Thoughts on the opening days of “the Burning”

Posted on September 27, 2014 by

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In a rare opportunity (at least it’s been rather rare, for me, in these past two months) this morning, I had the chance to sit in my study… a window open… and enjoy a cup of coffee while I took in all that I could on this early Autumn day. The cool air (a brisk 46 this morning), crickets chirping, the sound of a train in the distance, etc., etc. Yet, while I enjoyed these things I remembered that it wasn’t so pleasant 150 years ago today… at least not at the upper end of the Shenandoah Valley.

On the 26th of September, Phil Sheridan’s Federal army, fresh from its victory at Fisher’s Hill, began waging war on a greater scale. Jubal Early’s Confederate army had been swept aside, and it was now time for the Federals to reach deeper, and have a greater impact on the overall Confederate war effort. By destroying the agricultural abundance (however reduced that may have been already, by 1864) of the Shenandoah Valley, the Federals would gain an even greater victory in the efforts to crush the rebellion… a victory not evaluated by accomplishments on the battlefield, nor, I suggest… considered fully by many who look at the Civil War purely for the military aspects.

This is the way our history reads… but I think I’m concerned also with legacy of the “Burning”, and how it has left us a sort of double-edged sword, in our memory… leaving other things to obscurity (eclipsed)…. perhaps.

For many who claim the Valley as their home (if “memory” actually lingers… as it does not for many), it has left a “memory” that is greater than the “Burning” itself. The “Burning” most certainly had an impact (on some, yet, interestingly, not on all), yet “memory” in the Valley seems to recount the horrors of homes being burned, etc. The reality, however, is that it was under Gen. David Hunter that these “house-burnings” took place… and not under Phil Sheridan. That’s not to say, however, that seeing the sky turned black from the fires of burning barns and mills… and the corralling of cattle, sheep, hogs, etc. wasn’t significant enough. Then too, there was the trauma experienced in encounters with zealous Federal soldiers, engaged in these things (although, the memory of those Federals who were not so zealous seems to have virtually vanished).

On the other hand, I’ve also seen remarks by some who seem to think that the “Burning” was “deserved”. Paraphrasing a line from the movie “Glory”, it’s something like “Secesh needs to be swept away by the hand of God”. Indeed, and slaveholders (fewer than many may actually realize in the Valley) deserved that final, decisive blow (while, in fact, many had already lost their slaves… as early as the presence of Federal troops in 1862).

These are all interesting things to ponder, yet… as I said… what else did the “Burning” impact in the Shenandoah? What has been “obscured” by the two-sided memory of the “Burnings”, and in fact, the war in the Shenandoah Valley?

I don’t think the “Burning” itself WAS the definitive impact, but it may well have been the closing (and perhaps most traumatic) chapter of the greater episode known as the Civil War/War Between the States. I would say, it was the final closing door on a “way of life”, but… being so “general” a statement, I’m afraid too many folks would be too quick in jumping to a conclusion. Just as an example, “Ah! So, you’re saying that you’re in sympathy with the days of slaveholding?” I have little tolerance for such hasty and foolish conclusions. In fact, anyone who does not give careful consideration for life in the Shenandoah prior to the war should not be dealing out conclusions about the impact of the war… or even the “Burning” as part of it.

I think there is a cultural side of life in the Valley that seems to disappear in years after the war. Strange to say, it’s actually been something I’ve detected in my ongoing evaluation of literature coming out of the Valley prior to the war… compared with literature coming out of the Valley in the latter part of the 19th century. I suspect, actually, that this was just one area in which life turned around for Valley folks as a result of the war (and, again, the “Burning” being the final chapter in that story). I say this because… and this might seem incredibly ironic considering what I just said above about slaveholding in the Valley… most of those engaged in producing literature in the Valley were of the slaveholding elite. This well-educated lot… men and, yes, even women… produced works that were of a different “grade”. They were not what some call “Southern apologia”, but were much more consumed by an infatuation with the history of the area in its “backwoods” colonial and post-colonial days (even through the turn of the century, leading into the 1800s). Furthermore, even those outside the Shenandoah, who desired to feature the Valley in some way or another in their works, were focused on a much earlier time… William Makepeace Thackeray and Washington Irving being two of the most significant examples.

Ultimately, this post may reflect more significantly on the regional impact of the war, as opposed to the “Burning”, and, in fact, it may speak more about my thinking this morning when considering the Sesquicentennial of the “Burning” and how it happens to align with my progression of thought regarding 19th century literature of the area… but I think the example of “change” in various areas of the South following the war (and how major traumatic episodes experienced by the locals in the different regions) should be considered, within specific regions of the South, on a larger scale. Certainly, the end result did have an impact on both those who owned slaves and the liberated slaves themselves (not to mention, on race relations in those areas), AND there are military situations to consider in the chain of events leading up to the end result(s), but… in the bigger picture of our evaluation of outcomes, have we become focused too much on the single issue of slavery and race relations as they evolved after the war? Not at all to diminish the significance of this, but should we also (emphasis on “also”) not give consideration to how other things were impacted? Further, as we “interact” with these last months of the Sesquicentennial, perhaps we should ask not only how our “memory” fails us, but also how our commemoration might be, at times, too narrowly focused… and we ultimately fail our own history.