Shenandoah County and Tom’s Brook, Virginia during the Civil War

Introduction to the Shenandoah Chronicles – Part 6

© Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

This section was requested by readers, who did not understand the historical context of references to the Battle of Tom’s Brook and the American Civil War in other chapters. The Americas Revealed each day has many readers from around the world. Also, American history textbooks tend to dwell on the famous leaders and generals of the Civil War, leaving out what like was like during that terrible period for other people.

While living in Virginia, I served on the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program Advisory Council. That’s why I knew NPS Director Roger Kennedy in 2010-2011, when he funded my field research in the Southern Appalachians. During the mid-late 1990s, I put considerable professional time into preserving and restoring Union and Confederate fortifications/battlefields in Northwest Metro Atlanta.

After we placed a contract on the old abandoned farm on Tom’s Brook, locals told us that it was “an old Civil War house.” They meant that it was standing during the Civil War. I was immediately amused how obsessed many people in the Valley were about all things Civil War. It only occupied a four year period. Despite this obsession, none of my neighbors, even though they were descended from pioneers, who had settled there in the mid-1700s, knew that a major cavalry battle had been fought near their homes.

The closing attorney took the ownership chain back to 1782, but the plat he used was prepared by George Washington in 1754 (yes, really) and that plat referred to a land patent issued to a Squire Butler in 1731. Clearly, the farm was somewhat older than 1782. When I had time, I had to personally complete the attorney’s work. The first structure on the site was a log blockhouse or fort in 1754. The stone-walled first floor of the blockhouse became the foundation of a house, built by Colonel John Tipton in 1770. The house was used as a hospital during the Civil War.

It wasn’t until a year later, when we were living in the house, that a Historian-Ranger with the National Park Service’s Harpers Ferry Research Station came to our door to tell us that our house was in the center of the largest cavalry battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley and the third largest cavalry battle of the Civil War. He then stated that Congress had authorized his staff to determine the feasibility of a Shenandoah Battlefields National Park. He asked permission for historians and archaeologists to study our property. I said yes!

However, most guests, including all four heroines of our fireside story . . . Cindy, Vivi, Susan and Juliana . . . never really understood that when they walked along the pastures of my farm . . . even from a car in the driveway to inside of the old house . . . they were treading on hallowed ground. On October 8 and 9, 1864 thousands of men fought and died at this farm. The floors of the old house were saturated with their blood This is their story.

Perhaps, I should add that I am a direct descendant of five men from Northeast Georgia, who fought the entire Civil War in Virginia . . . from the first Battle of Manassas onward. Most fought in the major battles of 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley. All were of Creek-Uchee Indian ancestry, served in Cobb’s Legion and all were wounded to various degrees. All fought at the Devil’s Den, Peach Orchard and Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg. My g-grandfather, Jackson Bone, lost his lower leg to artillery shrapnel in the Devil’s Den. Afterward, he played in the band of the Army of Northern Virginia. One was captured at the entrance to our farm on Tom’s Brook on November 8, 1864 – while on picket duty. [Yes! Really!] The other four surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.

Painting commissioned by the America Battlefield Trust. The location is behind my former house on Toms Brook and about 50 feet down stream. This is where I obtained water to baptize Vivi the French Courtesan. Eighteen months later, this is were her daughter Aimee, was playing with my dogs, when Katie Couric suddenly showed up and walked into the kitchen to get water for her daughter, Ellie. Vivi at the time was picking asparagus in the garden, but then hid under the East Portico, when she heard a woman’s voice. Our farm has changed little since the Battle of Toms Brook. In 1993, the American Society for the Protection of Civil War Sites and the Civil War Trust purchased the development rights to our farm in order to insure it would never be subdivided into houses or covered with massive poultry houses.
This photo was made in early April, while I was standing in the bend of Tom’s Brook, which is in the center of the painting above. Melting snow in the mountains to the west causes the creek to be much deeper and broader in the winter and spring than in late summer and fall. The level of our soil would literally go up and down several inches according to how much water was in the caverns below.
May 15, 1864 – Tom’s Brook, Virginia – Yet another massive Union Army flees northward out of the Valley after being defeated by a much smaller Confederate Army at the Battle of New Market. This would be the last time, however. The North was growing steadily stronger, while the Southern army was starving and dwindling away.
Baker’s Store in Mt. Olive is the oldest general store in Virginia. It is a mile south of my former farm on the Back Road. One cannot explain the strange feeling I would get, when I walked into the store to get hoop cheese or country ham . . . then would see a photograph, mounted on the wall, of some of Mosby’s Rangers seated on the front porch, munching on hoop cheese plus fresh biscuits with country ham in them. Most of the buildings in our community had witnessed the Civil War in all its fury!
These three dapper gentlemen were members of Mosby’s Rangers!
Map of the Great Valley of Virginia by Jedidiah Hotchkiss (1862)

The Great Valley of Virginia

The Great Valley of Virginia is a section of the Great Appalachian Valley in Virginia and West Virginia. It is approximately 140 miles long and runs in a southwest-northeast direction.  It is bounded on the west by Little North Mountain a ridge in the Allegheny Mountains and on the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Shenandoah Valley is the northern portion of the Valley of Virginia and includes the drainage basin of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and the Shenandoah River.  At its widest point, the Shenandoah Valley is 25 miles wide.

