“Why Was Jefferson County a Crucible of the Civil War?” – Dennis Frye

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VIDEO: Dennis Frye – Why was Jefferson County, WV a Crucible of the Civil War? TRT: 4:52

Historian Dennis Frye

Why is Jefferson County a crucible of the civil war? Well, there’s no question that geography is the key. Geography really creates that crucible. You know, Jefferson County, located along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, located just on the border of Maryland and, ultimately, just on the border of West Virginia and Virginia, being at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, the great portal into Virginia from the north – when you take all that and you put it into the crucible, you’re going to see that Jefferson County is going to be vastly influenced by the war, because it literally becomes a principal carrier of the war. It becomes a host of the war and Jefferson County was not able to escape from the war. You know, a lot of places in the deep south didn’t experience the civil war until 1863 or 64 maybe even 65 and I’m talking about military occupation. Military invasion armies, marching through.

Jefferson County from the start, hosted foreign armies. Now what I mean even the confederate army is far into Jefferson County. Most of the men who join with Stonewall Jackson – he’s not Stonewall Jackson yet – but Thomas Jonathan Jackson at Harpers Ferry at the outbreak of the war, April, May, June, 1861. Most of those people are not from Jefferson County. They’re coming from Mississippi and Alabama and other deep south states and so the first real invasion of Jefferson County is the southern army, followed very quickly by the northern army coming to dislodge it from Jefferson County. Now, that battle didn’t occur. Manassas became the first fight, not in Jefferson County, but that collision could have occurred in 1861 here in Jefferson County. That sets us up for this tension between North and South as both armies are going to position and maneuver through and across Jefferson County all four years of the war.

It couldn’t escape the the geography. The people of the county were affected by this geography. Now, it’s easy to think of Jefferson County as being part of the confederacy. It’s easy to think of Jefferson County being loyal to the confederacy, but there were divided loyalties here.

It’s a very complex population based on the ethnicity of the people here. The religion of the people here when people arrived here – the race of the people here, this is a true mixing pot of many, many different philosophies, ideas and cultures that all came together here and they had varying perspectives on civil war and so there’s great tension and conflict in the county itself during the war. Many men, indeed, will go fight for the confederacy, but there are other people here in this county that remain very, very loyal to the north. They have to do it quietly. They’re in great danger if they express their loyalties to the union, because after all you’re in a foreign country now. You live in a confederacy. If you put the U.S. flag – the stars and stripes – outside your window, you are committing treason against the Confederate States of America;

and so your loyalty to the United States could not be something you could announce. That could end you up in a prison very quickly. So this idea of of the armies moving back and forth, the armies occupying, the armies invading, the uncertainty of day-to-day life – you didn’t know which flag you should fly from day-to-day and that could change sometimes from hour-to-hour. Charlestown changing hands, Shepherdstown changing hands, Harper’s Ferry changing hands, because of the armies moving back-and-forth; and so, there was total instability. Your life, the routine there was no routine. You couldn’t predict from day-to-day. You didn’t know what would happen next and there was great fear as a result of that. This was an uncomfortable place to live, juxtaposed over the great beauty of Jefferson County, the fertile lands, the gorgeous rivers, the wonderful livestock and agriculture, and a people who worked hard – juxtaposed over all of that was this hard hand of day-to-day war and the conflict – not only resulted in ruin, but, in many cases, death.


Frye, Dennis. “Civil War Scholar: Why Was Jefferson County a Crucible of the Civil War?” American Military University Civil War Scholars. 14 April 2011. Web. 2 May 2011.

Flickr Set:

Collection of Jim Surkamp

Cowles, Capt. Calvin D, 23d U. S. Infantry, Major George B. Davis , U.S. Army, Leslie J. Perry, Joseph W. Kirkley. “The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War.” EHistory, Ohio State University.
17 June 2008 .Web. 12 Oct. 2010.

Battles and Leaders. Vol. 2. Robert Underwood Johnson, Clarence Clough Buel (Ed.). New York, NY: Century Co. Print.

Googlemaps. 8 Feb. 2005. Web. 5 May 2011.