This is the story of a place, and a war. It makes sense that this area would be of utmost significance in the Civil War, as it sits on the spot where Virginia was ripped apart to form two states. A place where the war “came early and stayed late.”
Although strong Union support characterized Greenbrier County before the war, the majority of its citizens sided with the South when forced to choose. Greenbrier County sent no delegates to the conventions that gave birth to the Reorganized Government of Virginia. It cast no votes for Abraham Lincoln.
When war came, the county supported the Confederate military with money, arms and men. An estimated 2,000 men and boys from Greenbrier County wore Confederate gray. This number represented approximately 80% of the county’s males of “military age.”
Greenbrier County was strategically important to both sides. It was a gateway to northwestern Virginia, Ohio and the rich Shenandoah Valley. It was a base from which either side could attack, or defend, the vital railroads of southwestern Virginia and the prized salt mines of the Great Kanawha Valley.
In the years after the war Greenbrier County played a prominent role in shaping the new nation. At a meeting in at the Greenbrier in 1868, General Lee and other prominent veterans from both sides signed the Greenbrier Manifesto, a document calling for reconciliation between the North and South. In this way, Greenbrier County–crossroads of a nation divided–became a conduit for lasting peace.
One of McKinney’s favorite parts of the book explains how the now-famous resort, The Greenbrier, played a role in the war. The Sisters of Charity took care of countless wounded and sick soldiers there. McKinney discovered that one nun, Sister De Sales, worked in a ward set up in the resort’s great ballroom.
A dance program was still posted at its entrance, he writes:
“It must have been an odd sight to have the fancy ballroom, elaborate hotel, and luxurious cottages in use as hospital wards. Where once laughter and joviality reigned supreme, were found the moans and pleading entreaties of men in various stages of life-threatening disease. The scarcity of food and basic needs was in contrast to prewar days of opulence and abundance.
“The resort’s beautiful grounds, enlivened with paths bearing such names as Courtship Maze and Lovers Rest, were now dotted with small earthen mounds indicating where yet another mother’s son was laid to rest.
“Thus at White Sulphur Springs was found incongruity, tragedy and despair. That bleak first winter of the war at The Old White left indelible images upon the minds of all who witnessed it. Its echo still reverberates across the years. The seldom-visited graves of those poor soldiers who perished at the resort-turned-hospital can yet be found by the modern visitor.”
McKinney said most people are familiar with the blood spilled on the battlefields, but fewer people know about “the pain and sacrifice on the home front.” Thanks to his research, he was able to find previously unpublished information about the role of the Sisters of Charity in White Sulphur Springs during the war.
He also walks readers through places in Greenbrier County that still exist. Anyone interested in local Civil War history could use his book as a guide.