The Shenandoah Valley is known to Civil War buffs as the locale of many battles, and the homeland of some of the bravest and toughest men in the Confederate Army . . . the Stonewall Brigade of Stonewall Jackson and the 7th Virginia Cavalry (Laurel Brigade).  However, if one had superficially looked at the Shenandoah Valley in 1850, it seemed to be an unlikely place to support secession from the Union.  The majority of its white settlers were of German, Dutch and Swiss ancestry, who had filtered down from southeastern Pennsylvania.  They had close cultural and economic ties with Pennsylvania since most major roads and all railroads in the Valley ran northeast-southwest. 

Up until World War I, the majority of these Germanic families in Shenandoah County spoke their native tongue in their homes and conducted their worship services in German. The northern part of the county even had schools in which predominantly German was spoken.

As can be seen here, almost all the residents of northern Shenandoah County in 1860 were of Germanic descent. The red square (Wisman Family) is the house that I bought and restored. The orange square is the Shillingburg Homestead. One of the Shillingborg descendants will scare the “willies” out of me one night.

The Wilhelm Wisman family, who lived in my former house, lived in a community composed entirely of German, Dutch and German-Swiss families.  The Wismans raised sheep and then used looms to convert the wool in to yarn.  They also dyed the yarn. Much of the equipment for this processing was still in the building that I converted into an architecture office.

The German, Dutch and Swiss families lived on relatively small, intensively cultivated farms and were not inclined to own slaves. Many or most were opposed to slavery. They would seem to have nothing in common with the Virginia Tidewater elite, who did own large numbers of slaves and did support secession from the Union.

Ancestral home of Cindy Funkhouser, one of the heroines in our story

Northern Shenandoah County supported the “Straßburger Zeitung”  a German language newspaper in Strasburg.  It remained a German language newspaper until the United States entered World War I.  A substantial percentage of the Germanic  were pacifists, either Dunkards or Mennonites, who would refuse to serve in the military. In fact, the Confederate Congress passed a special law, which excused the Dunkards* and Mennonites from military service, based on their religious beliefs.  It was the first “conscientious objector” law in history. 

*Dunkard is a German word for “Baptist.”   They formally called themselves, Deutsche Baptistenbruderschaft (German Baptist Brotherhood) but during World War I changed the name to Brethren Church. 

This is a Virginia State Army recruiting parade in Woodstock, VA – held in the spring of 1861. Note the contemptuous way that the artist portrayed the African-Americans in the foreground.

A Native American from Shenandoah County in the Confederate Army

Pvt. John Rhodes

Private John Rhodes enlisted in the Stonewall Brigade of the Confederate Army early in the war and somehow survived a multitude of battles. He obviously had substantial Native American heritage – probably Algonquian or Siouan. While living in Shenandoah County, I encountered several families with substantial Native heritage. They lived in isolated valleys to the north or the south of the main valley. All of these families knew they were “part Indian,” but none knew what tribe. Their families had lived in the county since the 1800s and did not practice any obvious Native traditions.

One possibility is that these Native families moved to the county to work as hunters or laborers for one of the iron furnaces or iron ore mining operations. In the twentieth century there was little interest among academicians in the Native American heritage of the Valley. As a consequence, there has been no effort to identify these Native families and investigate their tribal origins.

Slavery’s evil influence

The Germanic majority generally did not utilize slave labor on their farms and yet slavery had a substantial presence in the Shenandoah Valley.  Slavery was the reason that Shenandoah Valley counties supported Virginia’s secession from the Union, while the majority of residents in counties to the west of the Valley did not.  The US Census estimates that there were over 25,000 African slaves in the Shenandoah Valley in 1860. Domestic slave ownership and plantations were concentrated in Jefferson County, Berkely County, Frederick County, Loudon County, Warren County and the larger towns (all in the northern end of the Valley), plus the eastern/southern tip of the Valley, which had been predominantly occupied by British, Scottish and Ulster-Scots settlers.    

In 1860, the US Census determined that Shenandoah County contained a population of 13,868 persons, of whom 753 were African-American slaves. In 1990, the population of Shenandoah County was 31,636 residents, which included 359 citizens, who considered their ethnic identity to be African-American.  The vast majority of slaves in Shenandoah County were domestic servants, construction workers, skilled laborers in cabinet, wagon and buggy shops or laborers in iron ore mines and smelters.  Even today, the map of Shenandoah County is dotted with place names, ending in “Furnace” . . . i.e. – Liberty Furnace due west of my former farm.  These were locations where the iron ore in the Massanutten Mountains, Little North Mountain and North Mountain was smelted into pig iron for export and local industries.

Harpers Ferry, VA in 1862 after Virginia troops had stolen on the rifles in the Harpers Ferry Armory and burned the Armory. The tent like structures in the foreground are probably slave cabins for slaves working in the local industries.

