Skilly's 2014 Road Trip travel blog

I decided to "camp out" in the Winchester, VA, area after I left Lexington on 3 June. I wanted to investigate Winchester, go to a nearby battlefield (what a shocker), catch up on some paper work, and see Char, not necessarily in that order.

Both Lexington and Winchester are cities in the long valley created by the Blue Ridge on the eastern side and the Allegheny Mountains on the western side; the Shenandoah Mountain is a 70-mile long ridge that is part of the Allegheny chain which, in turn, is part of the Appalachian chain (or so I am told -- I find it all very confusing). It has some spectacular scenery.

The valley was apparently a vibrant hunting area for Native Americans and became a breadbasket when it was settled in the latter part of the 19th Century by folks coming down the valley from Pennsylvania, including many Germans and folks of German ancestry. Until the Civil War, most of the agricultural goods from the valley went north along a crushed stone road to Maryland and Pennsylvania (the forerunner of Interstate 81).

The valley in this area was, and still is, very different from the Tidewater area. Farmers raised wheat and other food crops rather than the more labor-intensive cash crops like tobacco and cotton. The European population was more diverse (e.g., there were more Germans, etc.). While there were slaves in the valley, many farmers did not have slaves for economic or moral reasons and the ones who did, needed fewer slaves.

Battle of Cedar Creek (If you are bored with the Civil War by now, go directly to the section on Belle Grove)

The Confederates needed the valley for food and other resources and managed to control it during the first part of the War. The Confederates tended to assign competent commanders such as Stonewall Jackson, whereas the Union tended to assign prima donnas or less than competent ones. Guess the results.

This changed in late 1864. In an unusual move, the Federals assigned Philip Sheridan, a cavalry officer, to command the newly formed Army of the Shenandoah. Naturally, one of his goals was to win battles which would help Lincoln's re-election efforts. Another was to keep Confederate troops engaged in the Shenandoah so that they could not be used to reinforce Lee.

But, there was an equally importation goal -- deprivation. At this point, the Federal policy of "strangling" the Confederacy (war of attrition) was in full swing. The Union blockaded Confederate shipping, intentionally inflicted human losses on the Army of Northern Virginia that it could not replace, and brought the war to civilians by isolating and starving Richmond and Petersburg.

By October, Sheridan defeated the confederates in a number of smaller engagements near Winchester. Then the destroyed or burned anything that could be useful to the Confederates across the valley for 70 miles south of the Winchester area -- crops, mills, machinery, etc. To this day, his actions are referred to as "The Burning". The Confederacy's breadbasket was severely compromised and food and supplies dwindled. This type of "scorched earth" initiative foreshadowed Sherman's march to the sea that would start in November.

By 18 October, General Jubal Early still had 14,000 Confederate troops in the Shenandoah, but was desperate to retain control of at least some part of the valley. Sheridan had three corps (about 40,000 troops) encamped about 20 miles south of Winchester around Cedar Creek and the Belle Grove plantation.

Despite being outnumbered three to one, Early marched his men through the night over difficult terrain (some had to ford the Shenandoah River twice)to position themselves at the left flank of the Union army. It was a desperate measure given the odds, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

At the very first light on 19 October, the Confederate forces struck the Union camps and caught the troops with "their pants down" literally. It was a rout and the Union lines dissolved quickly. Within several hours the entire Union force was pushed back miles north from their positions.

Upon the Federal retreat, Confederate troops started to "forage" the field of battle for provisions, footwear, and clothing. General Early decided to forego pursuit of the fleeing Federals and allow his troops who marched all night to rest or to loot the dead and dying. Big mistake!

Sheridan was returning from Washington and stayed in Winchester the night before the battle. In the morning, he heard the gun fire and rode south to the battle. This ride, as you may remember from your school days, was the subject of the famous, but horribly mawkish poem cleverly called "Sheridan's Ride". Well, he arrived in the proverbial "nick of time" (whatever is a "nick" of time?), rallied the men, counterattacked, and overran the Confederates. It was a perfect example of him grasping victory from the jaws of defeat (and vice versa for Early). For all intents and purposes, this battle ended the war in the valley and the Army of Northern Virginia lost a breadbasket.

I toured a lot of the extensive field by car and have a great appreciation for the ill-fed and ill-shod Confederate soldiers who marched through rough terrain that was miserable to drive around -- much less walk with a knapsack and gun. What I do not understand was how 14,000 walking/marching men can "sneak up" on an army. How quiet could they be? Where they 14,000 ninjas? Where were the Union pickets? Anyway, I found the whole thing fascinating and kudos to Early and Gordon.

