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Calm Before the Storm: 8th Georgia Infantry Regiment in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, 1861

By Warren Wilkinson and Steven E. Woodworth 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: March 08, 2011 
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The Shenandoah—"Daughter of the Stars"—is born of the marriage of the North and South Rivers at Port Republic, Virginia, and flows due northeast some 90 miles to meet the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. For the whole of her journey the Shenandoah is cradled in a broad valley between the misty Blue Ridge on the east, and the rugged Alleghenies to the west, a valley that stretches on to the southwest far beyond the headwaters of the Shenandoah, and in the opposite direction across the Potomac, through Pennsylvania and Maryland. The portion of the valley that holds the Shenandoah is naturally known as the Shenandoah Valley. During the 19th century it was also know as the Valley of Virginia or, especially during the Civil War, simply "the valley."

The untried soldiers of the 8th Georgia Infantry Regiment found the northern Shenandoah Valley almost idyllic during the early summer of 1861

Tranquil and verdant with its golden expanses of wheat and corn and its fragrant meadows thick with clover, the valley in 1861 was a land of fertile fields, homey country towns, and dusty fence-lined roads. The rich farms that dotted its broad floor made it the breadbasket of Virginia and also harbored abundant horses, cattle, pigs, fowl, goats, and sheep. Throughout the valley, in its acid soil, the wild, evergreen mountain laurel grew, its buds blossoming into delicate white flowers in early May, their sweet fragrance drifting over the tilled earth on the wind. On lands untouched by human endeavor, patches of oak, elm, hickory, maple, ash, and conifer blanketed the lowlands and slopes of the mountains, adding their deep greens to the panoply of color. And in farmers' fields apple and peach orchards gave forth, in season, their delicious red and yellow fruits.

At the far northern, or in local parlance, lower end of this abundant land, the Potomac River caps the section of valley belonging to the Shenandoah. On the spit of land jutting between the churning, foamy waters of the two rushing rivers just before they join clings the town of Harpers Ferry in a deep mountain basin bounded on the west by Bolivar Heights, on the southeast and across the Shenandoah by Loudoun Heights, and to the north and over the Potomac—in Maryland—by Maryland Heights. These three prominences well shielded the village, which slopes steeply down to both rivers' stony banks. However, the capture of those hills by hostile forces would reverse their significance, rendering the small town helpless in the face of a commanding and threatening foe.

When Virginia seceded in April 1861, the state's militia had seized Harpers Ferry. The valuable rifle-making machinery from the U.S. arsenal there was soon on its way to a more secure location in North Carolina, while first Virginia and then Confederate troops continued to hold Harpers Ferry as the gateway to the rich Shenandoah Valley.

During May 1861 a Union force began taking shape around Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, threatening the Confederate position at the mouth of the Shenandoah. About 18,000 Pennsylvania militia with a few U.S. Army Regulars formed the command of aged Union major general Robert Patterson. In response, the Confederate government opted to reinforce its small contingent guarding the Shenandoah—about 10,000 men under Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston. That was the decision that brought President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War Leroy Walker to the 8th Georgia's camp outside Richmond on the evening of June 3, and had the soldiers all in a frenzy the next day in their anxious preparations to be off.

The regiment was scheduled to depart for Harpers Ferry on June 5 at 8 o'clock in the morning. In fact, it did not get off until 1:30 p.m., and even then one company—H, the Floyd Infantry—was left behind to depart the following morning. The other eight marched down to the Broad Street station and piled into two trains for the first leg of their trip. They rode the Virginia Central as far as Gordonsville, then transferred to the Orange & Alexandria for the ride to Manassas Junction. They got there at 3 a.m. on June 6, but a problem with one of their locomotives held them up until 2 o'clock that afternoon. Finally, they rolled out of the junction on the Manassas Gap Railroad, over the Blue Ridge, down into the Shenandoah Valley and to the town of Strasburg. That was the end of the line, so next morning they set out down the Valley Pike, a fine macadamized road that in peacetimes carried a brisk traffic in stagecoaches and Conestoga freight wagons, serving the commerce of the valley in place of a railroad.

