Tallying agric. stats for losses during “the Burning” in the Shenandoah

Posted on September 27, 2013 by


A brief detour from my posts about antebellum literacy in the Shenandoah Valley…

When I transcribed the post about navigation and commerce in the Shenandoah (as of 1847), the thought was always in the back of my mind that, long before it was known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy”, the Valley served as a breadbasket to outlet points on the downstream of the Potomac (thanks, in great part, to the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad). Strange to say, it’s rarely something that gains attention. Nevertheless, as it had been in 1840, grain (of course) continued to be a major flow out of the Shenandoah Valley… hence… the title, “the Breadbasket of the Confederacy”.

Sheridan being cheered in the Valley. It's true that, along the route of the Federal army, the sky was black from the smoke of burning barns and mills... but those pillars of smoke in the background, in this image are not, despite what some suggest, private homes.

Sheridan being cheered in the Valley. It’s true that, along the route of the Federal army, the sky was black from the smoke of burning barns and mills… but those pillars of smoke in the background in this image are not, despite what is suggested on another site, private homes.

Since we are, at present, at the beginning of the 149th anniversary of “the Burning” in the Shenandoah, I thought I could detail… a bit more exactly… what specific grains (and other agricultural products) stood to be lost as a result of Gen. Phil Sheridan’s activities between September 26 and October 7, 1864. More importantly, how do these figures align with the figures given by Federal commanders, regarding the damage done to the Valley?

Before I begin, however, I want to add that the figures I tallied from the 1860 census do not… I am sure… reflect exactly what was present in September and October 1864. With many a farmer and laborer away (though there were still men, women and children who could tend to the farms, at home) in the ranks, production levels, no doubt, were less than they had been in 1860. Additionally, I don’t take the time here to give serious consideration to weather… though I’m sure someone might actually be able to do that legwork, and give us an idea of agricultural production conditions, between 1860 and 1864.

It might also be useful to know that agricultural products in the Valley, for the most part, had seen an overall increase between 1850 and 1860. There were some swings in the numbers, however. Wheat production (this is likely soft winter wheat, and not the hard winter wheat that became more popular, after its introduction in Kansas in postwar years), for example, had dropped in all but one of the counties, yet rye had been on the rise in all ten counties. Indian corn had also seen a good increase, and actually proved to hold the number one position as the top grain crop in the Valley (3.5 million bushels in 1860).

Here are the stats for grain production in the Valley, as of 1860 (my numbers may be off as the documents I referenced were blurred in some areas, but I do think it’s safe to say they are “in the ballpark”). All are measured in bushels, with the exception of rice (yes, surprising to some, I know, to see this unlikely crop cultivated in the Valley… which is measured in pounds). And, yes, I know… Buckwheat is not, technically, a grain… but it’s in the table, nonetheless:


Other documented food crops in the Valley at the time include (all measured in bushels) peas and beans (4,252), Irish potatoes (240,257), sweet potatoes (14,278); and, measured by 1,000 lb barrels… maple sugar (49,211), maple molasses (8,700), sorghum molasses (2,026); and, measured in lbs… honey (62,598).

Dent corn, Antietam National Battlefield. It's unclear whether the Indian Corn listed in the census was Dent Corn or Calico Corn.

Dent corn, Antietam National Battlefield. It’s unclear whether the Indian Corn listed in the census was Dent Corn or Calico Corn.

Also of interest are the numbers for butter, cheese, beeswax, flax and hemp… 1,965,625 lbs … 38,251 lbs… 14,911 lbs… 3,444 lbs… and 10,232 tons, respectively.

Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d also mention the prevalance of tobacco in the Shenandoah Valley. As of 1850, it was being cultivated in half of the counties, and by 1860, it had been introduced to two more. As a labor-intensive crop, this was prime for slave labor. As of 1860, the top tobacco counties in the Valley were Rockbridge (456,556 lbs), Rockingham (153,304 lbs), Page (47,138 lbs), and Augusta (40,727 lbs). Additionally, also by 1860, cotton had been introduced to one county… Warren… yielding 13,200 lbs.

