- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

Call it the seasonal call of the wild — or at least the lure of the leaves. Each year, thousands of Washingtonians heed the pull of what the changing temperature has wrought: spectacular hues of gold, purple and crimson blanketing the Shenandoah Valley, that 150-mile stretch of scenery that runs between the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge.

But the resplendent foliage doesn’t begin to cover what can be found along and beyond Skyline Drive. Apart from wild turkeys, white-tailed deer and the occasional bear or two, the area boasts a rich history that goes well beyond the battlefield.

So forget the Civil War you thought you knew. As you ramble through the area in search of fall color, venture off the scenic road and find new ways of looking at the past. Check out an old battlefield with fresh eyes, or go beyond the combat zone and uncover the stories of people who lived ordinary lives in an extraordinary time and rose to meet the challenge.

That won’t be difficult, because the stories are built in.

“People don’t have dinner around here without ending up talking about the Civil War,” says Don Liscomb, an acknowledged Civil War buff who lives in Luray. “Everyone thinks he knows something.”

A Drive into history

Most Washington area travelers start their trek down Skyline Drive at Front Royal, a town that saw heavy fighting in May of 1862, when Confederate troops pursued Union men through the streets. Start your Front Royal visit with a quick trip to the visitor center on Main Street, where you can glance at a map and pick up a walking tour of the town or a driving tour of the vicinity.

Because if you are going to “do” the Shenandoah Valley, it’s vital to consider the lay of the land — and that’s one reason to travel Skyline Drive, 75 years old this year. From it you can see the area’s topography for miles around.

The scenic road runs 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park, a region particularly important during the Civil War not only because the mountains could provide cover and screen troop movements, but because the ranges themselves tended to pull invading troops from the North away from Richmond and help move invading troops from the South toward Washington.

Dubbed “the breadbasket of the Confederacy,” the valley was a prime producer of grain and other foodstuffs needed by troops during the course of the war. It must have been seen as a boon by more than one soldier, who was expected to live off the land whenever possible.

Few traces remain along the road of the farms and families that filled the area during the Civil War — some old chimneys, apple orchards and a stand of trees that once probably shaded someone’s front porch. More than 450 families were forced out of the area before construction of Skyline Drive got under way in 1931.

But cutting across Skyline at some strategic intersections are roads that can take you into that earlier time.

Battlefield lore

Turn off the scenic road at Route 211 and travel west, for example, and you’ll come to the town of Luray, rich in its own Civil War history.

“Soldiers from both sides came through here,” Mr. Liscomb says. “Stonewall Jackson reviewed the troops from the center of town.”

Venture off the main road in the area around Luray and you?ll find plenty of historical markers that bear witness to troop activity in the area.

And a number of old buildings still stand that saw their own sort of action during the war years. For example, Stonewall Jackson himself is said to have made a stop to pray at the Mauck Meeting House, located about a mile outside of Luray, on Route 766. You can read more about Civil War sites in Luray and Page County, and follow driving tours in Robert H. Moore’s book “Avenue of Armies: Civil War Sites and Stories of Luray and Page County, Virginia.”

Continue west along 211 toward New Market, an early crossroads town along the Valley Pike, in existence since 1834. Start at the battlefield itself just outside of town. Although the Battle of New Market, fought in driving rain on May 15, 1864, was on the smaller scale of Civil War battles, its significance is far greater, according to Stacy Nadeau, who leads tours of the battlefield.

“There were more people killed at Antietam in one hour than fought here,” she says. “But the lesson here is about doing your duty, regardless of the outcome. That is the thing that should be celebrated.”

She’s referring, of course, to the participation of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who were reluctantly sent in by Confederate Gen. John C. Breckenridge whenhis line was in danger of disintegration.

Marching in from Lexington, 84 miles away, the “boys” (they ranged in age from 15 to 20) faced scorn, not only from the enemy but also from troops on their own side, who would pantomime “rock-a-bye baby” as they passed by.

In the end, “the boys” acquitted themselves handsomely, thanks to their own willingness to obey orders and the tendency of the Union commander, Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, to bark his orders to his troops in German rather than English during the height of the battle.