For the trip down the pike from Strasburg to Winchester, six companies rode in wagons and coaches, but when transportation ran short, Companies A, B, and C volunteered to walk. It was an 18-mile hike, and Company A's Melvin Dwinell characterized it as their first hardship. They camped that night and the next day at Winchester and continued their journey on June 9, this time by means of a spur line of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that carried them in much greater comfort the last 30 miles or so to Harpers Ferry, where they marched through the village and made their camp on Bolivar Heights.

They enjoyed the next six days among scenery that Thomas Jefferson had said was worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see. They also gazed long at the manmade improvements. "From Bolivar Heights," wrote Berrien Zettler of Company B, "we could see the splendid railroad bridge of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that spans the river here." They could also see an additional railroad bridge and, on the far bank of the Potomac, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

General Johnston had long been discontented with the position of his force at Harpers Ferry. It was on the northeastern edge of the valley, and he feared a Union thrust farther west, perhaps through Martinsburg, on the Potomac. That would flank him and possibly make his position very difficult. As he was to do again and again throughout the war, Johnston decided that the situation was not quite right for meeting the enemy where he was but that it would be better some miles to the rear. Specifically, he had in mind Winchester, the crossroads of the lower valley, where the Valley Pike running south from Martinsburg met the railroad spur running southwest from Harpers Ferry. After several weeks of haggling with the authorities in Richmond he finally succeeded in getting them to take the responsibility for his decision to retreat—and none too soon, as far as he was concerned, since by mid-June he had decided that he could wait no longer. Rumor had it that Patterson was advancing toward Martinsburg, and Federal scouts had been sighted and fired on some 600 or 700 yards from the B&O bridge on the far side of the river.

Thus on Thursday, June 13, the 8th got orders to prepare to break camp and march back to the south. The destination was to be Winchester, and this time they would be marching the whole way. The camp once again bustled with hasty preparations, and then, in true army style, they started waiting. After striking their tents and packing up their excess baggage and cooking utensils at midday Friday, the men of the 8th had to sit around waiting, sleeping in the open and eating cold food until almost noon on Saturday before their march finally got underway. While they prepared to go, Private Sid Goodwin of Company B became the first in the regiment to shed his blood in the field. In the tangle and rush of packing up, he managed to get scratched by a bayonet. The wound was not serious.

During the long wait, the men had time to reflect on the army's movements. They were eager for a fight and even more eager to be seen as such by the folks back home. Regimental adjutant John Branch wrote his mother to say that Harpers Ferry had no importance anyway and that he was "surprised that it was held so long." Just in case some back in Rome might hear of the move and misconstrue it as a retreat, Melvin Dwinell wrote to the readers of the Rome Courier, "We do not flee from the enemy, but go to meet them." Since the Yankees were thought to be getting around their flank by moving through Martinsburg, then marching back to block such a move was not a retreat but an advance toward the enemy. It had a certain logic to it, but Dwinell also noted proudly that the 8th had been accorded the role of rear guard, the place of honor on a retreat. At any rate, the men of the 8th were quickly learning that soldiers had no part in the counsels of their commanders; theirs was simply to march, camp, and perhaps fight where and when their generals ordered.

Along with other troops, the 8th helped burn the brick armory and arsenal buildings, as well as other structures in the village. Johnston had his engineers blow up both railroad bridges and a carriage bridge. The work of destruction was thorough and remorseless, and when Johnston's men had finished, a substantial portion of the Virginia town was a smoldering waste. Then at 11 o'clock on June 15, the 8th joined the rear of the long column and turned their backs on Harpers Ferry.

An eight-mile march took them through the village of Charles Town, where old John Brown had been hanged a year and half before. The 8th would remember it nearly as well for the fine hot supper the citizens served them there, the first proper meal they had eaten in two days and the last they would enjoy for several days to come. Another four miles or so of marching and they camped for the night.