John Brown’s October 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry at the mouth of the Shenandoah River caused Valley residents to fear a slave rebellion. However, there was little support in Shenandoah County for seceding from the Union until after Lincoln announced plans to invade the South via Virginia.

Virginia held the state convention to deal with the secession crisis, and voted against secession on April 4, 1861.   Soon thereafter, a military plan showing a large Northern Army marching down the Shenandoah Valley was leaked to Virginia newspapers, after Fort Sumpter was fired on.  The very same delegates voted again on April 17 and that time voted for secession. 

In June 1861,  pro-Union counties in the western part of Virginia voted to secede from Virginia and the Confederacy.  They established a capital of the Restored State of Virginia in Wheeling.  It was later moved to Alexandria, when much of northern Virginia came under Union  control.  The western counties and four pro-Southern counties at the mouth of the Shenandoah River became the State of West Virginia on June 20, 1863.

Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War

Early stages of the Civil War in Northern Virginia

On May 24, 1861, Union troops crossed the Potomac River and captured the City of Alexandria.  There was no resistance by the Confederate Army . . . only a few civilians. The Union Army began immediately to begin steady expansion of its territory in Virginia, westward and southward.

July 21, 1861 – First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas: In an attempt to strike deep within northern Virginia, the army of the Potomac suffered a major defeat on July 21, 1861.  It was here that Thomas “Stonewall”  Jackson got his nickname and his troops became known as the Stonewall Brigade.

Oct. 15, 1861 – Battle of Bolivar Heights: Union forces captured Harpers Ferry then beat off a poorly executed attack on Bolivar Heights, led by Colonel Turner Ashby.   

Oct. 21, 1861 – Battle of Balls Bluff:  Attempts by the Union Army to extend control of northern Virginia farther west along the Potomac resulted in a major defeat on October 21, 1861 at Balls Bluff.

Reenactors portraying White’s Comanches (35th Virginia Cavalry) in the Shenandoah Valley

January 1862 – White’s Comanche Partisans: The 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, also known as White’s Battalion, White’s Rebels and the Comanche Partisans, was a Confederate cavalry unit during the American Civil War. During the Battle of Tom’s Brook (Oct. 9, 1864), it was stationed along a rock wall in front of the Tipton-Thornton House. The wall is still there. Many of White’s Comanche Partisans were captured or killed at this location, when Confederate units on either side of them were pushed back by a cavalry charge, led by Brig. Gen. George A. Custer.

Note:  Later in the book, the discovery of an unmarked cemetery on the south side of our driveway, while drilling a well and installing water lines, will be discussed.  The cemetery was located immediately south of the house.  The younger graves were obviously the burials of those members of White’s Comanches, killed in the vicinity of the rock wall.

This famous Confederate unit was raised by Elijah V. White in Loudoun County, Virginia in January 1862. The battalion was initially raised as border guards along the Potomac River below Harpers Ferry but were ultimately mustered into regular service as part of the Laurel Brigade. Despite this, they continued to play a conspicuous role in the ongoing partisan warfare in Loudoun throughout the war. The battalion was particularly notable during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, when it played a prominent role in the Battle of Brandy Station and subsequently conducted a series of raids on Union-held railroads and defensive positions in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

 The 35th was the first Confederate unit to enter Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on June 26, 1864.  They drove off all Union Army and militia units, stationed there.  Had they remained to occupy and fortify Gettysburg,  the Army of Northern Virginia would have probably won the Battle of Gettysburg, since Confederate units would have already occupied the high ground. 

Confederate prisoners captured in the Battle of Front Royal, VA

March 1862:  Union troops captured Front Royal, Strasburg and Middletown. Union cavalry troops began patrolling much farther south on the Valley Turnpike and Back Road.

March-June 1862 – Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign:  This is one of the most famous campaigns of the Civil War.  Confederate and Union armies marched back and forth along the north-south roads in Shenandoah County.  Using a “chestboard” strategy,  Jackson’s 17,000 man Army of the Shenandoah defeated three larger Union armies with a total of 52,000 soldiers in a series of battles.  Union troops were driven from western Virginia.  This enabled farmers to harvest their crops and ship them to the Army of Northern Virginia, CSA.

August 28-30, 1862 – Second battle of Bull Run/Manassas:  This was fought on the same battlefield as the first major battle of the Civil War.  Like the first, it was a major victory for the Confederates, this time led by Robert E. Lee.  This victory by the Army of Northern Virginia cleared Union forces from northwestern Virginia and western Maryland. 

September 3, 1862 – Maryland Campaign begins: The overwhelming victory at Manassas, VA encouraged Lee to plan an invasion of western Maryland, with the possibility of turning back on Washington and attacking the United States Capital “from the rear.”  The primary objectives of the invasion were to obtain food stuffs from Maryland and Pennsylvania farms and accomplish a major victory on Union soil.  The Shenandoah Valley was the gateway used by Confederate troops to invade the North.

