Martinsburg during the Civil War


Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), the county seat of Berkeley County, was in 1860 the Shenandoah Valley‘s second largest town, with a population of 3,364. Located in the northern portion of the valley, Martinsburg enjoyed a booming economy because of its location along the paved Valley Pike and because it was a major depot along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The same strategic location that made Martinsburg economically prosperous prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), however, also spelled its wartime demise. The town changed hands between Confederate and Union forces thirty-seven times, was the site of two battles, and played host for a time to the intrigue of Confederate spy Belle Boyd, who was born there.

During Virginia’s secession crisis in 1861, the citizens of Martinsburg watched as delegates to a secession convention in Richmond debated Virginia’s fate. When, after months of stalling, the delegates finally voted to secede on April 17, 1861, most Shenandoah Valley residents—opposed to secession until that point—became caught up in the fever for war and enthusiastically supported the new Confederate States of America. Martinsburg, however, stubbornly remained Unionist, largely because the U.S. government offered the best protection for the railroad’s interests and the railroad supported the local economy.

Harpers Ferry

Within a week of the convention’s vote, Confederate troops, including Virginia militia units from the southern Shenandoah Valley, entered Martinsburg en route to the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry. On May 23, the date set aside for a statewide referendum on secession, residents staged a public protest of secession and the Confederate presence. Tensions became so heated that the Confederate commander, Colonel Thomas J. Jackson, dispatched additional troops to Martinsburg from Harpers Ferry to quell any violence. In the meantime, Martinsburg residents voted three-to-one against secession that day—the only locale in the Shenandoah Valley to oppose secession during the referendum.

Additional Confederate troops under Jackson’s command entered Martinsburg on June 20 and set about dismantling the railroad, further outraging Unionist residents. In addition to the tracks, the Confederates destroyed the round house, various railroad buildings, fifty-six locomotives, and at least 305 cars. Thirteen locomotives were spared by Jackson and seized for use by the Confederacy.

Belle Boyd

After more than two months of Confederate presence, Union soldiers under General Robert Patterson occupied Martinsburg on July 3. As Patterson’s men entered town they noted “a strong Union sentiment,” as a Union chaplain observed. Although most citizens enjoyed the Union presence, some of Martinsburg’s Confederate minority did not—among them the self-promoting spy Belle Boyd. When, on July 4, a Union soldier swore at Boyd’s mother in the course of an argument, Boyd drew a pistol and shot him to death. She was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the incident may have inspired her to begin a long and legendary career in espionage.

Patterson’s army departed on July 17, but there would be many more occupations over the war’s remaining years. Numerous skirmishes and two battles were fought in the area, and its buildings served as makeshift hospitals at various times for both armies. The first battle, fought on June 14, 1863, was part of the Gettysburg Campaign. The Army of Northern Virginia, preparing to invade the North for a second time, set its sights on the town’s ample food stores, but at the end of a day’s hard fighting came away with not much more than several thousand bushels of grain. The second battle, fought on July 25, 1864, was part of Confederate general Jubal A. Early’s summer campaign of strategic diversion in the Shenandoah Valley. Early’s hope was to threaten the disjointed Union command in the Valley and, eventually, to threaten Washington, D.C., itself, while also pulling troops away from Union general Ulysses S. Grant’s lines around Petersburg. Less than two months later, on September 18, Martinsburg changed hands for the last time as Union general Philip H. Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah occupied the town.

Although the scars of war would eventually heal, occupations and battles left a once-thriving Martinsburg devastated by war’s end. “Its situation has rendered it a peculiarly undesirable place of residence,” observed a Northern reporter in December 1864. “Its streets have been trampled … the ruins of the depot buildings, and of houses burned in former attacks upon the town, give the usual air of desolation seen in border towns.”

April 17, 1861
Delegates at the Virginia Convention in Richmond pass an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55. Thirty-two of the "no" votes come from trans-Allegheny delegates, who are more firmly Unionist than representatives from other parts of the state.
May 23, 1861
A statewide referendum overwhelmingly ratifies the Virginia Convention's vote to secede. Berkeley County and the town of Martinsburg are the only locales in the Shenandoah Valley to vote against secession. Colonel Thomas J. Jackson sends troops to Martinsburg from Harpers Ferry to quiet Unionist protesters.
June 20, 1861
Confederate troops under Colonel Thomas J. Jackson enter Martinsburg and begin destroying railroad line, locomotives, and associated buildings.
July 3, 1861
Union forces under General Robert Patterson occupy Martinsburg.
July 4, 1861
Confederate sympathizer Belle Boyd, a Martinsburg resident, is arrested for shooting and killing a Union soldier whom she claims insulted her mother. A Union inquiry into the incident finds that her actions were justified and she is cleared of any wrongdoing.
July 17, 1861
Union troops under General Robert Patterson leave Martinsburg for Charles Town. Martinsburg will remain in Confederate hands until March 2, 1862.
March 3, 1862
Union forces under General Nathaniel P. Banks occupy Martinsburg.
May 25, 1862
Union forces are defeated at the First Battle of Winchester, part of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign. As a result, Union soldiers evacuate Martinsburg.
September 18, 1862
Following the Battle of Antietam in Maryland and the subsequent Confederate retreat south, Martinsburg is transformed into a makeshift hospital for use by the Army of Northern Virginia.
January 1, 1863
Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring free all enslaved people in Confederate-controlled regions and authorizing the enlistment of Black men in the Union army.
June 14, 1863
The First Battle of Martinsburg is fought. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia uses the Shenandoah Valley as its pathway north into Pennsylvania.
July 6, 1863
Wounded Confederate soldiers arrive in Martinsburg following the Army of Northern Virginia's defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg.
July 15, 1863
Approximately 4,000 Union soldiers, captured during the Gettysburg Campaign, are marched through Martinsburg by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
July 23, 1863—July 2, 1864
Union forces occupy Martinsburg. The town remains in Union hands until July 2, 1864.
July 3, 1864
Confederate troops under General John B. Gordon occupy Martinsburg.
July 11, 1864
Union forces under the command of General David Hunter occupy Martinsburg.
July 25, 1864
The Second Battle of Martinsburg is fought as part of Confederate general Jubal A. Early's Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. Confederate forces under General John C. Breckinridge win a victory and seize Martinsburg.
August 8, 1864
Union forces under General William W. Averell occupy Martinsburg.
August 18, 1864
Union cavalry are driven from Martinsburg and Confederates occupy the city.
August 21, 1864
Martinsburg changes hands between Union and Confederate forces three times in a single day. Confederates begin and end the day in control of the city.
September 1, 1864
Union forces under General William W. Averell occupy Martinsburg.
September 18, 1864
Confederate forces under General John B. Gordon occupy Martinsburg but later that day are driven out by Union general Philip H. Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah. Martinsburg remains in Union hands for the remainder of the Civil War.
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APA Citation:
Noyalas, Jonathan. Martinsburg during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/martinsburg-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Noyalas, Jonathan. "Martinsburg during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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