The next several days were tense and trying ones for the soldiers of Johnston's small army. Instead of marching directly to Winchester as they had expected, the column turned northwestward toward Martinsburg on an old market road and finally made camp at Bunker Hill, on the Valley Pike just south of Martinsburg. They were near the western edge of the valley now, and Apple Pie Ridge, the first range of the Alleghenies here, loomed up just beyond them. Everyone from Johnston down to the privates in the ranks expected a battle at any moment, as rumor had it that a Union army of 25,000 or 30,000 men was present in Martinsburg and preparing to advance. Johnston even requested the regimental commanders announce the impending clash to their men, and the 8th's Colonel Francis S. Bartow did so in fine style, assuring them, as one recalled, "that he did not doubt the courage of his men, but on the contrary he was afraid that they would rush needlessly into danger."

"Some of our boys looked pretty pale in the face when we expected an attack," Private Richard Watters explained in a letter to his sister the next day, adding, "but most of them were lively as ever." Whether eager or nervous, the men of the 8th would have to cope with their anticipation for some time yet. A day of waiting failed to bring the Federals advancing out of Martinsburg—for the excellent reason that they were not there—and when the question became one of whether the Confederates ought to attack, Johnston decided against it. His force was badly short of ammunition.

So they turned southward once again, this time up the Valley Pike bound for Winchester. The road was good, but the men had been without tents and without any food but cold meat and hardtack for several days. The 8th was also learning how much more fatiguing a route march could be than simply walking the same number of miles alone. Reveille sounded at 3:30 a.m., but preparations for marching lasted till 7 o'clock. Then when the march did commence, "instead of being allowed to step off at a smart walk," Dwinell explained, "we were continually being stopped in the hot sun, from two to five minutes at a time, just a little too long to stand in such a situation, and not long enough to break ranks and sit." It was vexing, and Private Richard Watters expressed the feelings of many when he wrote, "I am tired of toting my knapsack over this country."

Watters had to admit, though, that he "never saw finer country." The fields of wheat and clover were the richest he had ever imagined. The bounty of the Shenandoah Valley became a temptation for at least three hungry men of the 8th, tramping along wearily near the tail end of the column. Berrien Zettler and two of his friends in Company B, Savannah's high-class Oglethorpe Light Infantry (OLI), Privates John Webb and Henry Parnel, began reflecting on how their supply of cooked rations had given out and how, as they exaggerated their plight, they "had not 'had a mouthful for three days.'" They agreed to fall out of ranks, hide in some nearby bushes until the provost guards at the end of the column were safely past, and then "see what could be done" about getting something to eat.

The plan worked, and the three soon found themselves alone on the road. Casting about for a likely source of food, they spied a nearby farmhouse that, much to the delight of the three Oglethorpes, had several beehives sitting among the grass and clover of the front yard. The hot, tired, thirsty, and hungry soldiers eagerly strode up the path to the back door of the large brick house. Their knock brought the farmer to an upstairs window, where he stuck his head out and asked what they wanted. They told him to come downstairs, and he did. Then they explained that they were hungry Confederate soldiers and wanted to buy some of his honey. To their surprise and dismay, he flatly refused. Again they explained their situation, adding that they had not had anything to eat for two days save green apples and that he really ought to give them the honey instead of selling it. This was too much for the farmer, who, like many inhabitants of the upper South, was a Unionist and resented the fire-eating hotheads of the cotton states for bringing on the war. The farmer told them as much and suggested that a little starving might do them some good.

"You know, my friend," Webb remarked ominously, "some soldiers don't ask people to give or sell them things when they are hungry."

"Yes," replied the farmer stoutly, "I've heard of such, and I'm ready for them," and with that he reached back inside the door and pulled out a double-barreled shotgun, announcing that anyone who tampered with his property would do so at the hazard of his life.

"Oh!" exclaimed Zettler, "You wouldn't kill a man for a few pounds of honey?"

"Yes, I would," replied the farmer.

"But we are willing to buy the honey, sell us that or something else to eat."