September 12-16, 1862 – Battle of Harpers Ferry:  While invading Maryland, Lee detached Stonewall Jackson to secure their flank by capturing Harpers Ferry.  It was the largest surrender ever of US Army troops until Japan captured the Bataan Peninsula, Philippines in 1942.   At this point,  all Union troops had been killed, captured or forced out of the Shenandoah Valley.

September 17, 1863 – Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland:  This was one of the largest and deadliest battles in the Civil War. The Union and Confederate armies had combined casualties of 24,361 killed, wounded and captured men.  It was a tactical draw for the two armies.  The Union had substantially more men killed . . . but it was a strategic victory for the Union since Lee was forced to end his invasion of Maryland and return to Virginia.  Lee was able to enlarge and resupply his Army of Northern Virginia that fall and winter because the Shenandoah Valley had been protected from Federal occupation.

Perhaps the most astounding event of the Battle of Antietam was at a bridge over Antietam Creek, in which the 550 men of Cobb’s Legion, including five of my direct ancestors, blocked the passage of over 25,000 Union attackers for several hours. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would have probably been soundly defeated had this many Union soldiers penetrated the center of its defenses. To this day, it is not really understood how so few men from Northeast Georgia could have accomplished this feat.

Cobb’s Legion at the Battle of Fredericksburg

December 11–15, 1862 – First Battle  of Fredericksburg, VA: The 78,513 men of the Army of Northern Virginia were able to catastrophically defeat the 122,009 men of the Union Army of the Potomac in this battle the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia.  This was the start of a series of major Southern victories during the first half of 1863.  As a result, Shenandoah farmers were able to grow their crops without interruption, while support for the war began collapsing in the North.  There is little doubt that the North would have headed to the negotiation tables in 1863, if Lee had continued his successes for the remainder of the year.

Most of my gg-grandfathers and one g-grandfather on my mother’s side were at the stone wall in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Their unit, Cobb’s Legion, was featured in the movie, Gods and Generals. Many of the members of Cobb’s Legion were Irish immigrants. The movie pointed out the irony of the Irish immigrants from Georgia slaughtering the Irish immigrants from New York in the Iron Brigade. Predominantly Irish companies in Cobb’s Legion carried battle flags, displaying a green Irish harp. The regimental battle flag of Cobb’s Legion is now the State Flag of Georgia.

Early Spring 1863:  Federal troops occupied the Shenandoah Valley down to Martinsburg, Winchester and Berryville in order to stop raids on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad by Confederate partisans.

June 13-15, 1863 – Second Battle of Winchester:  Ewell’s Second Corps of the Army of Virginia entered the Shenandoah Valley at Front Royal the quickly proceeded to Winchester.  It was one of the extreme few times in which a Confederate army outnumbered a Union army [12,500:7,000].  Despite being protected by earthen fortifications, the Union army had 4,443 casualties.   The Southerners obviously recaptured Winchester and Martinsburg.  The victories at these two cities were some the string of Confederate march northward, prior to fighting at Gettysburg.

July 1-3, 1863 – Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania:  Gettysburg is considered one of the most important or the most important battles of the American Civil War. The South pitted 71,000 of its best soldiers against the 104,000 men of the Army of the Potomac.  Each side had about 23,000 total casualties.   The Army of Northern Virginia lost so many men that it was never able to operate on the offensive again.  However,  Southern cavalrymen did gather vast quantities of food from Pennsylvania farms, which enabled to feed its troops.

May 1864 offensive in the Shenandoah Valley: Over the winter, Union leaders decided to destroy the food producing capability of the Shenandoah Valley in order to starve the Army of Northern Virginia into surrendering.  The initial approach was to send an army under General George Crook southeastward from West Virginia into the southern tip of the Valley to cut the Virginia Central Railroad.

May 15, 1864 – Battle of New Market: In the first phase, General Franz Segel led an army southward from Winchester through Shenandoah County.  It was barred from any further movement southward by a smaller army, commanded by Gen. John Breckinridge,  reinforced by the cadets from Virginia Military Academy.  The 2014 movie, “Field of Lost Shoes,” was about this battle in southern Shenandoah County. Sigel was defeated and retreated northward beyond Strasburg to the banks of Cedar Creek by sundown.

June 5, 1864 – Battle of Piedmont, VA:  The Valley was only temporarily rid of northern invaders.  Sigel was replaced by Gen. David Hunter.  Breckenridge took his brigades westward to assist Robert E. Lee,  leaving a small force under Gen. William “Grumble” he Battle of Piedmont cost the Confederates some 1,600 casualties, and the Federals lost about 875. On June 6, the Confederate supply base at Staunton fell to Hunter’s army. At Lexington on June 11, Hunter ordered the home of former Virginia war governor John Letcher and buildings of the Virginia Military Institute to be burned.

Hunter’s spring campaign ended June 15-17 when he was defeated at the Battles of Lynchburg and Hanging Rock by Jubal Early and the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.Jones.  The small, disorganized army under Jones was catastrophically defeated at Piedmont, VA.

