A toll too steep: The Valley Turnpike’s impact on the Gettysburg Campaign

This weekend’s trip through Gettysburg has once again detoured my blog compositions. That campaign beacons Civil War students like the Sirens of Anthemusa. And I cannot resist the call!

Over the course of this blog’s history, I’ve focused on how the Federal Army of the Potomac moved through Northern Virginia, crossed at Edwards Ferry, and proceeded into Maryland. As I like to say, the army didn’t suddenly appear at Gettysburg. The story of how the army managed to get there in the first place is very much important as the battle itself.

And to really understand how those movements in the early stages of the campaign shaped the events, we should cast the same attention to the Confederate side. Anyone who has seen those opening scenes from Gettysburg will recall the Army of Northern Virginia slipped through the Blue Ridge and into the Shenandoah Valley on their march north. That route made the Valley Turnpike the most important road in the Eastern Theater. But keep in mind, that was a toll road! And the Valley Turnpike was collecting tolls:

Page 4

This sheet details tolls collected in the period from July 1863 to March 1864. No records exist for the month of June 1863. But this at least serves to verify the company was in business despite two years of war, and was collecting tolls.

Major S.P. Marshall, quartermaster for Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps, also confirmed the operation of the tolls in a report to his chief on June 22:

The turnpike road leading to Winchester is lined with large wagons of Ewell’s and Hill’s command. Much time is lost by teamsters having to halt and pay tolls and the transportation agents of the army not having made proper arrangements for this matter.

Marshall’s comments were likely passed up to Longstreet. In context, recall that Longstreet had just moved his command up from the Suffolk area. In the aftermath of that movement, he received some criticism for delayed and costly movements. Perhaps smarting from that, Longstreet would the next day offer the information about the turnpike to Major-General J.E.B. Stuart. The mention came as part of the “third order” sent to the cavalry commander. For those not familiar with the lore surrounding Stuart’s Ride to Gettysburg, Stuart acted under a set of orders passed from General Robert E. Lee, through Longstreet. At that point in the campaign, Longstreet exercised control over the cavalry due to Stuart’s mission of screening Longstreet’s infantry. Longstreet forwarded the first order from Lee on June 22. A second went to Stuart during the day on June 23. Then on the night of June 23, this “third order” arrived. While the first two orders are easily located in the Official Records, the third is lost to time.

Major Henry B. McClellan, Stuart’s able chief of staff, mentioned that “third order” at length when writing post-war, but could only recall its contents. He noted accompanying correspondence from Longstreet’s headquarters offering advice about the upcoming movements of the cavalry. Years after the war, McClellan recalled,

The last of the orders arrived after dark on the twenty-third. Along with General Lee’s instructions, Longstreet offered advice pertaining to our advance. He warned a backup of wagons existed on the Valley Turnpike and that a breed of “profiteers and turncoats” were turning the situation to their monetary advancement. The general advised us to seek a way to avoid the turnpike at all peril and even if such movement required more time.

This one bit of information caused a ripple effect which, arguably, decided the campaign. In order to avoid the tolls on the Valley Turnpike, Stuart turned east and around the Federal army then on the march. Although saving considerable money at the toll booths, the route cost the Confederacy dearly. With his cavalry dodging toll booths in a circuitous route through Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Lee was deprived of badly needed scouts.

Unfairly, I contend, Stuart has received criticism from his contemporaries and historians for being late to Gettysburg. But could Stuart make Gettysburg any sooner given the issues on the pike? To best demonstrate, I offer, here on April 1, 2013, this dramatic alternative to Stuart’s infamous ride to Gettysburg:

Good thing Lee declined on the option to invade New Jersey.


Sources. Well if you made it this far, all citations are from the worlds greatest archives.


3 thoughts on “A toll too steep: The Valley Turnpike’s impact on the Gettysburg Campaign

  1. Very interesting information. I’ve never heard why Stuart took such a circuitous route. Only one thing, “up the Shenandoah Valley on their march north”, I think you mean “down the valley” since the river flows north.

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