I wrote last week about the trip my sister Joy and I took down to Fredericksburg, Virginia where several major battles were fought from 1862-64, including, two battles for the city of Fredericksburg, and the Battles of Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and The Wilderness. But these battles, though horrific in death and destruction, pale by comparison to the ebb and flow of Union and Confederate forces taking control of the city of Winchester, a population of 4,400 people at the time of the Civil War.
So what was it that made this city in Northern Virginia such a desirable target for both sides in the conflict? Several reasons are apparent. First, it is close to the capital, Washington DC. It lies a mere 76 miles away. Union forces wanted to control this town in order to better protect the capital. Second, for the same reason, Confederate forces wanted to control Winchester, enabling them to have some control of what happened in DC. Third, Winchester is in the upper region of the Shenandoah Valley, the “bread basket” for this region. The army that controls Winchester likely controls the entire Valley. “Major General Sheridan raided up the Valley (meaning south) from Winchester, where his forces destroyed ‘2,000 barns filled with grain and implements, not to mention other outbuildings, 70 mills filled with wheat and flour’ and ‘numerous head of livestock,’ to lessen the area's ability to supply the Confederates.”
Prior to colonists moving further inland in 1729, this region was continually fought over by a number of Native American tribes. The tribe that had the most control was the Iroquois. However, since time immemorial, the Shawnee, the Seneca (Yup! From New York), and the Sioux (from the Carolinas), all battled for this territory. The Iroquois prevailed and are indirectly responsible for naming the Shenandoah Valley. The name came from two of the Iroquois groups: the Senedo, and the Sherando. These names sounded very much alike and were anglicized into what we call Shenandoah.
A truce was made by the tribes in 1744 which included safe use by colonists on the Indian Road, later called the Great Wagon Road. Then in 1753 the French and Indian War began, also known as the “Seven Years’ War.” British forces with Indian allies fought French forces and their Indian allies for key geographic regions throughout the East Coast. George Washington was a colonel in the British militia and frequently met with his Indian collaborators in Winchester.
One of the places we stopped to visit was the Civil War site of Hupp’s Hill, Cedar Mill, Virginia, located about 15 miles south of Winchester. Hupp’s Hill was another place contested by both sides in the war. One of the ladies who works for the National Parks at Hupp’s Hill was telling us that we should go visit Winchester. “The city changed hands more than 70 times!” she stated emphatically so as to make the point. My brother and I looked at each other with amusement, believing she was grossly exaggerating a bit of historical trivia. Back in the car I searched my cell phone and discovered that she was quite accurate. It is said that control over Winchester changed possession at least 72 times during the war years. It is reported that control of the city changed hands thirteen times in one day!
Five major battles were fought within the city limits over 30 months. The first was the First Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862. Next was the First Battle of Winchester, May 25, 1862, followed by the Second Battle of Winchester, June 13-15, 1863. The last two battles were the Second Battle of Kernstown, July 24, 1864, and then the Third Battle of Winchester, September 19, 1864. Talk about being war weary! You have to feel for those folks.
One ancillary point to the Battles of Winchester: Two future American presidents fought there. Both were officers in the Union Army serving in the IX Corps. Each man joined the Army at the outbreak of war in 1861, and served till its end in 1865. They were William McKinley (25th President. He had a horse shot out from under him in one battle), and Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President and mentor of McKinley during the Civil War. He also had a horse shot out from under him, and was wounded in two separate battles: once through the left arm fracturing the bone, and another time in the shoulder. He also was struck in the head by a spent bullet).
So when you have had a particularly bad day, remember Winchester, Virginia in the Civil War! Imagine that you were living in that city during that time, waking up each morning wondering who was in control that day or even that hour, and which flag would be flying above the court house! The flag of the Union – the Stars and Stripes? Or the flag of the Confederacy - the Stars and Bars?
Always be grateful for being an American. Our liberty and freedoms have been bought and paid for by those who have defended her for 239 years.God, please, bless America, again.