The arrival of the railroad and the telegraph during the 1850s transformed Staunton into a center of communication and commerce. Riches from the surrounding countryside and distant factories crowded its shops and warehouses, and gaslights glowed on street corners and in many homes. The amenities that fueled Staunton’s development in peacetime, however, contributed to its becoming a target for both Union and the Confederate forces. Situated at the intersection of the north-south Valley Turnpike, the east-west Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, and the Virginia Central Railroad, Staunton was an ideal Confederate base of operations. Confederate troops and supplies constantly streamed through the town on their way to and from various fronts throughout the war. Military operations in the mountains of northwest Virginia and throughout much of the Valley relied almost entirely on provisions that were gathered in Staunton and then transported by convoys of government and civilian wagons. Trains chugged eastward over the mountains to supply Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia with the bounty of the Breadbasket of the Confederacy.
Sick and wounded soldiers and civilian refugees swelled Staunton’s population and strained its resources. Its citizens contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways, such as nursing wounded soldiers in one of the many new hospitals that sprang up around town, but they faced increasing shortages and hardships. Stores that before the war were “running over with molasses, sugar, coffee, tea, cheese, fish, etc.” saw their inventory reduced to pins and thread. Their memories of former abundance were only “a dream,” Staunton diarist Joseph Waddell recorded in November 1863. Enemy occupation, military failures, and deprivation would soon pervade the town with what Waddell described as “a deep feeling of gloom … It is like walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
On June 6, 1864, Union general David Hunter led his troops into Staunton and occupied it until June 10. They destroyed much of the town by setting fire to warehouses, mills, factories, workshops, stores, houses, and the railroad depot. Union troops also looted food and other valuables during their occupation. Less than three months later, Staunton would receive word to evacuate from Confederate general Jubal A. Early, who was being forced from the Valley and could not come to its defense. Union general Alfred T. A. Torbert occupied Staunton once again from September 26 until September 28, 1864. Early and Confederate general Fitzhugh Lee made their headquarters in Staunton for several months that winter, until Union general Philip H. Sheridan’s men drove them out in March 1865, leaving in their wake silent railroad tracks and telegraph wires. It would take five days for detailed news of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to reach the stunned ears of Staunton residents.