Shenandoah Valley’s “Iron Plantations”

Turner Ashby’s cavalry, in conjunction with elements of Stonewall Jackson’s infantry, had held the defensive line at Stoney Creek for sixteen days. Major General Nathaniel Banks had a plan, though, to break the stalemate. He would initiate his scheme on April 15, by putting a small scouting party in motion, marching southwest along Senedo Road. It was their job to test the left anchor of Jackson’s defensive line at Columbia Furnace.

Shenandoah Map Jackson

Map showing Jackson’s Defensive Line along Stoney Creek.

Elements of the 1st Squadron, Pennsylvania Cavalry, and portions of Colonel Alpheus Williams 1st Brigade, which included details from the 14th Indiana, 5th Connecticut, 28th New York, and 46th Pennsylvania Infantry, arrived at their objective sometime before dawn. There were about one hundred and twenty combatants that gathered that morning on the heights overlooking Columbia Furnace. The smell of burning limestone and charcoal lay heavy upon the air.

Company H of the 7th Virginia Cavalry, currently under the command of Captain Addison Harper, had been posted at Columbia Furnace for the last two weeks. They were there to guard the river crossing and to protect Jackson’s left flank. The men were part of Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry regiment. Unfortunately, the troopers had become complacent, believing Nathaniel Banks’s Army would not confront them at their current outpost. The entire company went to bed that night, inside Union Church, without posting sentinels. The decision would prove calamitous.

Columbia Church

Union Church at Columbia Furnace where Ashby’s Men were Captured

Union infantry and cavalry forces trooped up to Union Church unobserved, surrounded the house of worship, and demanded the rebel command surrender. At the time of the raid the Rebels were “holed up in two churches, trying to escape the rain and cold, when the Yankees fell upon them just after midnight.” The attackers noted that the “cavalrymen were well mounted and armed with sabers, Colt revolvers, together with some kind of rifle or gun for longer range shooting or carbine service.” “They were well uniformed in grey, and were native Virginians, about the best-looking Rebel soldiers that we came in contact with.”

According to General Nathaniel Banks’s official report: “An entire company, more than 60 men and horses, Ashby’s cavalry, were captured this morning at Columbia Furnace, about 17 miles from Mount Jackson, by our cavalry and infantry. The capture includes all the officers but the captain.”

With his left flank in jeopardy, and the enemy planning a frontal attack the next morning, Jackson withdrew his army up the valley. Over on his left flank, however, the Union force that had scooped up so many of Ashby’s cavalry retreated back, unmolested, to Banks’s main body with their captives. The combatants were uninformed as to the strategic importance of the facility they had stumbled upon at Columbia Furnace and they left it unharmed.

It would take some time for the North to learn that in addition to being the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” the Shenandoah Valley was also one of the most important iron producing locations in the Confederacy. The iron generated here was being sent directly to Richmond and the Iron Works at Tredegar.

As the threat of Civil War loomed, Tredegar was the third largest iron manufacturer in the United States. Iron from Columbia Furnace, as well as from numerous other producers located in the Shenandoah Valley, had helped fabricate the ten-inch iron mortar that had fired the first shot of the war at Charleston. It had also helped provide iron plates for the CSS Merrimack, famed for it historic fight with the USS Monitor. Shenandoah iron would allow the Confederacy to build locomotives, steam engines, artillery, artillery projectiles, rifles, and all of the other vital necessities of war.

Tredegar Iron Works in 1865

1865 Photo of Tredegar Iron Works

In 1850 there were thirty-four operating cold-blast furnaces in Virginia. By 1860, however, the number of production facilities had dropped to just sixteen. The annual value of the product had also dropped to nearly half of what it had been just ten years before. By the time of Jackson’s Valley Campaign in 1862, Tredegar’s iron production had also dropped to about one third of its capacity.

Blast Furnace

Cold Blast Furnace Setup Like Those in the Shenandoah Valley

On May 21, 1862, Jackson’s topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, spent the night at Columbia Furnace. Hotchkiss reported that “the owner has deserted and gone North; because his sons have proved traitors to the South.” A little more than a month later, Tredegar’s owner, Joseph Anderson, commented: “Everything must stop unless we go into the mountains and purchase and operate blast furnaces to make pig iron.” One of the blast-furnaces the Confederacy would target for takeover would be Columbia Furnace in Shenandoah County. Columbia was, after all, one of the most productive furnaces in the entire valley.

Columbia Furnace 1

Ironmaster’s Home at Columbia Furnace where Jedediah Hotchkiss Slept.

There were several reasons why the furnaces in the Shenandoah Valley were so important to the Confederacy. When the war started Tennessee and Virginia were the only major pig iron producing states in the south. Due to a large Union presence in Tennessee, supply there was cut off early in the war. Virginia was, therefore, left as one of the only major providers of iron to the Confederacy.

Iron resources

Map of Pig Iron Manufacturing Resources During the Civil War in Virginia

Fortunately, the valley itself offered accessibility to all the critical components in the manufacture of pig iron. The primary one, of course, was iron. There were two kinds of iron ore found in the valley, hematite and limonite. “Iron ore in the Great North Mountain area was found in scattered deposits along the Virginia-West Virginia border and was concentrated in the area roughly defined by Shenandoah County.” Columbia Furnace was located in Shenandoah County.

