How strategically important was city during Civil War?
ADRIAN J. O’CONNOR
Now that we at The Star have finally been able to put this recent hotly contested election season in the books, or the so-called “rear-view mirror,” the editorial page can return to its biweekly glances at Winchester’s history as the city celebrates its 275th anniversary.
It’s mid-November, we realize, but bear with us — or rather with me — as we finally engage the city’s seminal historical event: its role in the Civil War.
Time was when Winchester’s strategic importance, or significance, was hardly questioned. But that was before Keven Walker became chief executive officer of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. Speaking back in the summer at the annual Godfrey Miller Lecture Series, Walker presented a different take on the city’s place in the Civil War sun. I’ll get to that summarily, but, for the moment, let’s look at the standard assessment.
Acknowledging the city’s geographic location — at the bottom or far end of the Shenandoah Valley — is to almost automatically assume its importance. It occupies a latitudinal line with Washington, D.C.. Couple this with the fact it lay at the hub of a road system — the only one of its time, it’s been said — connecting the Ohio Valley with the eastern reaches of the United States, and you have a strategic linchpin.
This location speaks to the fact that no less than six battles (not including the climactic Cedar Creek) were fought in and around Winchester, and that the city can claim the distinction it changed hands (72 times, 13 in one day) more than any city, town, village, or hamlet during the war. One reason for all this frenetic activity is that Winchester was a jumping-off point for invasions of the North — the Gettysburg campaign in particular.
Thus, the city was a “strategic prize.” Under Confederate control, the confluence of superb north-south connectors in Winchester offered the Confederacy an invasion path to the North and, at the same time, allowed Rebel units to prey on the Union supply network feeding and arming the Federal armies around Richmond.
In Union hands, Winchester blocked Confederate movement, rendering Gen. Robert E. Lee’s northern excursions risky. Union control also opened up a protected area to the south from which its forces could attack the flanks of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Now, that’s the standard view, and it still contains much validity.
Enter Walker. Not speaking facetiously or acidly — maybe the word “wryly” fits — the SVBF chief told his Godfrey Miller audience that “Winchester was nice to have, but not important enough to defend.”
Further observations were as fascinating though somewhat historically iconoclastic. To wit: “Winchester was in the way. Did it have any strategic importance? No.”
Or at least not the same significance as Staunton, base of the Virginia Central Railroad.
If anything, Walker implied, Winchester’s significance lay in the effect constant war had on its populace. Whether Confederate or Unionist, Winchesterians lived in a cockpit of war. Every three to four days, he said, city folk could, at the very least, expect to hear the sounds of combat or smell its distinctive odors.
Thus, Winchester, Walker said, was a place of “extreme terror” — a city living on the edge, ever hopeful “of things getting better. It never did.”