The War Between the States washed across Front Royal, Va., with tide-like frequency. Each year of the conflict saw Union and Confederate armies marching — or fighting — through the town strategically located at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. Today, the exploits of the iconic Stonewall Jackson, notorious Mosby’s Rangers, seductive Belle Boyd, and the events that raged up and down the valley make Front Royal and its environs a choice destination for amateur historians and Civil War aficionados.
The war first came to Front Royal in March 1862 when Union Col. David Hunter Strother, a much reviled “Virginia Yankee,” occupied the town. Using prominent Massanutten Mountain as cover, Gen. Stonewall Jackson marched his Confederate troopers more than 60 miles in two torrid summer days to attack the Union forces in one of the few urban battles of the war. Fighting from house to house in the town’s streets, the assault led by the First Maryland CSA Regiment overwhelmed troops of the First Maryland USA, under the command of Col. John R. Kenly. The Battle of Front Royal truly was a battle that pitted brother against brother.
Also during that battle, a young woman named Belle Boyd was staying with her relatives who ran the old hotel. Realizing that Jackson was unaware of his opponent’s weakness, and unable to find a man willing to risk crossing the Union lines, she carried the message herself and helped secure a Southern victory. But, a week later, Union Gen. James Shields’ army of 20,000 retook the town.
In the late spring of 1863, two divisions of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, led by the Stonewall Brigade, marched through Front Royal on their way from victory at Chancellorsville to their high-water mark at Gettysburg, Pa. After their defeat, they retreated back through Front Royal and delayed a larger Union force east of the town at the Battle of Manassas Gap, or Wapping Heights, considered the last engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Early autumn 1864 brought another Confederate high water mark of sorts. Col. John S. Mosby’s Rangers caused so much havoc harassing Union pickets and outposts in the Shenandoah Valley that U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued an order to “hang them without a trial” should any of Mosby’s men be captured.
In September, when pouncing on a Union supply column, Mosby and his raiders blundered in front of the main Union force. Six rangers and a recruit were captured and executed by Union Gen. George Custer. A monument to their memory stands at the entrance to the Prospect Hill Cemetery.
Following history today
To follow the course of history at this northern gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, visit the Front Royal Visitors Center on Main Street. Along with a free map and brochure of the Battle of Front Royal driving tour, the visitors center can help locate the sites that are so important to understanding the conflict in the valley.
Outside the facility, two Civil War Trails markers give general information about Front Royal during the war. The Virginia Civil War Trails driving tour follows the 1862 action as the Stonewall Brigade swept aside light federal resistance to win the Battle of Front Royal. The driving tour begins a few miles south of downtown Front Royal on U.S. 340 at Asbury Chapel, and each of 10 stops has an interpretive Civil War Trails marker.
While in town, visit the Belle Boyd Cottage on Chester Street. One of the oldest buildings in Front Royal, this house museum, decorated in Civil War style, focuses on the Confederate spy, women’s role in the war, slavery, and journalists. The Warren Rifles Confederate Museum, also on Chester Street, houses a collection of battle flags, arms, uniforms, and items that commemorate Belle Boyd, Stonewall Jackson, Jubal Early, Turner Ashby, and others who fought in Front Royal and the Shenandoah Valley.
For more information:
Front Royal Tourism: discoverfrontroyal.com