150 Years Ago This Week: ‘The Burning’

September/October 1864

In response to Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s August orders to Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to eliminate the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia as a source of supply to the Confederacy, Gen. Sheridan ordered his men on Saturday, Sept. 24, to begin destroying in earnest barns, mills, crops and livestock throughout the Valley.

Some of the depredations had started in August, but now the destruction became systematic and widespread. People in the Valley today still refer to this calamity as “The Burning.” Union soldiers showed no mercy to the unfortunate families and farmers from Staunton down to Martinsburg and everywhere in between.

There were a few examples where the orders were not enforced, such as the Edinburg Mill in Edinburg and the Willow Grove Mill near Luray; these were the exceptions. The heavy black smoke from burning structures and the corpses of the dead livestock met the eye no matter where one looked in the Valley in the Autumn of 1864.

The livestock that were spared were driven off to serve the needs of the Army of the Shenandoah. By late November, 1864, the damage had just about been completed, and Gen. Grant’s orders — that a crow flying across the Valley had to carry its own food supply in order to survive — became reality.

Following the unsuccessful attempt by Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert to defeat the Confederate cavalry at Milford (today’s Overall) on Sept. 22, the Union cavalry returned north down the Valley to Front Royal.

The next day, some of Lt. Col. John Mosby’s Confederate Rangers attacked an ambulance train of wagons near the south end of Front Royal. In the ensuing fight, Lt. Charles McMasters, 2nd U.S. Cavalry (a Federal officer assigned to the ambulance train), was reported to have been shot in the face and robbed after he had surrendered to the Rangers. The account is still controversial to this day.

Six of the Rangers were captured by Federal cavalry under Col. Charles Lowell, and pursuant to Gen. Grant’s orders in August, that “wherever Mosby’s men are found, they are to be treated as outlaws and executed without trial,” several of the Rangers were hanged and others were shot.

One of the six, a 17-year-old boy, Henry Rhodes, had been wounded by the Federals in Front Royal. The Union troopers tied him between two horses and dragged him at a full gallop on Chester Street in town; his widowed mother was forced to watch her son’s death, and then his body was unceremoniously dropped on the ground at her feet.

The war had turned very dark and very ugly. Col. Mosby, in reprisal, captured a like number of Federal cavalrymen and executed them without trial. This was “Black Flag Warfare,” what we today would call terrorism and war atrocities.

The war in the west was not spared the Black Flag Warfare. On Sept. 27, 30 Confederate guerillas, including George Todd and Frank and Jesse James, led by “Bloody Bill” Anderson, looted and burned the town of Centralia, Mo. Twenty-four unarmed Federal soldiers were killed, and when a Federal force arrived to protect Centralia, they were ambushed by Anderson’s men and 116 Union soldiers were killed.

As September closed, there was fighting on all fronts. In the Shenandoah Valley, the armies of Gen. Sheridan and Lt. Gen. Jubal Early clashed nearly every day. In Tennessee, Maj. Gen. Nathan Forrest’s Confederate cavalry was raiding far and wide against Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Union supply lines. In Missouri, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri was successfully operating against Union forces sent to halt the Confederate advances. And in the lines around Richmond and Petersburg, Va., Gen. Grant’s armies were engaged in a major battle lasting four days at Peeble’s and Chaffin’s Farms.

Sixteen thousand Federals of Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac had attempted to encircle Petersburg, west of the Weldon Railroad, and take the vital South Side Railroad. When the fighting ended on Sunday, Oct. 2, the Union troops had discovered the Confederate infantry and cavalry had withdrawn to their established entrenchments.

Federal casualties numbered almost 3,000 killed, wounded, missing or captured during the four-day battle. The number of Confederate casualties is uncertain. What is certain is that Gen. Lee could ill-afford to sustain any substantial number of Southern casualties.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.