In three minutes, sum up the history of your county in the Civil War

Posted on September 14, 2011 by

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If you know most of the nuts and bolts that make up that history, and are tasked with accomplishing that request… it can be a tall order, and rather painful. You’re forced to bypass key elements, including certain names and events, that you know are critical in the overall story, but… this is all the space in which you have to work. Ultimately, if you know most that’s important (yes, like “new” rocks that appear in the tilling of a garden, year after year, there’s always more out there…) to take with you on a “long journey” (that is a larger description), I guess it’s simply a matter of “packing for a shorter trip”.

So, I took a shot at the “shorter trip”, and this is my three minute (ehhhh… give or take, and depending upon proper breathing when reading) blip about Page County, Virginia in the Civil War…

In April, 1861, Page County was among the many Virginia counties to opt for secession. The referendum that followed in May, exhibited that the secession held popular support in the county, though there are indications that some locals, still embracing the Union, were kept away from the polls, and even convinced that they should vote in favor of secession to preserve peace.

Nonetheless, many Page Countians eagerly responded to the first call for troops for the new Confederacy,  and continued to enlist over the next four years, serving in commands such as the Stonewall and Laurel Brigades. Some locals gained significance apart from these commands, such as William H. Chapman, second-in-command of John S. Mosby’s Rangers. While most appear to have eagerly donned the gray of the Confederacy, there were also others who thought differently, just as in the case of the referendum. Some did whatever they could to remain neutral, and even took refuge in the North until the war was over, while others even took up arms in blue, in units from different Northern states, and, in the case of a number of local escaped and freed slaves, and free blacks, in the ranks of the United States Colored Troops.

Meanwhile, lives of the majority of those civilians who did not take up arms… for either side, and for whatever reason… remained focused on agriculture-related pursuits, and in support of the local iron ore furnace operations. As in the case of those who donned uniforms, sentiments among these civilians also varied, from strong support for the Confederacy to continued support for the Union. Those in favor of the Confederacy included Cornelia Jane Matthews Jordan, who demonstrated through her poetry a part of the complexity that defines Southern sentiments during the war, from one who embraced the “old banner” in 1861, to one who scorned the Union before mid-war. Others, such as Noah Foltz and free black, John Dugans, supported the Union through both secretive and open acts; Foltz even running an underground railroad for Union soldiers who had become lost in Page County.

While the lives of the local people tell us one part of the story of the county in the war, the geography and the troop movements tell the other. Often, commanders such as Stonewall Jackson and Philip Sheridan took advantage of the cover of the Massanutten that masked troop movements the campaigns of 1862 and 1864, respectively. With all of the troops moving through the county, however, significant combat actions here were limited. The most significant engagement took place at Overall – then known as Milford – on the Page-Warren county line, where the Union cavalry was stalled long enough for Jubal Early to retreat beyond New Market, and perhaps resulting in extending the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Troop movements through Page also resulted in the county experiencing other harsh realities of war, apart from military engagements. In the Summer of 1862, for example, during a Federal occupation of Luray, many citizens became subject to orders directed at civilians deemed “active sympathizers” of the Confederacy, though the impact reached even those locals who were sympathetic to the Union. Later, during the “Burning”, in the Fall of 1864, many mills and barns were destroyed as part of actions directed at striking a decisive blow against the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy”. Even immediately after the close of the war, Page experienced a traumatic event related to the division in local sentiment, in what has become known as the Summers-Koontz Incident, in which two former Confederate cavalrymen – both locals – were executed by Union troops.

Despite the scars left upon the land and the people, no matter the sentiment, in the years that followed the war, remembrance activities began as early as 1881, in Luray, with a reunion of local Confederates and Union veterans from Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Local Confederate veterans remained active in commemorations through the 1920s, even honoring Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, upon his death in 1885. By 1931, however, the local Confederate veterans camp disbanded, and, in the early 1940s, with the death of the last local veteran, the era came to an end.

So, that’s it. I’m left wondering, however, if it’s a balanced summary. Without knowing the history, can it be described as “objective”? Have I given due attention to those who sympathized with both sides, as well as those who tended to remain somewhere in the middle, even vacillating as events deemed fit? Does it tell the audience enough, and, more importantly, does it give the audience something that will encourage independent reading, in order to learn more about those topics I’ve touched upon? I think I show that the majority of the county exhibited tendencies toward the Confederacy, but found it necessary to regularly interject constant reminders that the history is not alone defined by those loyal to the Confederacy… that there were others (though I don’t think I’ve touched on those who, at various times, “opted out”, and I’m not sure I have the space to do so). I think I’ve also shown that it wasn’t just a war involving white men, alone, but all of the people of the county. Otherwise, I think I’ve hit on the significance of the county in military movements, and how these military movements impacted the people of the county.

Without necessarily knowing the history of the county, what are your thoughts?

Interestingly, as it ends up, this particular piece will not be the 3-minute clip, after all. In fact, I’m now writing a more town (Luray)-centric piece for the clip. I’m looking forward to seeing how that lays out also, and think it will benefit from some of the lessons I learned in doing this piece.

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