Driving on Virginia’s Interstate 64? You’ll cross Rockfish Gap to leave or enter the Shenandoah Valley and drive right through a place of history. Situated about 16 miles east of Staunton and just above Waynesboro, the gap offers a crossing in the Blue Ridge Mountains and was a route for armies during the Civil War.
Rockfish Gap is one of the lowest crossing points at just 1,900 feet above sea level. Early colonial settlers used the area as they headed into the Shenandoah Valley. The original route probably followed an east/west trail used by Native American, but the the 1780’s a more developed road allowed carriages to cross the gap while inns and taverns located about every ten miles welcomed a traveler on his journey to Richmond or the frontier.
In the 1850’s, the Blue Ridge Railway Company completed surveys and built tunnels – a series of four underground passages to take the iron rails over the mountains near Rockfish Gap.
During his 1862 Valley Campaign, “Stonewall” Jackson took full advance of the gap and the railroad. In one of his mystifying tactics, he left the newly-arrived Richard Ewell and his division at Swift Run Gap (farther north) and marched his own men south to Port Republic, then east over the mountains toward Charlottesville; however, on May 4, Jackson put his men on trains and hauled him back over the Blue Ridge Mountains via Rockfish Gap. Once they arrived near Staunton, they continued west, eventually fighting the Battle of McDowell on May 8.
Troops crossed in and out of the Valley via Rockfish Gap during all the war years, and another important movement occurred in March 1865.
On March 2, 1865, General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry attacked the remaining Confederate forces under General Jubal Early near Waynesboro, a small town sitting just below and west of the gap. The battle marked the last truly organized fight the Confederates attempted in their beloved Valley and it did not go well for them. Federal cavalry led by George Custer pushed the Rebel forces through Waynesboro, capturing hundreds. Early, some of his officers, part of the Laurel Brigade cavalry, and broken remnants of other units escaped through Rockfish Gap and most joined the Army of Northern Virginia. The Battle of Waynesboro resulted in about nine Union casualties and about 1,500 killed, wounded, missing, or captured Confederates. Without the gap, the entire force probably would have been captured.Thus, among its detailed and storied past – which includes accounts from Colonial, Revolutionary, Civil War, Reconstruction, and 20th Century History – Rockfish Gap offered the natural backdrop for two important incidents in Shenandoah Valley Civil War History. First, the “return of Jackson” to the Valley and a beginning of his offensive movements in the 1862 Campaign. Second, the final major fight in the Valley in 1865, resulting in a Union victory, captured Confederates, and a small group of determined Rebel fighters that escaped through the gap.
(ECW Editor Sarah Kay Bierle talks about Shenandoah Valley history and included some video footage shot at Rockfish Gap on a cloudy and windy day in her recent production for Gazette665; if you’re interested, find the video here on YouTube. Rockfish Gap footage starts at 7:49 on the clip.)
Take Exit 99 off Interstate 64 and follow signs for Rockfish Gap Tourist Information Center. Located high on the slope, this parking lot overlooks the gap and faces west, toward the Valley and offers spectacular views on a clear day.
Tourist Information Center: 130 Afton Cir, Afton, VA 22920
Inside the Tourist Center, you’ll find a scaled, diorama map of the Shenandoah Valley. Bring along your notes for any Civil War campaign in the region since this is a great place to “see” how the armies moved. If you’re new to the Valley area or just starting your “boots on the ground” research, this is an excellent resource to help visualize the military campaigns. It’s also a good way to show your traveling companions how the campaigns worked; just walk them around the display and teach the informal history class. You’ll also find travel brochures for historic sites, local attractions, and dining in the Valley Region.
Need a little snack? King’s Gourmet Popcorn Stand – located below the Tourist Center – is a fun stop! Try one of their uniquely flavored popcorn bags.
From Rockfish Gap, you’ll continue either west into the Valley or east toward central Virginia. Or…head into Shenandoah National Park and begin a journey on Skyline Drive; Rockfish Gap is the southernmost entrance point for this Park.