- Beleaguered Winchester: A Virginia Community at War, 1861–1865
Several years ago, I spent a few days at the home of friends in Winchester, Virginia. I was delighted the first morning to find in their backyard a monument to an Ohio regiment that fought in the Third Battle of Winchester. My friend assured me that his monument was nothing special, however. After all, he explained, one could find them all over town, and his actually was one of the small ones.
The proliferation of such monuments, markers, and Civil War memory in Winchester also is unsurprising in retrospect. Functioning as the Union's wartime gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, the town was fought over repeatedly; one estimate is that it changed hands seventy-two times. Three major [End Page 1239] battles occurred in Winchester, and figures such as Stonewall Jackson, John Mosby, and Philip Sheridan grew familiar with its streets and environs. Often lost in the many narratives of the armies that fought for its control, however, is the fate of the town itself. Richard R. Duncan, a Winchester native and professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University, provides that history in this solid contribution.
Like many western Virginia communities, the sectional crisis divided Winchester. The town split its presidential vote in 1860 almost evenly between John Bell and John C. Breckinridge, and it sent Unionists to the subsequent Virginia Secession Convention. Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers after the firing on Fort Sumter made secessionists of a majority of white citizens, although a tenacious pro-Union minority remained. Duncan maintains that the two rival groups established a "tentative toleration" (p. xvi) that prevented the internecine violence that exploded elsewhere. That control of the town passed back and forth from north to south so often reinforced that wary pragmatism. During the war, Winchester became both a hospital center and supply depot. Federal occupations undermined local slavery while an increasingly brutal guerrilla war spurred a shift from conciliation to the harsh, punishment-driven policies of the abolitionist, Union general, and self-described tyrant Robert Milroy. Despite the massive destruction created by his 1864 campaigns, local Confederates actually preferred Philip Sheridan's rule to Milroy's, in that "Little Phil" brought relative stability and courtesy to an otherwise chaotic region.
Duncan's focus is on Winchester's citizens, with the armies and campaigns remaining in the background. The author's chronological approach unavoidably leads to a certain degree of repetition, with one army or the other constantly arriving to the cheers of its supporters. Duncan grounds his work in recent historiography, with the works of Stephen Ash, Gary Gallagher, and Mark Grimsley particularly prominent, but one still wishes for the deeper examinations of class, economy, ideology, and spatiality found in books such as Robert Tracy McKenzie's recent history of wartime Knoxville. Those considerations aside, Duncan has produced a useful history of a pivotal southern community that should remain the standard for some time to come.