June 15-17, 1864:  Hunter’s spring campaign ended June 15-17 when he was defeated at the Battles of Lynchburg and Hanging Rock by Jubal Early and the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

July 2-20, 1864 – Jubal Early’s invasion of Maryland:  Gen. Jubal Early’s Army of the Shenandoah crossed the Potomac River at Leesburg, VA and then turned right to attack Washington, DC.  Early’s men defeated a Union army, commanded by Gen. Lew Wallace (future author of the book, Ben Hur) at Kernstown, Maryland. 

The Battle of Piedmont cost the Confederates some 1,600 casualties, and the Federals lost about 875. On June 6, the Confederate supply base at Staunton fell to Hunter’s army. At Lexington on June 11, Hunter ordered the home of former Virginia war governor John Letcher and buildings of the Virginia Military Institute to be burned.

July 9, 1864 – Battle of Monocacy:   When Early first entered Maryland, the fortifications defending Washington were severely undermanned.  There was a chance that the approximately 10,000 Confederates could temporarily capture Washington.  Even though it was a clear Confederate victory, Monocacy gave sufficient time for reinforcements to be rushed into Washington’s defenses.  Even then there were only 9,600 soldiers defending Washington. However, they were manning large rifled cannons, whose explosive shells could do quite a bit of damage to infantry in the open.

In late July 1864, enough Union troops were reassigned to General Phillip Sheridan in northern Virginia to ensure that Confederates would not attempt another attack the capital. By August, a stalemate existed with the approximately 40,000 Union troops being on the east side of Opequon Creek and the approximately 19,000 Confederate troops guarding Winchester in trenches and earthen fortifications, similar to those in World War I.

Brevet Brig. General George Armstrong Custer leads the third consecutive charge against Confederate artillery redans in the Battle of Opequon Creek (or Third Winchester). Custer became nationally famous for this act of bravery (or foolhardiness). It was unheard of for a general to go in front of his men in such a dangerous charge. However, the three charges broke the back of Confederate defenses and opened up the Shenandoah Valley to a swarm of devouring hornets.

September 19, 1864 – Battle of Opequon Creek (Third Winchester):  General Sheridan learned through spies that on Sept. 18, Kershaw’s division of 3,400 men was going to travel to Petersburg, VA to help bolster Confederate defenses there.  The Union army attacked in force the next day, but had to pass through the narrow Opequon Canyon to get from Clarke County, VA to Frederick County, VA.  The Union Army of the Shenandoah experienced horrendous casualties, but eventually broke through defenses and forced the Confederate Army of the Valley southward. 

It was the deadliest battle every fought in the Shenandoah Valley. The Confederates lost 4,015 men out of about 15,514!  The Union Army lost 5,018 men out of about 40,000!  However, the North could survive high casualties far better than the less populated South.  Gen. Sheridan’s army now outnumbered Jubal Early’s Confederate soldiers 3.5:1.

September 21-22, 1864 –  Battle of Fisher’s Hill:  Phil Sheridan knew that the Southerners were not only depleted of fighting men, but also short of food and munitions.  The Confederates were camped on Fisher’s Hill near Strasburg, about four miles northeast of my future farm.  The main body of Union soldiers struck the main concentration of Confederate soldiers head on.  Meanwhile, several Union brigades slipped northwestward and passed around the Confederate flank through the wooded slopes of Little North Mountain.  Once outflanked and partially surrounded, the Confederates either surrendered or fled southward in disorder. The Confederates lost 934 men out of 9500.  The Union army lost 584 men out of 35,000.  The South’s prospects were looking very grim, because they had few men left to replace those killed.

A dark haze hung over Shenandoah County for two weeks as Union cavalrymen burned several thousand buildings.

Northern War Crimes:  The remnants of the shattered Confederate Army fell back to New Market and Harrisonburg, VA.  Sheridan established headquarters and camps for his army in and around Strasburg.  He then dispatched over 10,800 cavalrymen to <we quote Sheridan> “leave the Shenandoah Valley in such a state that a crow would starve while flying over it.”  His troops were ordered to burn all barns, farm outbuildings, grist mills, factories, warehouses, railroad buildings and foundries. The troops also ended up burning several schools. They were also to seize or kill all livestock, seize or burn all hay and grain, seize all human food stored on farms and in houses.  

Cavalry troops had orders to arrest all elected officials, they could catch. As a result, local government ceased to exist for the remainder of the war. There was no one to record the many civilian deaths that occurred throughout the county during this period.

The Union raiders also were to hang or shoot all partisans, not wearing Confederate Army uniforms.  This onerous order almost entirely fell on innocent teenage boys, who were in the woods, hunting rabbits, squirrels and deer to feed their families.  Approximately, two dozen or more boys were murdered.  The figure is hard to pinpoint because troop commanders usually just listed them as being Confederate combatants killed in combat. All the parents knew was that there sons never came home from hunting.

One of the saddest stories coming from Sheridan’s ravaging of Shenandoah County involves a 15 year old boy and his beloved horse. He lived near Strasburg, but kept his horse hidden in a small barn on Massanutten Mountain. Union cavalry eventually found the horse, branded it US Government property and took back to their camp. The horse escaped and returned to the boy’s house. When another cavalry unit found the boy riding the horse back to its mountainside barn, they hung him on the spot, using his own horse.

