Shenandoah Valley focus of Cal U roundtable
Stretching some 200 miles across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Roanoke, Va., the Shenandoah Valley, popular in literature, folk culture and folk song, was often referred to during the Civil War as the Breadbasket of the Confederacy.
While historians continue to debate the origin of the classic American folk tune, “Oh Shenandoah,” there can be no debate as to the region's importance during the conflict from 1861-65.
“This region had strategic importance for the Confederate States of America regarding its resources, agricultural products, food production, and livestock,” said Erek Dorman, featured speaker at Thursday's gathering of the California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable. “This was an important pathway and masked Confederate general Robert E. Lee's troop movements from the Union army.”
Dorman's presentation, “The Shenandoah Valley in 1864,” will examine the 150th anniversary of the 1864 campaign in that region.
“I want people to hear more about it and visit the region next year, where numerous events, programs, and re-enactments are being planned,” he said, noting that 1864 was a significant year for the Shenandoah Valley.
Winchester, Va., Dorman continued, in the northern portion of the valley, was an important railroads and crossroads area and every army that passed through the valley had to pass through Winchester. In the four years of the conflict the town changed hands 72 times.
Three major engagements, fittingly referred to as the First, Second, and Third battles of Winchester were fought in the city, with two additional major battles fought in outlying small towns.
“But,” Dorman explained, “when the town changed hands, it was not necessarily because one army overran it, but because the occupying army was aware the other army was nearing the city and considered it prudent to abandon the town. Occupying forces simply realized the oncoming force was larger and it was just smart to leave.”
Confederate forces were victorious in the First and Second battles of Winchester, but the Third was a major victory for Gen. Philip Sheridan and Union forces. Sheridan's troop strength numbered over 30,000 men, including future Gen. George A. Custer. Sheridan's orders were to eliminate Confederate resistance in the valley and, once in control, Sheridan's force set fire to the valley, Dorman noted.
Several years ago Dorman, a graduate of Kalamazoo College with a degree in history and a Civil War re-enactor for 15 years, began conducting Civil War tours, escorting Civil War enthusiasts on tours of Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas, Cedar Creek, Washington, D.C., and the entire Shenandoah Valley.
In selecting “The Shenandoah Valley in 1864” as his topic, Dorman was direct in his reasoning.
“I know these areas like I know the backs of my hands,” he said, chuckling. “I've walked all of these fields. I know the campaigns, battles, physical conditions of the area, and topography that influenced these battles.”
Living (in Maurertown, Va.) and working in graphic design and marketing for 20 years and most recently having worked as a marketing and business manager for a company near Washington, D.C., Dorman is continually involved in Civil War research, visiting various sites and conducting research in archives and libraries. His own library is full of books on all aspects of the Civil War but, he acknowledged, “I am not an expert but I do know a lot.”
And it's not just about the Civil War. Dorman, 45, grew up in Europe and graduated from high school at the American School of the Hague, Netherlands. He spent time in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands prior to teaching English at the American embassy in South Korea. His mother's brother was a military history buff, and Dorman has inherited that love of history since he was a child.
“I've been collecting military memorabilia virtually my entire life,” he said, “and at one point I saved my allowance for a full year to buy an Austrian rifle.”
Dorman will meet Roundtable guests in the Kara Alumni House, located on campus. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m., with the Roundtable discussion beginning at 7 p.m. Additional information may be obtained by calling 724-258-3406 or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Les Harvath is a contributing writer.