Telling the story

It’s easy to learn more about the Civil War’s impact on civilians in the town of New Market itself. That’s where Betty Karol Wilson, the owner of the Apple Blossom Inn, conducts walking tours.

“It’s a story of community and families and how they survived,” says Mrs. Wilson, who used her skills as a music historian to research the town and its inhabitants. “The things that happened in New Market reflect what happened in the country.”

Highlighted on the tour are the contributions of two women who stood on opposite sides during the war but were united, at least in spirit, by their care for those afflicted by it.

“Jessie Rupert was the main Union sympathizer,” says Mrs. Wilson. “And she lived across the street from Eliza Clinedinst Crim, who was known for helping the Confederates.”

Rupert gained some notoriety before the war for operating a school for blacks, along with employing a somewhat unpopular VMI instructor, Thomas Jackson, who was called “Fool Tom,” by many of his students.

He was “Fool Tom” until, as a Confederate brigadier general, he made his stand at 1st Manassas and earned the sobriquet “Stonewall.” Gen. Jackson was the strategic mastermind behind the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, where he used his knowledge of the area to outwit U.S. troops and their commanders.

But the stories you’ll hear here reflect the fact that, North or South, today we are a nation once again. Mrs. Wilson, an accomplished singer, tells of her being asked to perform for the annual remembrance ceremony at the cemetery in New Market, where scores of Confederate dead were buried (Union soldiers who fell during the battle were buried along the side of the Valley Pike).

“I wasn’t going to sing ‘Dixie’ or ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” she says. “The war’s been over for 142 years. I wanted to sing something that would express their humanity.”

So she turned to an old folk song that would have been known to troops both blue and gray, trudging through the seemingly endless valley weighed down by woollen uniform, a firearm, and a 40-pound pack:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through this world of woe …

Down the Valley Pike

From New Market, you may want to travel south on Route 11, known during the Civil War as the Valley Pike.

At Harrisonburg, once a market town and now a college hub that is home to James Madison and Eastern Mennonite universities, evidence of the war is all about, along with pieces of the town’s Revolutionary War involvement and more recent past. You can even take a driving tour of the area, available on CD for $5 from Harrisonburg Tourism and Visitor Services at 212 S. Main St.

It was near Harrisonburg that John R. Meigs, the mathematically minded young son of Union Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs, was killed in October 1864. Today locals still debate whether he was killed in action or murdered after he surrendered. Whatever the manner of his death, it so incensed Union Gen. Philip Sheridan that he initiated a three-week period known in local parlance simply as “The Burning.”

“The legend asserts that they burned more than they did,” says Mark Metzler Sawin, associate professor of history at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg. “But they did go after barns and mills.”

The Harrisonburg area, indeed the entire Shenandoah Valley, was also home to a significant amount of pro-Union sentiment. With most farmers holding few slaves, if any, resentment grew as the Confederates instituted an increasingly rigorous series of drafts while exempting one white male for every 20 slaves on a plantation.

Resistance to the draft grew as many Southerners, particularly those in the valley, increasingly viewed the conflict as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” And resentment grew as farm goods were seized and paid for with increasingly worthless Confederate paper money.

“The ‘Solid South’ is one of the myths of the ‘Lost Cause,’” says Steven Longenecker, professor of history at Bridgewater College, a Church of the Brethren college south of Harrisonburg. “There was a lot more Unionism here than we thought.”

In addition, the valley contained no small number of Mennonites and followers of the Church of the Brethren, who were pacifist in nature and pro-Unionist in stance.

“The Mennonites and Brethren didn’t allow slaveholding,” says Mr. Sawin. “They excommunicated slaveholders who wouldn’t get rid of their slaves.”

Those who came before

From Harrisonburg, you can pick up Route 33 east to return to Skyline Drive, or continue on Route 11 south to Staunton, an important railroad hub during the Civil War.

Back on Skyline Drive, which you can reach via Route 250, you may want to travel to Waynesboro, where Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer led the Union attack in March 1865, breaking the Confederate line and capturing just about everyone except for Lt. Gen. Jubal Early himself.

From Waynesboro, head back along Skyline Drive to Front Royal. You’ll pass through a number of stops with a Civil War story, like Hensley Hollow, where in 1862 a camp of 300 to 400 pro-Unionists hid out until they were captured by Stonewall Jackson’s men.