But the farmer did not want to aid the cause of secession, and steadfastly maintained that he would not sell and would defend his property with lethal force if necessary. A double-barreled shotgun is a fairly authoritative piece of equipment, and that might have been the end of the matter if the farmer had not been all this while committing a serious tactical error. He was standing there with the butt of his shotgun sitting on the ground and the palm of his hand resting over the muzzle. Without warning, Webb leveled his Harpers Ferry rifle at the farmer's chest, snarling, "If you move I'll kill you." Parnel did the same. "We sure will," he agreed. The farmer took them at their word and stood as still as a statue.

"Well, boys," said Zettler, "If you hold him that way, I'll get the honey." He hurried down to the hives, lifted the honey box off one of them, tied it up in his handkerchief, and hurried back. They marched the farmer several hundred yards down the road without his gun and then turned him loose. The unfortunate man lost no time in making his escape.

The three Oglethorpes now contemplated their booty with relish mixed with a certain amount of guilt. As Zettler later admitted: "We were private soldiers doing a thing of which we knew our officers disapproved and for which we would be severely dealt with if found out. We were…wrong."

Still, the thought of eating all the honey they could hold was an alluring one, and finding a shady bank beside a little rippling brook, they addressed themselves to the honeycomb. "It was delicious," Zettler recalled, "and we thoroughly enjoyed it." They had been hot and dry when they began their repast, and getting their bellies full to bloating of sweet, sticky honey had intensified their thirst. Crawling over to the stream, they lay on the bank and greedily gulped down large amounts of the cold, clear water.

Presently John Webb stopped, sat up, and got a peculiarly serious look on his face. "Boys," he said, "I believe mine is coming ba—, ba—, back," and began vomiting. Parnel and Zettler took one look and headed into the bushes themselves. A few minutes later, relieved, they set out to catch up with their regiment, perhaps reflecting on some of the newly discovered moral ambiguities of soldiering.

On June 20 the 8th Georgia reached Winchester and camped a little over a mile southeast of town at a place called Hollingsworth Grove. One soldier described it as "an island of shade and a sea of clover." Rolling, grassy fields surrounded the site, and nearby the waters of Town Creek turned the wheel of Hollingsworth's gristmill, a large substantial building of native limestone. A little over half a mile away was Shawnee Spring. With its cool, clear water, the spring was a favorite place with the local population, whom some members of the 8th lost no time in getting to know. On the regiment's first day at Hollingsworth Grove, Hamilton Branch of the OLI went for a stroll up to the spring with a Miss Jennie and a Miss Ella, explaining in a letter to his mother, "They say if you drink this water you are obliged to come back here." The tents and cooking utensils finally caught up with the regiment, and life began to become more comfortable. Few members of the 8th Georgia would have denied that to camp at Winchester in high summer was very good duty indeed.

The abundant clover of the valley was something many of the Georgia boys had never before seen, and this led to some humorous behavior on the part of members of one of the other regiments in Johnston's army. Coming upon a field of clover one day, these Georgians mistook the luxuriant plants for a growth of peanuts, or in Georgia parlance, goobers. In a flash the Georgia boys had broken ranks and run out into the clover field and begun pulling up plants, only to gape in disappointment at seeing bare clover roots where they had expected to find the delectable goober peas. All they got out of it was a good laugh from the Virginia troops, in which they and their fellow Georgians of the 8th readily joined. The plant-pulling regiment got the nickname "Goober Grabbers" that day, and it soon spread to include all the Georgia troops serving in Virginia.

The troops at Hollingsworth Grove continued drilling four hours a day, which they considered "pretty good work." They also continued to impress civilian spectators. As at Richmond, many local ladies came out to witness the drills and socialize with the soldiers afterward. The soldiers admired them in turn and wrote of their beauty in letters home. George Barnsley of the Rome Light Guards later recalled that "it was a pleasure to strut about when one could get a leave." Meanwhile Hamilton Branch continued apace, and by the third or fourth day at Hollingsworth Grove, Sanford, his brother, noticed that he came to dress parade "with five young ladies, some quite handsome." Sanford also noted that John Branch, his and Ham's older brother and the regimental adjutant, attended a ball on June 26 and "had a very nice time."

