The burning of the Shenandoah Valley

The burning

Custer’s Division Retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, October 7, 1864, by Alfred R Waud. Library of Congress

In the late autumn of 1864, Union troops marched through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, burning up the “breadbasket” region that helped feed and fuel the Confederate foe. The Burning Raid — carried out under order of General Philip H. Sheridan and endorsed by General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant — extended nearly 140 miles from north to south between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. Rich in bountiful wheat harvests and mechanical reapers that helped keep the southern flour mills in business, the Union commanders perceived this agricultural area to be a particular threat to the North’s victory.

According to The War of the Rebellion (the official records of both Union and Confederate armies), the Burning Raid resulted in the destruction of 70 mills full of flour and wheat, and 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming equipment. Even more mills might have been destroyed had it not been stipulated that only barns and mills containing grain or forage were to be burned. Under Sheridan’s orders, those that were empty were to be left standing, and those owned by single women, widows, or orphans were to be spared. As a result, mills such as the one operated by Joseph Byerly’s widow, just east of Bridgewater, were left standing.

Other mills and barns in the Shenandoah Valley also managed to escape the flames of 1864. A display of the Masonic symbol is said to have saved some, while the draping of a Union Flag appears to have spared others. For example, when Samuel Hockman, miller at the Andrew Zirkle Mill in Forestville, saw smoke rising from the structure, he quickly opened a window and hung the Union stars and stripes from the mill peak. He swore his allegiance to the Union, and the mill was spared.

Another Civil War survivor is the Edinburg Mill in Edinburg, Virginia, which was put to the torch but then later extinguished by a bucket-brigade after the troops learned that the mill had been constructed by Major George Grandstaff, who had served in the Mexican wars. At the time of the burning, the mill was occupied by Grandstaff’s granddaughters.

The Breneman-Turner gristmill near Harrisonburg is said to have survived two separate burning attempts by Sheridan. According to local folklore, Federal soldiers came several times to burn the mill. One account reports that when they discovered sickness in the home, they were sympathetic and moved on without setting the mill on fire. Another account holds that soldiers set fire to a wooden addition, but the owners at the time were alerted and able to extinguish the flames. Another theory is that the owners were seen as Union sympathizers by the invading army and were left alone. In any case, the Breneman-Turner mill is now the surviving pre-Civil War mill in Rockingham County with all of its gristmill equipment still in place.



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