June of 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, a succession of maneuvers and battles occurring throughout Virginia that temporarily turned the tide of the Civil War in the Confederacy’s favor and secured Jackson’s legendary status. As in many battles of the war, Jefferson County played a key role in the Valley Campaigns by virtue of its location. Situated on the lower (northern) tip of the Valley at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Jefferson County was part of a strategic buffer area between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains stretching southwest to Rockbridge County.
In late March 1862, Union forces mobilized at Harpers Ferry and began moving up the Valley toward Winchester, initially defeating Jackson at Kernstown. However, Jackson’s audacity in battle created such a stir that Union leadership rearranged their strategic approach to the defense of Washington D.C. and their planned assault on the Confederate capital city of Richmond. Control over the Valley’s agricultural assets and transportation routes resulted in a state of constant conflict throughout the war, but Jackson’s campaign stands out for its impressive string of victories after Kernstown – his only loss during the entire war.
One of the many volumes in the West Virginia GeoExplorer Project book collection is Four Years in the Saddle, a “diary of recollection” by Col. Harry Gilmor (1866) which includes a section on his activities serving under Jackson during the Valley Campaign. Gilmor casts himself as a dashing and heroic figure, relating anecdotes about his fighting and shooting prowess and seeming to relish the prospect of engaging the enemy. However, his reverence for Jackson is clear; in one passage Gilmor describes a religious service given by Jackson’s adjutant Robert L. Dabney the morning after the Battle of McDowell:
I watched him closely, and saw not a muscle change during the whole service. The sturdy soldiers, browned in many a hard-fought field, were lying around on bunches of hay, taken from the stacks nearby; and although an incessant skirmish fire was going on, all listened attentively, with every eye fastened upon the great chief. Few have I ever seen with such unflinching nerve, and it was his iron will that won for us many a stubborn fight… Fear had no lodgment in that man’s breast.