Sheridan’s Veterans: Returning To The Shenandoah Valley

American Eagle, from the 1886 volume of Sheridan’s Veterans.

In the 1880’s a Union veteran’s organization known as Sheridan’s Veterans Association made several trips to the Shenandoah Valley. These “excursions” gave comrades a chance to reunite and revisit their old battlefields in the Valley. Some veterans brought their families, and many made a point of visiting with Confederate veterans and pursuing an idea of reconciliation.

The excursions featured extensive activities, with state or regimental comrades often trying to host or organize the most enjoyable or elaborate part of the event. For example, the 1886 Excursion included large encampments, rifle marksmanship competition, regimental monument dedications, firework shows almost every night (coordinated by veterans of different states all trying to out-do each other), journeys to battlefields, a reception at Winchester, an attempted recreation of Sheridan’s Ride, and organized memorial moments to remember fallen comrades.

Dr. Jonathan Noyalas has written extensively about the Sheridan’s Veterans Association and their roll in reconciliation and war memory in the Valley in his book Civil War Legacy in the Shenandoah (The History Press, 2015). The veterans themselves published several volumes as “souvenirs” from the excursions, and these books include many of the speeches, summaries of the events, and some lists of participants.

Illustration of the entrance to Camp Russell, the 1886 canvas city for the veterans’ visit.

Part of Sergeant R. Huntoon’s speech during the observance of the anniversary of the Third Battle of Winchester in 1883 reflected on the importance of these events to the veterans and what they hoped their military service might inspire for the future:

“To have helped fight one such battle and win one such victory was to prove that we have not lived in vain. But when we review the other efficient services this organization rendered the imperiled Union cause, we may safely affirm that neither we nor our children will ever have occasion to blush as they read the page we have made in our country’s history.

“The satisfaction which this review affords, and the reflection that we have earned our nation’s gratitude, causes our cup of rejoicing to overflow today. The thought that in the grand march of duty, national progress, and destiny, even we have left “footprints on the sands of time,” causes our bosoms to swell with a noble pride. To grasp each other’s hands, and, for another day, amid such scenes and associations, to enjoy the fellowship and communion of heroes like these, well repays a weary and expensive pilgrimage to this sacred shrine [the battlefield]. The memories we here revive, and the patriotic inspiration we shall here  receive, will purify and broaden our manhood, and in the evening of our days afford us an unfailing source of pleasurable contemplation. This reunion will result in binding our hearts more closely together, and will increase the vividness of our remembrance and tenderness of our regard for those who sleep on this consecrated spot. It will prove again to the nation that we were not mere hirelings of the government, but that our loyalty and devotion to our beloved country was one of the deepest-rooted principles of our nature. It will impress our children with the priceless value of our inheritance, and with the necessity of cultivating the sacred virtue of patriotism.

“To my dying day I shall be glad, therefore, that I had this opportunity and that I improved it. Let us be true men in every sense, and honor the scars we have so honorably received. Increasing years, the hardships we have endured, and the wounds from which many of us suffer, admonish us that this is our last earthly meeting. This we cannot fail to regret. But let us so live that when a grateful country shall strew our graves with flowers we may meet and bivouac forever in the land of peace and rest!”

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