Tag Archives: Shenandoah National Park

Virginia Civil War Battlefields (and more)

My own interest in history focuses primarily on Western Pennsylvania. But Al is a lifelong American Civil War buff. So, as a treat to him for our 38th wedding anniversary last week, we visited some Civil War battlefields in Virginia. The trip also gave us a chance to return to Shenandoah National Park. And we celebrated our anniversary with a fabulous dinner at a tapas bar in downtown Front Royal.

First Stop: Winchester, Virginia

We arrived at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum just as it opened on a Wednesday morning. The museum lives in an 1840 Greek revival building that once served as the Frederick County Courthouse. One the first floor, the courtroom has been restored to its nineteenth-century austere beauty.

The second floor displays an extensive and well-organized collection of Civil War relics, as well as reproductions of pencil sketches made on-site during the many battles that took place in Winchester.

Winchester’s Civil War History

Winchester was an important market town in the nineteenth century. It also stands at the northern gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. These features guaranteed that both armies would fight hard for control of the town. Its location northwest of Washington, DC and almost directly north of Richmond meant whichever army controlled Winchester could threaten the other’s capital.

Local historians estimate that Winchester changed hands at least seventy times in three major campaigns during the four-year course of the war.  The long series of battles and the resulting occupations caused suffering for the citizens of the town. As the armies descended and vacuumed up supplies, prices for necessities spiraled upward, until people had to carry their currency to the stores in baskets. The soldiers brought filth, odors and disease with them, and the wounded needed nursing. Private homes were often looted as one army or the other retreated.

Most of Winchester’s citizens were fiercely loyal to the Confederacy. Many had family members in Stonewall Jackson’s cavalry. Secretary of State William Seward said of Winchester’s populace, “the men are all in the army and the women are all devils.” Women loyal to the Confederacy served as spies. As the Union army retreated from the town in the 1862 campaign, local woman shot at them.

But Union loyalists also lived in Winchester. Rebecca Wright spied for General Sheridan in the 1864 campaign, sharing with him the strength and positions of the Confederate Army.

The Courthouse

During the war, the courthouse served at various times as a prison, a barracks, and a hospital. Soldiers left graffiti on the walls, some of which is still visible. One bitter Union prisoner scratched out this wish for Confederate President Jefferson Davis:

Its a little hard to read. Here’s what it says, “May he be set afloat on a boat without compass or rudder. Then that any contents be swallowed by a shark, the shark by a whale, the whale in a devil’s belly, And the devil in hell, the gates locked and the key lost. And further may he be put in the northwest corner with a southeast wind blowing ashes in his eyes for all eternity.”

By the end of the war, this town, which housed only 4400 citizens in 1860, saw two hundred homes completely destroyed and a hundred more severely damaged.

But, some lovely eighteenth and nineteenth-century buildings survive. Several blocks in the historic downtown have been preserved and blocked off for pedestrians only. After our visit to the museum, Al and I had a nice time strolling the historic area, and had wood-fired pizza (and a limoncello martini!) for lunch.

Back to Shenandoah

We had such a good time in April, spending a week at Shenandoah National Park with our daughter, son-in-law and grandson, that we were eager to return. On our April visit, the trees weren’t yet leafed out at the high altitudes. So, this visit, only a month later, looked very different.

We hiked a different trail each day of our stay. The Limberlost, Traces, and Big Meadow trails are all short and level enough to be easy for a hiker with a bad back, like Al. Here are a few pictures from our hikes and our daily drives through the park.

Clockwise from top left: Along the Traces trail; Big Meadow; A bluebird; My favorite spot in the park, about milepost 8 on Skyline Drive, is like a green cathedral; Layer upon layer of mountains like ocean waves.

A Hidden Gem of a Museum

After a quick stop at the site of the Battle of Cross Keys, we drove to the nearby town of New Market intending to visit the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. On our way, we passed the New Market Battlefield Military Museum and decided to stop there first. It turned out to be a great decision.

This museum houses one man’s collection of military relics, primarily from the Civil War. The acquisition, preservation and display of these treasures has been his life’s work. The collection is vast, well-organized and well-displayed. Admission was only $12, and we ended up spending the whole afternoon there. We were lucky to meet the owner, John, and have a delightful conversation with him.

The collection includes everything from slave tags to John Wilkes Booth’s travel trunk to a lock of Robert E. Lee’s hair, as well as hundreds of original photographs of Civil War soldiers. The photographs are complete with names, unit identification and history, mostly organized by what battle they fought in. It also displays quirky items like a Sharp’s Carbine with a coffee mill built into the buttstock, and valuable artifacts like the sword that General Barksdale carried in Pickett’s charge.

And finally, our anniversary dinner

We chose ViNoVA Tapas & Wine Bar for our anniversary dinner on the recommendation of the desk clerk at our hotel in Front Royal. Another great choice. We selected seviche, shrimp, and a triple plate of cheese and meat, along with two different breads. Everything was delicious, and our server made it extra fun. Chris is the bar manager as well as a server, and the conversation with him was as good as the food. When I described a really good cocktail that I’d had years ago in New Orleans and forgotten the name of, he tried to reproduce it for me (and came really close). We also bonded over the use of the term “jagoff” in both Pittsburgh and his hometown of New York City.

Later, the owner, also named Chris, came out and we also enjoyed a chat with him about how he started the restaurant eight months before Covid hit and kept it going during the pandemic. The two Chrises made our anniversary extra special!

One our way out of Front Royal on Friday, we visited the site of the Battle of Cedar Creek, which will be the topic of my next post.