In May of that year, Jackson also sent troops through Brown’s Gap, appearing to head to Richmond. The movement, of course, was a feint: Jackson suddenly veered west and loaded up his men on trains to travel back to the valley through the Blue Ridge Tunnel at Rockfish Gap and on to do battle at McDowell.

Or you can veer off Skyline Drive again and visit even more Civil War sites, like Kernstown and Port Republic, the climactic battle of the 1862 campaign, and Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek, the last major battle in the valley.

Just don’t forget those who came before you.

Civil War re-enactments, autumn celebrations

Waiting for the leaves to look just right before you venture into the Shenandoah Valley? Check out the Virginia foliage report at virginia.org/fall for leaf reports, a scenic-byway map and a listing of festivals and events. Here are highlights:

Selected events in the valley

• North-South Skirmish Association’s 114th National Skirmish: Fort Shenandoah, 480 Chalybeate Spring Road, Winchester. Member units compete in live-fire matches with original or authentic reproduction Civil War period muskets, carbines, breech loading rifles, revolvers, mortars and cannons. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 6. Free. 248/258-9007 or www.n-ssa.org.

• Battle of Hupp’s Hill Lantern Tours: Crystal Caverns at Hupp’s Hill, 33231 Old Valley Pike, Strasburg. A candlelight tour through the Hupp’s Hill Battlefield Park, as well as Civil War lantern tours through Crystal Caverns with guides dressed in period clothing. 7-9 p.m. Oct. 7. Admission. 540/465-5884 or waysideofva.com.

• Dayton Autumn Celebration: Main and College streets, Dayton. More than 200 arts and crafts exhibitors, food, children’s activities, downtown shops, Dayton Farmer’s Market, Daniel Harrison House (c 1749), Historic Society Heritage Center, Silver Lake Mill, free shuttle bus from John Wayland Elementary School, Wilbur Pence Middle School, and Turner 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 7. 540/246-4272 or townofdaytonva.us.

• Front Royal Festival of Leaves: Main and Chester streets, Front Royal. Historical demonstrations, living history interpretations, arts and crafts, food, a parade, music, children’s corner, more. Sponsored by the Warren Heritage Society. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Oct. 14. Free. See warrenhs.org.

• Autumn Peak at Massanutten Resort: 1822 Resort Drive, Massanutten. Arts and crafts, bands, children’s activities, chairlift rides to the Massanutten Peak. Food and beverages available. Bring lawn chairs or blankets. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 14, rain or shine. Admission. 540/289-9441 or massresort.com.

Touring on your own

• Front Royal Visitor’s Center: 414 E. Main St., Front Royal. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 800/338-2576 or ci.front-royal.va.us

• Luray/Page County Chamber of Commerce: 46 East Main St., Luray. 540/743-3915, 540/743-4530, 888/743-3915 or luraypage.com.

• Harrisonburg Tourism: 212 S. Main St., Harrisonburg. Driving tour, “Rockingham Routes,” is $5 from: Harrisonburg Tourism and Visitor Services in the Hardesty-Higgins House, 212 S. Main St. Also from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, and the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association. 540/432-8935 or harrisonburgtourism.com.

• New Market Battlefield State Historic Park: Route 305, New Market (I-81 Exit 264 to Route 211 West; take immediate right onto Route 305 and continue one mile). From June to October, a 45-minute staff-guided tour is conducted on weekends at 1 p.m. (battlefield) and 3 p.m. (farm complex). $9 adult, $8 senior, $5 youth (6-17), under 5 free. 866/515-1864 or www4.vmi.edu/ museum/nm/index.html.

• New Market: The Apple Blossom Inn’s Walking Tours: 9317 N. Congress St., New Market. Two separate tours of 90 minutes each. $9.50, $9 adults, $4.50 children. Reservations required at 540/325-9529 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. For information call 540/740-3747 or see appleblossominn.net/new-market-walking-tours.html.

• Staunton Visitor Center: 35 S. New St., Staunton. 540/332-3971 or www.staunton.va.us/visitor.

• Waynesboro Tourism: 301 W. Main St., Waynesboro. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. 540/942-6644, 866-253-1957 or waynesboro.va.us/tourism.html

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