They were able to find only part of the food stored in houses. Almost from the start of actual warfare, Shenandoah residents began having trouble with deserters and stragglers stealing chickens and food from the home.  Most rural homes had secret root cellars with hidden trap doors for storing canned vegetables/fruits and root vegetables. Flour and corn meal could not be stored this way and so was usually found and seized or destroyed.  Cured meat molded in cellars so either the farmers were able to hide them in the woods or saw Union wagons haul them away to feed Union troops. The civilians of Shenandoah County suffered terribly from malnutrition and nutritional diseases during the following year.

Let’s be honest about this.  Thousand of German Nazi soldiers were either executed or imprisoned for committing exactly the same crimes against helpless civilians . . . particularly in Eastern Europe.  The irony is that the only times, when the US Army has ever carried out intentional starvation of non-combatants were inside the United States – Native Americans, plus the residents of the Shenandoah Valley and Northwest Georgia . . . both target areas being regions where there were relatively few slaves and originally, little support for secession. The US Army also intentionally starved pro-Union Creek families in concentration camps in Kansas, who were allies of the United States in the Civil War!  The commanding general explained to a newspaper reporter, “Dead Indians won’t need land after the war is over.”

Malnutrition made the Shenandoah Valley’s civilians even more vulnerable to the trillions of pathogens, introduced by large armies marching back and forth along its roads. Official death certificates ceased to exist because of the arrests of public officials. However, I visited the old cemeteries at churches around Mount Olive and Toms Brook. The number of civilian deaths during 1864, 1865 and 1866 were mind-boggling. Especially numerous were the graves of pregnant women, babies, children and the elderly.

The Association for the Protection of Civil War Sites now owns the hill on the Tipton-Thornton Farm from which White’s Comanches ambushed and devastated a troop of Union raiders returning to camp on October 8, 1864.

October 8, 1864 – the Wilhelm Wisman Farm (Tipton-Thornton Farm):  A troop of Union cavalry was returning back to Strasburg on the Middle (Sand Ridge) Road.  They stopped to burn the outbuildings and seize the chickens at the Wisman Farm.  A troop of White’s Comanches was waiting for them. More Union cavalrymen were killed in the firefight than the next day at the Battle of Toms Brook.  The Yank cavalrymen never had a chance to burn the Wisman barn.  In the drawing below of the Battle of Toms Brook, the barn was still standing.   A new barn was constructed at the same site in 1870. It is not known if the original Wisman barn was burned later in the war or was merely replaced.

Major General Sheridan chewed out Brevet Major General Alfred Torbet for allowing a troop of cavalry to be shredded. Torbet then ordered Generals Merritt and Custer to go back down the valley and not come back until they had whipped Confederate General Rosser’s cavalrymen.

Major General Alfred Torbet commanded the cavalry in the US Army of the Shenandoah. This photo was made at his headquarters in Strasburg, VA. If the South had won the Civil War and captured top Union officers in the process, Torbet, Sheridan and Custer could have been hung for war crimes against unarmed civilians.

General Merritt moved all 6,300 of his cavalrymen to the north side of Tom’s Brook. The next day, he and his subordinate, George Custer, planned to send out patrols to find the locations of Confederate cavalry camps.

Major General Rosser foolishly obliged Torbet by moving all of his 3,500 cavalrymen northward to the Wisman Farm, directly opposite the camp of Custer’s cavalrymen around St. Mathews Lutheran Church and Baker’s Store.  Rosser directed CSA General Lomax to move his 800 cavalrymen to the village of Toms Brook on the Valley Pike to face 5 times that many Yanks . . . even though many did not have working weapons, food or even shoes. 

By 1864, Union cavalrymen in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War had the best equipment available . . . including Henry and Spencer repeater rifles, which were the most advance weapons in the world.

The mismatch was actually much worse than on paper.  While a significant percentage of the Confederates under Lomax’s command only had poorly working infantry weapons or even no weapons,  all Union cavalrymen had been issued either Henry or Spencer repeating rifles and new sabers.  The repeating rifles were the most sophisticated military weapons in the world at that time.  They could even be fired under-water.  

A confederate artillery position in the pasture, south of my former house and barn. National Park Service archaeologists determined that farther to the east the Confederates modified a 2,200 year old Adena Culture mound in order to create an artillery redan.
Same view in 1993. The artist took some liberties!
Terrain map of the Toms Brook Battlefield. My former farm is delineated by red dots.

October 9, 1864 – Tom’s Brook, Virginia: (The temperature was below freezing and snow flurries were coming down)  Irrational super-ego hormones were running high on both sides that day. Major General Tom Rosser, CSA announced to his officers, “That’s General Custer, the Yanks are so proud of, and I intend to give him the best whipping today that he ever got. I’ll drive them into Strasburg by 10 O’Clock.” “  Rosser then ordered White’s Comanches to form a skirmish line behind the stone wall that runs along our former driveway. They were armed with Henry Repeater rifles taken from US Army wagon trains, plus two revolver pistols.

