WINCHESTER — When you live in a place as rich with history as the northern Shenandoah Valley, it only makes sense to dedicate an entire weekend to exploring some of that history.
That's the idea behind the annual Civil War Weekend, made up of dozens of events offering hands on-learning experiences for history enthusiasts of every age.
This year, attendees were able to access numerous free walking and driving tours, reenactment demonstrations and interactive lectures.
City resident Jessica Jackson enjoyed a walking tour downtown with her husband and daughter on Saturday. She said she appreciated the architecture and stories of the historic buildings and houses in the downtown area.
"You walk around here all the time, but you don't notice all of the buildings," she said.
The walking tour, which was guided by Jonathan Noyalas, director of the McCormick Civil War Institute at Shenandoah University, gave an overview of the spring of 1864 in Winchester, the last gasp of Confederate resistance in the region before the end of the war.
Noyalas told attendees some harrowing details of the conflict, such as the fact that more than 100 horses were shot to death downtown by Union soldiers to keep the horses from falling into enemy hands. There were also humorous stories, such as the anecdote about a Union captain who, being a large man, was unable to fit himself under the bed in an upstairs room of the house at 112 N. Cameron St., where he tried to escape from Confederate soldiers.
Noyalas also detailed the Union attempt to recruit black soldiers in the Valley, which was the worst fear of many Confederate sympathizers, including Winchester diarist Mary Greenhow Lee.
On Sept. 19, 1864, Lee and other Confederate women formed a human chain on what is today North Cameron Street to try and stop Confederate soldiers from fleeing south through the city after the Third Battle of Winchester, but to no avail. That retreat set the stage for the conflict at Cedar Creek near Middletown, which closed off the Shenandoah Valley to the Confederacy forever.
"If you are a Confederate on Sept. 19, it's the beginning of the end for you," Noyalas said.
Noyalas also spoke about Winchester's economic recovery, which came swiftly after the war because of millions of dollars worth of investment from agricultural interests in Baltimore. Winchester — despite being "completely and utterly destroyed" by war's end — had recovered fully by 1880, he said. Comparatively, some communities in Georgia and Louisiana did not recover until after World War II.
Civil War Weekend is a joint project of several local groups including the Winchester-Frederick County Visitors Bureau, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, the Kernstown Battlefield Association, Frederick County Parks and Recreation and Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute.
Mike Scheibe, a volunteer with Shenandoah Valley Battlefields, wore a Union artillerist's uniform and showed students and adults how to operate a cannon like those manufactured by the Parrot company in New York during the war.
"The kids can see how intense and intricate it was, but still pretty simple," Scheibe said of the cannon. "I could probably have them firing the real thing in an hour, even being kids."
Scheibe said the reenactment experience is meant to give people a genuine feel for how a soldier would have dressed and operated in the field. The weapons are exact replicas and the uniforms are all handmade and "heavily researched."
Ginger Elberson said she appreciated the hands-on experience as her 11-year-old son Kyle learned about the cannon.
"I think it's good for him to see it as he's learning," Elberson said. "When they get to interact... they actually learn more."