As Johnston's small army had marched down to Winchester, the general organized it into brigades. The 8th Georgia he brigaded with the 7th Georgia, the 9th Georgia, and two battalions of Kentuckians and a battery of artillery. Johnston selected Colonel Bartow to command the brigade, and that meant Lieutenant Colonel Montgomery Gardner took over the reins as commander of the 8th.

Bartow continued to be a favorite with soldiers and civilians, though some began to notice a contrast between his mood and that of the soldiers he commanded. Cornelia McDonald was one of the ladies of Winchester who came out to the camp to see the troops drill. Bartow invited her and the others up to his tent to watch the festivities, and she was not disappointed in the show. It was "a beautiful sight," she wrote in her diary that night, "the men went through all their maneuvers with perfect order." Once the dress parade was over, the soldiers began playing games like schoolboys, for, as Mrs. McDonald noted, "boys most of them were," and the fields around the camp were filled with nattily uniformed soldiers playing at leapfrog and other favorite activities of the schoolyard.

Bartow himself, however, presented a striking contrast to his exuberant soldiers. A Mrs. Campbell "could not help contrasting their happy looks with the melancholy face of their commander." He stood and watched the capering soldiers with a look of "deep sadness" on his face. To Virginia Mason Ambler, who stood nearby, he said, "I cannot drive from my mind the thought of the terrible struggles in which they will have to bear their part."

Many members of the 8th remembered fondly their days near Winchester. Recalling that time with an awareness of the much greater hardships that had followed, Company I's Lieutenant John Calvin Reed wrote: "O, those halcyon days in the Valley, smiling its last beautiful smile! Every morning we found the camp more lively, the old people around us more like parents, and the girls dearer and fairer. How romantic and sweet it was to each of us to belong to the southern army and be petted by such people."

Pleasant the situation might be, but the men of the 8th could not forget that they had come to Virginia to fight and had not done so. Prospects of doing so seemed poor, and the specter loomed of sitting out the war in some inactive sector without the chance to prove their valor. The thought marred the soldiers' enjoyment of the beautiful Shenandoah. "There is any amount of grumbling very generally expressed," Melvin Dwinell wrote, in regard to Johnston's decision to retire to Winchester and not force a battle near Martinsburg. "We all now think," Dwinell continued, "that we then lost our only immediate and perhaps the only remote chance also for a fight." He thought there never had been an army "more eager for the fray," but throughout the rest of the month of June it would be disappointed.

Then on Tuesday, July 2, word reached camp that the Federals were on the move. Confederate forces under Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson were skirmishing and falling back before a large Union column that had crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, in the far northwestern corner of the valley. The bluecoats continued on another eight miles to Martinsburg. Jackson, with orders from Johnston to avoid bringing on a general engagement, fell back before the advancing Federals.

Johnston immediately gave orders for the rest of his army to march northward in support of Jackson. Excitement ran high in the 8th as the army swung northward along the Valley Pike in light marching order, tents and heavy baggage left behind under a small guard. Six miles short of Martinsburg, at the little hamlet of Darksville, Johnston deployed his army to face Patterson's larger force. For the next four days, the Confederates waited eagerly, but Patterson would not move. The aged Pennsylvania general was acting on orders from Union general in chief Winfield Scott in Washington. Scott wanted Patterson to keep Johnston occupied in the valley so that he could not take his force to aid the Confederate army of Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard at Manassas Junction, well to the east and on the direct route from Washington to Richmond. Never one to be overaggressive, Patterson was content to sit in Martinsburg and try to appear threatening, and he was more than content to have Johnston sit and watch him from Darksville. Johnston soon tired of the game. Unwilling to sit idle any longer but even more reluctant to attack Patterson's force ensconced as it was in the town of Martinsburg, he ordered his army right about face and back to their camps at Winchester.

