Anniversary Present

150th Remembrance Of The Civil War A Boon To Valley Tourism

Posted: July 29, 2014

Keven Walker, CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, stands in downtown New Market. The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has affected tourism over the last several years in the Valley. (Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R)

HARRISONBURG — The Shenandoah Valley was devastated by war in the 1860s.

But over the years, its significance in the Civil War has drawn tourists to the region — especially during the commemoration of the war’s sesquicentennial.

“We have, during our commemorative programs, seen a tremendous turnout for those 150th anniversary events,” said Terry Heder, director of interpretation and communications at the New Market-based Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Association. “We’ve had sellout audiences and people coming from across the country for those programs.

“We’ve had people coming from 14 or 15 different states from across the country, and we’re glad to see we’re having that pull. The economic impact really is magnified when [attendees are] traveling from a distance.”

The spotlight the war’s anniversary has cast since 2009 — the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia — has boosted interest in the sites on which it was fought, increasing visitation in the process.

Maj. Troy Marshall, site director for the Virginia Museum of the Civil War-New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, said Civil War sites in the Old Dominion have reported visitation increases of, coincidentally,  150 percent during the sesquicentennial.

But with the 150th anniversary of the war’s local battles having passed — despite significant battle activity in the northern part of the Valley in 1864 — and of the sesquicentennial’s climax marking Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse only nine months away, what can area attractions and hospitality officials expect going forward?

2012, 2014 Big Years

While local officials say interest in the war has been heightened over the past several years, 2012 and 2014 have been peaks.

Those years mark the anniversary year of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, which included the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic in Rockingham County, and the 1864 Valley Campaign, including the battles of New Market and Piedmont.

The SVBA built its sesquicentennial schedule around those campaigns, Heder said, scheduling three of its four conferences during those years. More than 200 people attended the inaugural conference in Winchester in 2012, and more than 150 people had signed up two weeks before for the finale — “Is the World Being Set on Fire?: The 1864 Shenandoah Campaign and the Burning” — to be held Saturday at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown.

Brenda Black, tourism manager for the city of Harrisonburg and chairwoman of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Sesquicentennial Committee, said the 1862 campaign’s commemoration was the focus of the committee’s marketing efforts.

The committee advertised extensively and created brochures around the anniversary, and those efforts paid off as interest in the war increased.

“We saw a huge spike in 2012,” she said.

The SVBA held one of its conferences at New Market in March, and Heder said its 148 spots were sold out weeks in advance.

And Marshall said the amount of visitation at the museum and historical site in 2014 is “trending really good for us” with five months still to go in the year.

Rest Of 2014 And Beyond

Despite the fact that the 150th anniversary commemorations of local battle action are completed, officials still expect the area to get considerable Civil War attention.

“When we started this, there was some concern that we would see sesquicentennial fatigue because it goes on for years, but we’ve seen the opposite,” Heder said. “It’s a testament to the quality of events that are showing off these unique stories, and coming to visit the sites means so much.

“That’s why preserving those sites is so important. No book, no photograph can give the same experience as standing on the site where it happened.”

Some visitors will travel to the area as part of their pilgrimages to battle sites in the greater Winchester area that were crucial toward the end of the 1864 Valley Campaign. Marshall said that in 2013, New Market’s battlefield drew a lot of visitors who were passing through the region to go to other locations, particularly Gettysburg, Pa.

That, Heder said, is a trend that’s been noticed throughout the commemoration, where people don’t just visit sites marking their 150th anniversary.

“When people come to see one section of the Valley,” he said, “we like to get them to incorporate other areas of the Valley in their travels. We want them to leave saying, ‘This is better than I ever thought it would be,’ and that they’re going to go back to tell their friends and families.”

The rest of 2014 also will highlight the Valley’s burning by Union forces, 13 days of destruction that spanned parts of September and October, 1864.

That series of events — the systematic burning of farm buildings, crops, mills, industrial buildings and homes, as well as the slaughter of livestock — is not as well known as the war’s battles, Heder said, so the commemoration will be its introduction to many people.

Because of changing times, the war’s sesquicentennial commemoration might have a longer-lasting impact than previous milestone anniversaries.

Marshall said recent programs have been broader than past efforts that mostly focused on military strategies and troop movements. They also incorporated aspects of civilian life, as war was fought on doorsteps, including experiences of black Americans.

The widespread use of social media also has changed the way people learn about war-related events.

The battlefields foundation wants to help keep the momentum going, Heder said, and it plans to continue offering regular conferences.

Keven Walker, chief executive officer for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, said it’s important for his organization to build on the interest created by the 150th anniversary.

Walker says if the foundation doesn’t take advantage “of this brief moment in time,” the long-term benefits of the sesquicentennial will never be realized.

“There were undoubtedly youth and adults that developed a curiosity and desire to explore Civil War history and related sites that might not otherwise have been reached,” Walker, who was out of the office on business Monday, said via email. “But the long-term impacts will depend on what we do to foster their newfound interest and inspire their lifelong engagement.”

The promotion of the Valley at war is also about to get a boost from Hollywood.

“Field of Lost Shoes,” directed by Sean McNamara and starring Tom Skerritt, David Arquette, Jason Isaacs and Lauren Holly, is scheduled to be in theaters in September, according to the film’s website.

The film, Marshall said, tells part of the story of the 257 Virginia Military Institute cadets between the ages of 15 and 25 who wound up being ordered into battle at New Market by Confederate Gen. John C. Breckenridge on May 15, 1864.

“We hope [after viewing the film] that people are going to want to see the real New Market battlefield,” Marshall said, “the real field of lost shoes.”

Contact Vic Bradshaw at 574-6279 or

For more on tourism in the Valley, see Vic Bradshaw's story in the July edition of the Shenandoah Valley Business Journal,


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