 1864, and once and for all ended Confederate action there.
Even before the first cannons were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, signaling the official start of the Civil War, many of the political issues that precipitated it had already bred violence in the Valley. It's often said that the Civil War actually began with slavery abolitionist John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
"The Harpers Ferry raid on the arsenal there was sort of our equivalent of 9/11," says Cissy Shull, Executive Director of the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society. "That was a terrorist attack. A very serious crime that in his [John Brown's] mind, and in certainly the minds of his followers, he was trying to bring attention to something that he called horrible. That is what he was trying to stop."
A tragedy such as the Civil War is something that is not celebrated, only commemorated. Now, 150 years later, the Shenandoah Valley once again turns its thoughts to the War. This time, however, not as an active conflict, but in a series of living history events that correspond to an equivalent, 19th-Century timeline. It all officially began on June 27 in the yard of Abram’s Delight Museum on South Pleasant Valley Avenue in Winchester, Va.
The June 27 Valley Kick-off was marked during a morning ceremony hosted by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in partnership with the Winchester-Frederick County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Guest speakers included Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., Alumni Distinguished Professor of Virginia Tech University and Executive Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, and Mike Foreman, Winchester’s former Clerk of Court, who served as the Master of Ceremonies.
Two musical selections that included "Battle Hymn of the Republic," were performed by James Gillison singing a capella at the beginning and the end of the ceremony.
At the conclusion of the morning ceremony, the focus shifted to a Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society exhibition that is located in the neighboring Hollingsworth Mill museum will be featured. “From the First Shot to the Gallows: Winchester’s Involvement with the John Brown Raid” includes a display of rare artifacts that tell the story of the 1859 armed conflict at Harpers Ferry.
Other guests included Cheryl Jackson, Executive Director of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, who also delivered remarks about upcoming statewide plans to bring the story of the Civil War to the public; Dennis Frye, National Park Historian and Chairman of the John Brown 150th Anniversary Quad-State Committee; members of the Morgan Continental Guard; and John Alcott, an actor who portrays John Brown. Several County Sesquincentennial Chairpersons from areas throughout the Shenandoah Valley region were also recognized at the ceremony.
The Shenandoah Valley’s Kick-off follows on the heels of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission Kick-off, which took place at Harpers Ferry on Thursday, June 25.
For more information about the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley, visit www.ShenandoahAtWar.org or www.VirginiaCivilWar.org . For information about the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, visit www.WinchesterHistory.org. For a Shenandoah Valley Radio™ interview that features Cissy Shull, click here.
Photos courtesy Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society and Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. “Last Moments of John Brown” painting by Thomas Hovenden.