Exploring little-known Civil War history in Martinsburg

via Martinsburg-Berkeley County CVB on Facebook

There is more to the Civil War than just the major battles. Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and the other large actions attract much attention, but to really understand the war’s impact on the nation’s people, you must look beyond those historic clashes.

Martinsburg, W.Va., did not see any turning-point battles; rather, the Civil War caused a nearly constant flux of troops from both the Union and the Confederacy. Located literally on the border between North and South, the town was on the advance and retreat routes used by both armies.

“Martinsburg was a northern town in a Confederate county,” explained Mark Jordan, who promotes the area. “The town had a northern lean because the railroads were here. We have a unique Civil War history, as the town changed hands as many as 37 times.”

Constant changes

Located on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, Martinsburg was an important transportation hub. However, beginning with the Battle of Falling Waters in 1861, the town saw almost constant skirmishing and daily cavalry actions. The railroad itself became a point of conflict, with Confederate forces destroying rolling stock and bridges at the war’s outset and Union forces struggling to keep the trains rolling. Later that same year, Confederate forces tried to destroy Dam No. 5 on the Potomac River and the locks of the C&O Canal.

Because of Martinsburg’s Union sympathies, the town voted not to secede with the rest of Virginia, and the county eventually sent troops to both armies. On Aug. 5, 1863, Berkeley County voted overwhelmingly to join the newly formed state of West Virginia, a decision that was not completely ratified until 1871.

Martinsburg offers an opportunity to explore a little-known and infrequently regarded facet of the Civil War.

The actions around Martinsburg and in Berkeley County have not received the same historical regard reserved for better known clashes.

Only rarely can a Civil War site present information about the impact of almost constant, low-level warfare on the civilian population. Nearby Bunker Hill saw action 17 times; Darkesville nearly a dozen times. Soldiers fought and died in Martinsburg on nearly two dozen occasions. In just one day in 1864, the town changed hands three times. Throughout all of this mayhem, life went on for the townspeople.

Martinsburg was also the home of Belle Boyd, a notorious Southern spy who used her considerable charisma to cajole information from Union soldiers. She would then pass that information to the Confederate army. Her charm, wit, and determination served her well as a spy, but did not keep her out of Union prisons.

Today, the Berkeley County Historical Society maintains Belle Boyd’s house as a museum. A visit to the B&O Roundhouse also opens a window onto wartime Martinsburg, although the present structure is not the original.

Follow the Civil War Trail through Martinsburg and surrounding Berkeley County. Pick up your free copy of Between the Lines, the Story of the Civil War in Berkeley County at the visitor center. The informative brochure presents the region’s history along with period illustrations and a map of Civil War sites. A downtown historic district Walking Tour Guide is also available at the visitor center.

For more information:

Martinsburg Tourism: travelwv.com

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