Custer salutes his former West Point classmate before leading a charge

Custer obliged his former West Point classmate’s stupidity by riding his horse out front of the Michigan cavalry’s battle line . . . in easy range of the White’s Comanche sharpshooters.  Custer then directed the horse to kneel, while he saluted his foe with his hat.  For unknown reasons, none of the Confederate sharpshooters fired their rifles.  And then as the Michigan regimental band played, “Yankee Doodle,” the Union cavalry advanced forward.   Here is what Harper’s Weekly Newspaper said afterward.

The Confederate cavalry units in the village of Toms Brook, under Lomax, were grossly outnumbered and outgunned. Union general Merritt’s men quickly pushed them southward on the Valley Turnpike. Such was not the case in the fighting on the Tipton-Thornton Farm. Despite being greatly outnumbered, the dismounted and mounted cavalrymen under Rosser fought the arrogant Custer to a standoff for several hours. Confederate artillerymen in Chew’s Battery actually hit a Union cannon dead center and blew it up. However, Rosser had made a fatal oversight, probably due to the fact that his headquarters was so much higher than Custer’s. The photograph below was made in 1992 near the location where Rosser stood – Spiker’s Hill. Custer used the exact same strategy as the week before at Fisher’s Hill. A large complement of Michigan cavalry sneaked out of sight and then looped over the lower slopes of Little North Mountain . . . then attacked Rosser’s command center from his rear. In the scene above, you can see the Yanks overwhelming Chew’s Battery on Spiker Hill. Soon all of Rosser’s units panicked and fled to the south for many miles, with Custer’s Michigan cavalrymen hot on their tails. This portion of the battle became known as the Woodstock Races.

Total Union casualties were 57 men killed and wounded.  Total confederate casualties were at least 350 men killed, wounded or captured. It was the most decisive Union Cavalry victory of the entire Eastern Theater during the American Civil War.

The area of the farm around the barn and house, where intensive hand-to-hand fighting had occurred, was littered with dead horses. National Park Service archaeologists found two large pits, where the bodies of horses had been dumped. In most cases, the bridles had not been removed, because the archaeologists found a treasure trove of US Army and Confederate Army buckles and halters mixed in with the horse bones. While installing underground power conduits and water pipes, I found skeletons of men, who had died later in the house-hospital, buried in what was now our front yard, but had been a side yard in 1864.

Misleading statements in references

There are statements in the Wikipedia article on this battle and other references, which suggest that from then on, the Southern cavalry units were inferior in every way to their northern counterparts and thus lost almost every battle.  That is not true at all.  What is true that beginning in late 1864, the Confederacy often lacked the numbers to match cavalry armies with massive Union cavalry armies in Virginia. However, individual Confederate cavalry commands by such people as Wheeler, Mosby, White, Hampton and Rosser typically won most of their battles up until the collapse of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865.

“Fighting Tom” Rosser became known in the Southern press as the “Savior of the Valley,” and was promoted to major general in November 1864. He conducted a successful raid on New Creek, West Virginia, taking hundreds of prisoners and seizing much need quantities of supplies. In January 1865, he took 300 men, crossed the mountains in deep snow and bitter cold, and surprised and captured two infantry regiments in their works at Beverly, West Virginia, taking 580 prisoners. See his full bio below.

It was an entirely different matter in the Lower Southeast, where Confederate cavalry units had won many direct contests with large bodies of Union cavalry and lost relatively few horses in battle. Lt. General Joseph Wheeler of the Army of the Tennessee almost always crushed Union Calvary in the Lower Southeast. While Sherman was in the last stages of the Atlanta Campaign, almost all of Lt. General Stoneman’s United States cavalry command were either killed or captured. Wheeler went on to serve the United States as one of the senior commanding generals during the Spanish-American War, as did Thomas Rosser.

Major General Thomas Lafayette Rosser

“Fighting Tom” Rosser (1836-1910) was the highest ranking officer on either side with substantial Native American ancestry. A physically powerful man, he was 6′-3″ with broad shoulders. He was of French Huguenot and Native American ancestry. Since he was born in Campbell County, VA (South Central) his Native ancestry was possibly Saponi, but this is not known for sure.

The Saponi never fought a war against Great Britain or the United States. They were not forced to relocate to the Indian Territory. The mother of my last girlfriend in Virginia had a German family name, but also had substantial Saponi ancestry. Some comments Rosser made later in life suggested that his Native ancestry was Choctaw or Creek, but this cannot be confirmed.

In 1849, Rosser’s family relocated to a 640-acre (2.6 km2) farm in Panola County, Texas, some forty miles west of Shreveport, Louisiana. Rosser did not complete the required five-year course of study at the United States Military Academy.  As a supporter of Texas secession, he resigned when Texas left the Union on April 22, 1861 two weeks before the scheduled graduation. He was appointed a First Lieutenant in the famous Washington Artillery of New Orleans and fought in the First Battle of Manassas.  Because of his courage and intelligence, Rosser rose rapidly through the ranks. He was a colonel at Gettysburg in mid-1863, but made a brigadier general, shortly afterward.  Rosser commanded the last Confederate attack at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 then escaped with the men, immediately under his command.  They did not surrender with Lee later that day.

