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Lessons for today from the Shenandoah's Civil War flames


This is the 150th anniversary of one of the Civil War's most destructive and controversial campaigns. After Confederate armies had used the Shenandoah Valley to launch several invasions of the North, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan unleashed a hundred-mile swath of flames that left vast numbers of civilians tottering toward starvation. Unfortunately, the burning of the Shenandoah Valley has been largely forgotten, foreshadowing how subsequent brutal military operations would also vanish down the memory hole.

In August 1864, supreme Union commander Ulysses S. Grant ordered Sheridan to "do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste." Sheridan set to the task with vehemence, declaring that "the people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war" and promised that, when he was finished, the valley "from Winchester to Staunton will have but little in it for man or beast."

Some Union soldiers were aghast at their marching orders. A Pennsylvania cavalryman lamented at the end of the fiery spree: "We burnt some sixty houses and all most of the barns, hay, grain and corn in the shocks for fifty miles [south of] Strasburg … . It was a hard-looking sight to see the women and children turned out of doors at this season of the year."

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