Unlike most major battlefields, the Park Service does not own or control the Cedar Creek Battlefield. It is relegated to a storefront in a nearby strip mall. But, it still does a great job. Their visitors center has a three-dimensional representation of the battlefield with hills, woods, and landmarks. Tiny lights -- blue for the Union and red for the Confederates) blink on and off to indicate troop movements over time. This is the best way to understand the dynamics of a battle and I just eat this stuff up and want to take the display with me. The Park Service also offers lectures at Belle Grove and other sites. My admiration for the Park Service grows with each encounter. Hey, maybe the Park Service should take over the Veterans' Administration.

This little-known and out-of-the way battlefield was not on my radar when I started to plan my adventures, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable visits. This proves once again that it is smarter to be lucky than lucky to be smart.

Belle Grove

The Bell Grove plantation was in the middle of the battlefield and was the Union Headquarters. The "mansion" was restored to the condition it was in about 1820 or so by a local group that operates the mansion for the National Historic Preservation Trust.

The mansion was built in the late 18th Century by one Frederick Hite, a grandson of German immigrants, and his wife who was the sister of James Madison. It was made of local gray limestone, so it looks a lot differently from the Tidewater plantations. It is smaller and better designed than most of the Tidewater ones, partially because the architect consulted Thomas Jefferson.

I have been in a lot of plantation houses, most recently the one overlooking Fredericksburg. After the first ten or so, the rest are blah, blah, blah. Not Belle Grove. It is actually very charming but practical, as well as intrinsically elegant but comfortable. With the exception of the apparent lack of indoor plumbing, I was ready to move into it (well, I doubt that I could afford the upkeep on it.).

Even better, the docent was very welcoming and knowledgeable. You not only get an interesting story about the unique house and its builders, but you get an excellent commentary on the region in the first half of the 19th Century. Tom and Debbi were absolutely on point -- the smaller attractions often have better docents.

If you are traveling on Interstate 81 in this area, take the time and stop at Belle Grove. It will be a refreshing break from your travels.


Winchester is a much larger place than Lexington -- Winchester has an urban population of 27,000 and a metropolitan population of close to 125,000; Lexington has 7,000. My guess would be that Winchester is primarily and agricultural-based community whereas Lexington appears to be an academic enclave with some tourisms thrown into the mix. Winchester is definitively not as posh as Upperville, Leesburg, etc. twenty miles away on the other side of the Blue Ridge.

While not flat, Winchester is blissfully flatter than Lexington. It is well-maintained and picturesque with a lot of large churches in the central area. Winchester and Lexington have a much more prosperous look than Petersburg and Hopewell, which still look somewhat blighted.

Winchester is consciously trying to maintain a vibrant downtown area. One of the main shopping streets was converted to a pedestrian mall. While there are still a few empty 1960s storefronts and a gospel mission in one storefront, it seems to be evolving into a place where people shop, eat and congregate -- just like a downtown in olden days. There was a promising northern Italian restaurant, a British pub, and the trendy American eatery called the Village Square that I tried.

Backtracking for a minute, I was on the mall at midday on a beautiful Saturday in June. Coincidently, there was a micro-brewery festival on the mall with about 40 tents offering samples of their beers. People would purchase a pass and a small glass and they could sample any of the beers. It was great to watch these folks and I imagine after several more hours it became quite festive.

I watched the festivities from the patio of the Village Square. To give you an idea of its offerings, the special was Philly cheese steak, but it was made with lamb, not beef. I opted for something more "picniky" -- wonderful club sandwich on thick homemade bread followed with crème brulee. The brulee was made with real vanilla beans and I was in heaven. I am somewhat of a vanilla nut -- I am traveling with emergency vanilla beans because one cannot get them everywhere and the need may arise. Do not ask what other emergency supplies that I have in the car.

As I was savoring my crème brulee and watching the beer tasters, I looked up and saw a Confederate officer and a woman in a hoop skirt exit the restaurant. No one but me seemed to think this was a bit odd. During the course of the next twenty minutes, about 20 officers and their hoop-skirted ladies emerged from the restaurant -- there were no enlisted folks. There were no Yankees either (although I did see General Grant smoking a cigar later). Oh well, the Confederacy is apparently not dead in parts of Virginia and it is eating well.

The entire scene seemed to capture Winchester (or at least I hope it did) -- beer drinkers of all races and ages in shorts and sandals, Confederate officers and their ladies, trendy eateries, and gospel missions. What a wacky mix and what fun!


Entry Rating:     Why ratings?
Please Rate:  
Thank you for voting!
Share |