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The case for saving Shenandoah's Civil War battlegrounds

The case for saving Shenandoah's Civil War battlegrounds

Many Americans recognize the significance of such Civil War battles and campaigns as Antietam, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Petersburg.

All of these battlefields are now national parks that attract millions of visitors each year.

More than 125 years after the guns went silent, tourists can walk the ground near Sharpsburg, Md., where more Americans died in one day _ Sept. 17, 1862 _ than any other day in our history. They can scan the fields at Gettysburg, where 13,000 Confederate soldiers launched an assault of futile courage on July 3, 1863. And they can see where Grant's legions put their siege lines at Vicksburg, forcing that city's defenders to eat mules and rats before surrendering.

No one can truly comprehend the tragic but triumphant trauma of the American Civil War without visiting such battlefields. But there are two large gaps in our commemoration of the engagements of the Civil War _ Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1862 and Phil Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1864.

No national park _ or state or local park _ marks any of the eight battles and numerous important skirmishes involved in these Virginia campaigns, even though they were as crucial in shaping the course and outcome of the war as were Antietam, Vicksburg and Chattanooga _ yes, even as important as Gettysburg itself.

The two Shenandoah Valley campaigns produced two of the four major turning points of the war (the other two were Antietam and Gettysburg-Vicksburg). Jackson's string of victories in the valley from May 8, 1862, to June 9, 1862, reversed a tide of Northern triumphs during the preceding three months that had threatened to sink the Confederacy.

The Union had captured Roanoke Island and New Bern in North Carolina, forts Henry and Donelson, Nashville and New Orleans and the lower Mississippi valley. Union victories in the bloody battles of Shiloh and Pea Ridge and the advance of the largest Union army to within six miles of Richmond in the spring of 1862 had caused panic and depression in the South. In mid-May 1862, the Confederate government was prepared to evacuate Richmond. Then came Jackson's extraordinary victories in the Shenandoah Valley _ at McDowell on May 8, Front Royal on May 23, Winchester on May 25 and Cross Keys and Port Republic on June 8 and 9.

These victories proved to be a strategic shot in the arm for the Confederacy. They changed the momentum of the war and launched a year of Southern victories in the Virginia theater that culminated in the Confederacy's high tide at Gettysburg.

The tide receded, but by the late summer of 1864 Confederate prospects again seemed promising. The two largest Northern military efforts of the war, to capture Richmond and Atlanta, had bogged down in apparent stalemate after 100,000 Union casualties. The shock of death and failure staggered the Union, threatened Lincoln's re-election and spawned a peace movement in the North.

In July a small Confederate army commanded by Jubal Early cleared Union forces out of the Shenandoah Valley and marched all the way to the outskirts of Washington before pulling back. During this crisis, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sent one of his favorite subordinates, Philip Sheridan, to the valley to take command of a composite "Army of the Shenandoah" and crush Early. In three battles _ among the most one-sided Union victories of the war _ Sheridan did precisely that: at Third Winchester (or Opequon Creek) on Sept. 19, Fisher's Hill on Sept. 22 and Cedar Creek on Oct. 19. These battles ensured Lincoln's re-election on a platform of unconditional victory and marked the final turn of the tide toward Appomattox.

Most of the battlefield sites in the valley still possess a high degree of historical integrity, that is, the topography _ the fields and forests, the hills and valleys and views _ has changed little since the Civil War. The absence of a national park here has always been a mystery to me. But there is now a chance to remedy this omission _ maybe the last chance.

The expansion of development along I-66 to its intersection with I-81 a few miles from five of the Shenandoah Valley battlefield sites threatens these sites with extinction. To avoid that fate, Congress should authorize a Shenandoah Valley National Battlefield Park as envisioned in legislation introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., in the House and Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Charles S. Robb, D-Va., and Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt.

Creation of such a park would make it possible for millions of Americans to visit these battlefields, where thousands gave their last full measure of devotion just as surely as did those who died at Gettysburg.

James M. McPherson, a historian, is president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites Inc. His book, Battle Cry of Freedom, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989.

Special to the Washington Post