ECW Weekender: Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum

Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley was home to some of the most famous battles during the Civil War. Today, preservation of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District is led by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. This month, SVBF completed a total renovation of the James R. Wilkins Exhibit Hall in the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum in Winchester, Virginia. It’s definitely worth the time to visit.

The original 1840 Frederick County Courthouse houses the museum.

Located right in the middle of downtown Winchester along the Loudon Street Walking Mall, the museum is housed in the town’s striking 1840 Courthouse. Winchester changed hands countless times during the war, and the building was used as a hospital and prison at different times. In addition to remaining a tangible reminder of those days (complete with restored 1840 court room!), the upstairs now houses a brand new top-notch exhibit titled “One Story, One Thousand Voices.”

While the Courthouse has housed relics and exhibits for years, this renovation has revitalized them. The museum tells a more holistic story – seeking to inform about the many stages of the war in the Valley and highlighting US soldiers, Confederates, and local civilians with loyalties on both sides. The exhibit begins the same way the war did in the Valley; with John Brown’s Raid in Harpers Ferry. It discusses skirmishes in 1861 and Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign before ushering visitors into 1863 through the eyes of civilians. You pass through the façade of a period house and are stuck by the complications facing secessionist civilians, local Unionists, and even some stories of the enslaved and local enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Visitors then have the opportunity to see a full-size recreation of a hut that would house soldiers during the winter months. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, and it’s filled with reproductions of personal items to give it a “lived-in” feel and show how soldiers experienced the sometimes-unpredictable weather. Passing beyond the hut offers items, such as complete uniforms and personal items, related to the campaigns in 1864 that solidified United States control of the region. Finally, the exhibit closes by discussing the tumultuous postwar period and the legacy of the Civil War that continues today. Fittingly, it also highlights the importance of preserving the battlefields where some of the stories told here originally occurred, which is a herculean task that SVBF confronts daily.

SVBF invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into this exhibit, and it shows. Incredible objects tell the stories of soldiers and civilians in the Civil War, and the design of immersive experiences like the winter quarters hut help transport visitors into the 1860s. The fact that it’s in a wartime building with soldier graffiti helps do that too! During the war, soldiers scratched their names, poems, or even sketches onto the walls. These were discovered during renovation in 2000 and are integrated into the visitor experience.

One example of wartime graffiti. Here, an unknown soldier scrawled his anger against Confederate President Jeff Davis, writing in part:
To Jeff Davis
May he be set afloat without compass or rudder
Then that any contents be swallowed by a shark
The shark by a whale, the whale in the devil’s belly…

The museum is located at 20 N Loudoun St, Winchester, VA 22601, along the Loudon Street Walking Mall and nestled between other local shops and restaurants. There is ample parking at nearby garages, such as Braddock Autopark, as well as street parking. The hours are 10:00am-5:00pm Monday to Saturday, and 1:00pm-5:00pm on Sunday.

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