The march took place on Sunday, July 8. The 8th Georgia brought up the rear once again, and a tiresome business it was under the hot sun of one of the warmest days yet that year. Straggling, a constant feature of Civil War armies on the march, was much in evidence, and members of the 8th guessed they must have passed perhaps as many as a thousand men who had fallen out of ranks during the course of the day. They arrived back at Hollingsworth Grove at 8 o'clock that evening and were very glad to see their tents, baggage, and cooking utensils again after five days without them.

Interestingly, despite the fatigue and exposure of active operations, the regiment was in better health upon its return than it had been for some days before or would be for some days after. Johnston had an order read in all the camps explaining his reasons for pulling back again, and the men had to be content with it. Adjutant John Branch explained in a letter to his mother that the common soldiers and low-ranking officers referred to their recent maneuver as "retreating," but the high brass called it "resuming our former position."

The Confederates had taken a number of Union prisoners in the skirmishing during the first few days of July and set them to work building fortifications for the Confederates at Winchester. The captive Yankees soon became an item of interest—a sort of sideshow curiosity—to numerous members of Johnston's army. Stories quickly made the rounds about what poor specimens they were—"mostly small, dried up Pennsylvania Dutchmen"—and how perfidious. A favorite tale had it that when one prisoner was asked what he was fighting against the South for, he replied, "For 11 dollars a month." That the story was false was amply demonstrated by the fact that $11 per month was a Confederate private's pay. Their Union counterparts made $13 per month. Still, the boys of the 8th did not know this, and they found it encouraging to reflect that their foes were a "mercenary horde" who would hardly prove resolute in battle.

Camp life at Hollingsworth Grove returned more or less to normal after the early July scare, and yet things were not quite as carefree as before. The possibility of an imminent armed clash kept the 8th in a state of tense but hopeful expectation. On July 10 Johnston gave orders for the troops to cook their rations in advance—a sure sign of an impending movement—and be ready to march at a moment's notice. A morning of frenzied preparations gave way to an afternoon of anxious waiting and fevered speculation about where they were going. In the end, they went nowhere.

Then at 1 p.m. on Monday, July 15, the preparatory order came again: Cook three days' rations and put them in the haversacks. Then strap up blankets and oilcloths for handy carrying and pack everything else to be left behind with the tents. The men hurried to comply. Six hours later the order was changed, and they were told to strike tents and pack up everything. Everything, however, was not going to be as much as it had been in previous movements. A recent order from the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General's Office in Richmond had wisely stipulated that excess baggage was to be curtailed. The preparations for the movement coincided with preparations to ship off or store the regiment's huge amount of extra truck. Somewhere in the confusion, Company A, the Rome Light Guards, misplaced its fine silken banner and never found it again. In any case, company banners were superfluous in the real army, where regiments were the units accorded the honor of carrying flags.

At 7 p.m. Bartow's brigade, including the 8th Georgia, moved out to the north side of Winchester, and the word was that they would be staying there until the arrival of the enemy, then rumored to be advancing. Tuesday brought renewed reports that Patterson was finally stirring from his position at Martinsburg, and throughout that day and the next, the Confederates continued to wait. Wednesday afternoon orders came down to dismantle all the fences in the fields north of Winchester so as to facilitate maneuvering when the big battle finally opened, but by now even the private soldiers were beginning to wonder if Patterson was any more earnest this time than he had been before.

On Thursday morning, July 18, Melvin Dwinell wrote at 7 o'clock, "Orders have been issued to pack up baggage, strike tents, cook two days rations and be ready to march immediately, we know not where." He supposed it would only be two or three miles to a somewhat more advantageous position. Others in the regiment had a much different hunch about the object of this movement. Over in Company E, the Miller Rifles, Private Henry C. Harper and his friends believed they were headed for Beauregard's sorely threatened army at Manassas Junction. In his diary he wrote, "We knew where we were a going."

Warren Wilkinson is the author of Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac, 1864–1865. Steven E. Woodworth is the author of numerous Civil War books, including While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (University Press of Kansas, 2001). This article is adapted from their book, A Scythe of Fire: A Civil War Story of the Eighth Georgia Infantry Regiment (William Morrow, 2002).

This article was first published in MHQ, Spring 2002.



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