Another important number that will come up later pertains to… hay… which tallied at 88,812 tons for 1860.

As for livestock, in 1860 the Valley had the following…

Swine Sheep Milch Cows Other cattle Horses Working Oxen Asses and mules
184,424 73,607 31,172 53,957 41,037 1,251 925

Incidentally, 279,394 lbs of wool had been collected from the sheep that year.

I do wish to point out, however, that… as opposed to popular memory (yes, it’s been quite flawed in this area)… in 1860, the Valley was not the great apple-producing area that many want to make it out to be. That, in fact, did not start to escalate (on a grand scale) until after the Civil War. In 1860, orchard products in the Valley were only valued at $67,187, yet, in 1870, were valued at $245,916.

Finally, we get to the point where we assess what the Federals claimed to have destroyed and/or taken… and this can get confusing, so, I’m just going to stick to Sheridan’s tallies (which SHOULD be the sum total of damages caused by Torbert, Merritt, Custer, Powell, and Devin).

In November, Sheridan tallied for the entire campaign, that he captured over 435,000 bushels of wheat, 77,000 bushels of corn, 20,000 bushels of oats, 20,000 tons of hay, 10,900 head of cattle, 12,000 sheep, 15,000 swine, 12,000 pounds of ham and bacon, 3,772 horses, 71 flour mills, and 1,000 barns.

Was Sheridan overestimating, or were these figures accurate?

Even if his November report was close to being accurate, based on the 1860 census, how do damages stack up?

Looking out over a field of sorghum, Antietam National Battlefield.

Looking out over a field of sorghum, Antietam National Battlefield.

If we were to break-out the counties specifically impacted by “the Burning”, we’d need to narrow the list, but Sheridan’s November report… does it include all ten counties, or just the “upper” eight (excluding Rockbridge)? Let’s exclude Jefferson, Berkeley and Rockbridge counties from the assessment. So, again, based on the 1860 census (which I earlier noted, probably does not accurately reflect the status of agriculture as of late September 1864), the damages would amount to…

435,000 bushels of wheat (1,596,896 bushels in 1860) – a loss of just over 27%

77,000 bushels of corn (2,504,729 bushels in 1860) – a loss of just over 3%

20,000 bushels of oats (552,749 bushels in 1860) – a loss of just over 3%

20,000 tons of hay (64,884 tons in 1860) – a loss of just over 31%

10,900 head of cattle (I’m going to lump both milch cows and other cattle into this, which results in 58,154 head, in 1860) – a loss of over 18%

12,000 sheep (48,983 in 1860) – a loss of over 24%

15,000 swine (117,149 in 1860) – a loss of over 12%

Ham and bacon cannot be accurately tallied for loss.

3,772 horses (this is difficult considering how many horses probably left with their owners who went into the military AND how many may have been taken… yes, by both sides… since 1861, but… 29,725 in 1860) – a loss of over 12%

Flour mills and barns… there’s not an exact count in 1860, so I can’t calculate the loss.

How can these stats be adjusted to calculate the true loss?

We can’t, as we have no idea what the status of Valley agriculture was, between 1860 and September 1864.

Civilians had sold (to include being “requisitioned”) and given away items to the Confederate AND Federal forces, while others had livestock and crops taken (though not nearly to the level that we see in 1864) by both sides. Likewise, as I mentioned above, there were factors involving the output of the farms. Was there a significant decline because of some of the men leaving, and/or on account of weather conditions? Make no mistake, however… there were men still at home, and working farms (once we start talking about evading conscription, things get interesting in another direction). If not, it would seem that the title of “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” might be rather short-lived. Was it truly a “breadbasket” only in 1861 and 62, or had it continued to prove invaluable and warranted the title up until the Burning?

Ultimately, a discussion about the impact (whether as significant as Sheridan reported, or less so) should include census numbers such as these. They won’t give us definitive answers, but I think they need to be considered when we try to figure out the true extent of the damages caused by Sheridan’s “Burning”.