 Several references state that he and George Custer were roommates and close friends at the Academy. A little sleuthing revealed this to be folklore.  Rosser was three years ahead of Custer at West Point and serious scholar.  Custer was last in his class and frequented brothels.   They were never roommates.

This part is true.  After the Civil War, Rosser became a civil engineer for the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Great rivals that corresponded some during the Civil War, they became friends at this time. 

Confederate dead in the Shenandoah Valley. Note how skinny the men are. By 1864, the difference in nutrition even made the Northern and Southern bodies decay differently. Northern bodies swelled like balloons, because their diet was heavy with fats and carbohydrates. This is why the Southern soldiers called all Northern troops, “Blue Bellies.” Southern bodies tended to dry up into mummies because of the low daily level of calories they received. They probably would have been too malnourished to fight had not Georgia and North Carolina supplied the troops with vast quantities of sweet potatoes, which are very high in nutrition and vitamins.

The horrific casualty rate for Shenandoah County men in the Civil War

Stonewall Brigade

The brigade was formed by Jackson at Harpers Ferry, April 27, 1861, from the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th, and 33rd Virginia Infantry regiments and the Rockbridge Artillery Battery of Rockbridge County, which were recruited in or near the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Thirteen other companies of the brigade were recruited from western counties that would become part of West Virginia. It was officially assigned to the Virginia Provisional Army, then to the Army of the Shenandoah on May 15, and the Valley District on July 20.  Of the 6,000 men who served in the Stonewall brigade during the war, by the time of the surrender at Appomattox Court House, only 219 soldiers were left, none above the rank of captain.

33rd Regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia, CSA

The 33rd Infantry Regiment was organized during the early summer of 1861 with men from the counties of Hampshire, Shenandoah, Frederick, Hardy, Page, and Rockingham. It became part of the Stonewall Brigade and served under T.J. Jackson, R.B. Garnett, Winder, Paxton, J.A. Walker, and W. Terry. The regiment was active at First Manassas, First Kernstown, and in Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Later it participated in the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia from the Seven Days’ Battles to Cold Harbor, then it moved with Early to the Shenandoah Valley and fought in numerous conflicts around Appomattox. The unit lost 45 killed and 101 wounded at First Manassas, and there were 59 disabled of the 275 engaged at First Kernstown. It sustained 33 casualties at Malvern Hill, 15 at Cedar Mountain, 105 at Second Manassas, 19 in the Maryland Campaign, and 66 at Chancellorsville. Twenty-three percent of the remaining 236 men at Gettysburg were killed, wounded, or missing. Only 1 officer and 18 men surrendered at Appomattox Court house.

The Michigan cavalry regimental band actually played “Yankee Doodle” as George Custer led the charge across our pastures. In Hollywood movies, one hears the Irish dance song, Gary Owen, in the same scene. However, Garry Owen was written in the early 1860s to honor Irish patriots, seeking independence from Great Britain. During the American Civil War, it was only popular with Irish brigades in the Confederate Army.

Gen. Tom Rosser’s (CSA) regimental band played “Bonnie Blue Flag” to boost morale before and during the battle. The song, Dixie, never was particularly popular among Virginia troops during the Civil War . . . primarily because Virginia was not in “the Land of Cotton.” Alas, though, they were very brave and honorable men . . . who had been hoodwinked by the cotton planters into fighting for the wrong cause.

In truth . . . the “Southern rights” they were singing about involved the right to hold other humans in perpetual slavery!


  1. Thanks for your great work in bringing some clarity to unknown facts of the American Civil War. I have emailed a couple of articles that document another instance of innocent civilians – white, black and red – devastated by Union troops – General Sherman- after the war was officially over from my husband’s own family history.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Howdy, Ten times better than CW books for sale. Note: ALL not on…also they removed the machinery for making rifles.

    On Tue, Aug 24, 2021 at 9:24 AM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” Introduction to the Shenandoah Chronicles – Part 6 > © Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner This section was > requested by readers, who did not understand the historical context of > references to the Battle of Tom’s Brook and the American Ci” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was really an amazing to live on a Civil War battlefield. Planting a flower from Home Depot often resulted in digging up a Union minnie ball (3 rings) or a Confederate minnie ball (two deeper rings) or Confederate shrapnel from a rifled artillery shell.


  3. Richard, I was so impressed with this post that I have re-blogged it. It certainly brings home some of the atrocities which many people don’t know about. I have always been interested in the American Civil War but was never sure if films which were made about it were portrayed in truth. Thank you for your detailed ,well researched article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was an amazing experience to live on a battlefield, where one of my gg-grandfathers had actually stood. Keep in mind that the farm was also a battlefield during the French and Indian War (1764-1783) – Called the Seven Years War in Europe.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I tagged two civil war buffs I know and they both totally appreciated your article. One is my nephew who lives near Richmond and his office is on the site of the siege of Petersburg. The other one shared it on a Facebook Civil War interest group.

        Liked by 1 person

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