By Will Kurtz
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) has been at the forefront of the state’s celebration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. From sponsoring a popular series of public conferences to BackStory’s three-part series on the war, few state institutions have done as much as VFH to raise public awareness about the conflict’s 150th anniversary and the war’s continuing legacy for twenty-first-century Americans.
Even before the official start of the sesquicentennial in 2009, VFH programs had already examined the war and its impact on Virginia in many ways. For example, a With Good Reason interview with Jonathan A. Noyalas, professor of history and director of the Center for Civil War History at Lord Fairfax Community College, told the surprising story of how the North and South put aside many of their differences in reunions like the one at Winchester in 1883.
Because of its strategic location as a major railroad and transportation center in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester was considered the “gateway into the North” by both sides. Thus Winchester became the scene of several bloody battles during the war, with as many as 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers dying in or near the city. The devastation was not limited to just those in uniform; Union soldiers destroyed crops, barns, and homes, thereby destroying the livelihood of many white Virginians throughout the valley. “Union General [Robert] Milroy had this attitude that he needed to be extremely harsh towards the Confederate population, especially the females, because he thought the women of the South were responsible for keeping this war going,” according to Noyalas. Milroy exiled more than 200 women from Winchester before he was relieved from command in Virginia in 1863.
Later in 1864, General Philip H. Sheridan, knowing the valley helped supply Lee’s armies with food and supplies, happily complied with standing orders from General Ulysses S. Grant to “eat out Virginia clear and clean.” “Sheridan is still one of those names that is still very much despised in the Shenandoah Valley,” noted Noyalas, adding that it took some families as many as twenty years to recover from the damage his armies inflicted. Many descendants of the original 1860s inhabitants still have not forgiven Sheridan today.
Such devastation and harsh treatment by Union occupiers understandably left many white Virginians bitter toward the North well after the conflict ended. Indeed, when Milroy returned to Winchester in 1868 to campaign on behalf of Grant, then running for president, he was jeered out of town, with locals throwing rocks and tomatoes at him. It was not until after 1876, when the military occupation of the South ended, that white Virginians’ attitudes began to soften. (Military occupation of Virginia ended in 1870.) By the 1880s, they had “come to the realization that they had to put the painful memories of the past behind them.”
At the same time, Union veterans started returning to the South for reunions and to dedicate monuments on old battlefields. There was “initially a lot of anxiety” about how they would be received in the South, especially in the valley. To their great surprise, noted Noyalas, they were not only treated well but welcomed back in Winchester.
On September 19, 1883, the nineteenth anniversary of Third Battle of Winchester, Union veterans returned to pay homage to their fallen comrades. They were greeted by 3,000–4,000 people at the Winchester train station. Confederate veterans and civilians alike greeted them with banners, band music, and cheers. Union veterans returned the favor. After honoring their own dead in the national cemetery, the northerners also crossed the street to lay flowers and pray over the Confederate dead.
Noyalas argued that this remarkable event in Winchester and others like it across the former Confederacy were important for national reconciliation between northern and southern whites. While Union soldiers did “important work militarily” in defeating Confederate General Jubal A. Early in 1864, “their most significant work, I feel, was in the1880s. They were reuniting the nation by their actions.”
About the Author
William Kurtz works at Documents Compass as an assistant editor on the Founders Online project. He received a PhD in history from the University of Virginia in 2012. His book, Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America, is forthcoming from Fordham University Press.