Columbia Furnace 2

Iron Ore Mining Location Near Liberty Furnace in Shenandoah County

A second vital ingredient in the production iron was coal, or in this case charcoal. Virginia did not have coal deposits so the only alternative was to produce charcoal. Charcoal is made from wood and the Shenandoah Valley offered abundant timber resources. As the years had passed, however, many of the forests in the valley had been stripped of mature timber. When war came much of the valley landscape, though nearly barren in many spots, still had ample supplies of the resource.

The furnaces, themselves, consumed huge quantities of charcoal. “An average furnace consumed 600-800 bushels of charcoal per day. This required 30-40 cords of wood from trees 25-30 years old.” Facilities like the one at Columbia Furnace could devour more than an acre of trees each day. That meant more than three hundred acres of woodland were deforested each year per furnace. Over time this would have a major impact on the ecology of the valley, one that would require each harvested acre twenty-five to thirty years to recover from.

Limestone, which was equally abundant in the Shenandoah Valley, was also an important component in iron manufacturing. The pulverized limestone was dumped into the furnace along with the iron ore and charcoal. With intense heat the calcium in the limestone “served to flux the iron from the ore.” Fluxing allowed the ore to melt at much lower temperatures, thus increasing furnace production and efficiency.

Furnace 2

Waterwheel at Neighboring Liberty Furnace

Running water was also a critical component in the process. Dams were built in the streams and a water wheel was added to muscle the bellows which pumped air into the furnace. Increased air flow intensified the heat from the charcoal. Without it, it would be impossible to extract the iron from the ore. The Shenandoah Valley was laced with creeks and streams which were exceptionally suited for the task.

Lastly, an ample and robust labor force played a critical role in iron production. All of the furnaces needed manpower, especially at a time when most of the white labor force had been impressed into military service. All of the Shenandoah Valley’s “Iron Plantations” had traditionally utilized slaves in one fashion of another. “They were utilized to mine iron ore, produce charcoal, procure and prepare limestone, and for properly mixing the ingredients, tapping the furnace and forming the pigs.”

Traditionally, the term “peculiar institution” is almost exclusively associated with common work-hands, laboring on Virginia’s mostly agrarian plantations. Iron production, however, required a unique system of “industrial slavery.” Yes, Virginia’s “iron plantations”, required common laborers. The difference with “industrial slavery,” however, was that slaves with “technical skills” were also a necessity. In the Shenandoah Valley “the negro slave was depended on not only for his muscle but for his skill.”

In many cases “iron plantations” used what was called an “overwork” system. The slaves were assigned quotas, which was a realistic measure of the production that needed to be accomplished each day. The scheme offered financial rewards to slaves if they exceeded these quotas. This stipend could be used to acquire commodities and other comforts to supplement their home life. In some cases, when income was accumulated over time, it could even be used to purchase their freedom.

So, in the Shenandoah Valley, all of the elements required in the production of pig iron came together exactly where they were needed. By the mid-1830s Columbia Furnace supported more than two hundred workers and included “a store, hotel, mills, doctor’s office, school, and both private and furnace-owned houses.” By 1855 it was producing more than eight hundred and fifty tons of iron yearly.

There were three other productive furnaces in Shenandoah Country during the war. They were named Caroline, Liberty, and Fort Furnaces, and all were under nearly constant threat during the Civil War. Columbia was burned three times, once each in 1863, 1864 and 1865. Each time, though, they were able to reestablish production. Liberty and Caroline Furnaces were burnt in 1864. The culprit was General Phil Sheridan. The destruction which took place during this period is known to valley residents as “the burning.” Fort Furnace survived the first three years of the war but was finally destroyed by Sheridan’s men following the Battle of Cedar Creek.


Remains of Neighboring Henrietta Furnace at Alum Springs

There was a fourth furnace, located about ten miles to the west of Columbia, which was identified as Henrietta Furnace. The owners of this facility, Samuel and John Myers, shut the furnace down in 1861 and volunteered to fight in the Civil War. The two men became members of the Shenandoah Rangers, which was Company C of the 7th Virginia Cavalry. Samuel died late in the war, in January of 1865, from typhoid fever. John served as a courier for General Jackson during the 1862 Valley Campaign, but would die from wounds received two years later at the Battle of the Wilderness. Henrietta furnace would never again operate, either during or after the war.

Sam Myers

Major Samuel Myers, 7th Virginia Cavalry

In so much as food produced in the Shenandoah Valley was critical to the war effort, equally as important was maintaining the ability to fashion the implements of war. Not only was the valley the breadbasket of the confederacy, it was the also the iron producing capital of the Confederacy. The North would eventually come to recognize this and would eventually act to destroy both.

The next time you drive down the Valley Pike, or zip down Route 81, and you see fields bursting with crops, and beef animals of every variety, remember the valley’s shadowy secret. It was Shenandoah iron that allowed the Confederacy to produce the countless weapons needed to prosecute the war and to defend their homes. The war could not have continued as long as it did without it.


Armstrong, Richard L. 7th Virginia Cavalry. H. E Howard. Lynchburg, Va. 1992. Thanks to Nick Picerno for risking his copy of this book for my research purposes.

Hotchkiss, Jedediah. Make Me a Map of the Valley: The Civil war Journal of Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer. Southern Methodist University Press. Dallas, TX. 1973

Official Records. The Union Army, vol. 6, p. 311 Columbia Furnace, Va. