The Shenandoah Valley, 1864
During the summer campaign of 1864 Union troops under Grant battered their way through Virginia towards Richmond and Sherman struck deeper in the south at Atlanta and later Savannah. With the nation’s newspapers fixated on the movements of the main armies, Grant prepared a campaign to further weaken the South’s ability to carry on the war.
Grant ordered Philip Sheridan in August of that year to destroy the crops and farms of the Shenandoah Valley, an area which provided large amounts of food to the southern people and armies. Grant told Sheridan that the destruction should be total and as long-lasting as possible. “If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste,” Grant wrote in his orders.
Sheridan burned a path over 100 miles wide through the Valley, vowing to destroy everything in his path “â¦from Winchester to Staunton.” Many of the diaries and journals recorded by the troops who performed the destruction – often farmers themselves, impressed with the fertility of the Valley – complained of the wasteful nature of their work. Sheridan’s men burned not only the planted fields but sheds, silage, barns, and houses. After one of Sheridan’s aides was shot by a Confederate sniper the Union general ordered the destruction of all buildings within five miles of where he stood.
Orchards bearing fruit nearing ripeness were destroyed, eliminating the crop for that fall and for the next several years. Following Grant’s orders to the letter, Sheridan ensured that not only would the Valley not produce crops to feed the rest of the South, but its residents would not be able to sustain themselves off the land where they had lived. Homeless and starving refugees streamed out from the Valley, many to never return.
The damage done in the Shenandoah was a precursor to that which would be done in Georgia. Both actions are described as being a necessity of modern total warfare. Up until that time the willful destruction of the personal property of non-combatants had been considered to be outside of the rules of war, a crime by vengeful troops akin to the pillaging of the Huns or Mongols.