Staunton during the Civil War


Staunton, Virginia, the seat of Augusta County, was a key target in two major campaigns during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and remained strategically important throughout the entire war. With a population of about 4,000 in 1860, Staunton was situated at a vital transportation crossroads in the Shenandoah Valley, and the Confederacy sought to utilize and protect its infrastructure and wealth from the recurrent threat of destruction by Union forces. Various Confederate leaders, including the generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard S. Ewell, used the town as their headquarters, and it served almost continuously as an army depot, quartermaster and commissary post, and training camp. Union troops targeted Staunton for more than two years before they were able to break the Confederates’ protective hold and lay waste to much of the town and miles of nearby railroad track.

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.

May 23, 1861
Augusta County residents overwhelmingly vote in favor of approving the ordinance of secession.
May 4, 1862
During the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and his army arrive by train in Staunton. Residents are pleasantly surprised, for they had assumed the army's march eastward over the Blue Ridge Mountains indicated their departure for Richmond.
June 6—10, 1864
Following the Battle of Piedmont on June 5, Union general David Hunter occupies Staunton as part of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
September 26—28, 1864
Union forces under General Alfred T. A. Torbert occupy Staunton.
February 28, 1865
Confederate general Jubal A. Early orders the evacuation of Staunton.
March 1—4, 1865
Union general Philip H. Sheridan's forces capture Staunton and destroy a considerable amount of government and civilian property.
  • Ayers, Edward. In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
  • Blair, William A. Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Peyton, J. Lewis. History of Augusta County, Virginia. Staunton, Va.: Samuel M. Yost and Son, 1882.
  • Waddell, Joseph Addison. Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, from 1726–1871. Staunton, Va.: C. Russell Caldwell, 1902.
APA Citation:
Wright, Aerika. Staunton during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/staunton-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Wright, Aerika. "Staunton during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, May 11
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