Book review

The Burning: Sheridan's Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley

By John L. Heatwole (Rockbridge Publishing 1998 19.99)

 

Review by: Stan May

 

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Sheridan's 1864 Shenandoah Campaign was its deliberate and planned nature. Unlike the haphazard devastation caused by Sherman's march through Georgia, the Burning was committed systematically and by order. This was total war carried out by a new brand of Union leadership, aimed not merely at denying the military use of the valley, but with the objective of teaching the non-combatant population the price of rebellion. Everything of military or economic value to the South was to be destroyed or carried off.


However, planned as the Burning was, its execution was in practice, uneven. Farms of pro-Union pacifist Dunkards and Mennonites were put to the torch, whilst bold actions by feisty Confederate women deflected the Federals from their purpose on more than one occasion.

 

The volatile state of the valley in 1864 was not improved by the activities of the semi-regular Confederate Partisan Rangers; Union and Rebel guerrillas; bushwhackers, and outright criminal gangs who infested Northern Virginia. The real or imagined atrocities committed by both sides led to a spiral of revenge killings and reprisal in which the guilty and innocent suffered almost equally.

 

The author draws on a wide range of published and unpublished material together with personal interviews. After describing the valley and its inhabitants he outlines the political and military background to the campaign, and then using a chronological approach, skillfully interweaves the experiences of local civilians with an account of military events during that last dreadful autumn of the war.

 

Heatwole is one of the newer generation of Civil War historians who, backed by their own detailed local knowledge and connections, mine the rich veins of the war's social history and genealogy. Heatwole's roots go down deep into the Shenandoah soil for his Scotch-Irish and German-Swiss predecessors settled the valley in the mid 18th century.

 

In addition to book and periodical references, the bibliography includes unpublished and published works in national, state, and local collections, together with a list of New York and local newspaper sources. Of particular interest are the 65 oral interviews the author undertook with present day relatives of the civil war families whose experiences are recounted.

 

Round Table members will be delighted to hear that a signed copy of "The Burning" has been deposited in the ACWRT Library.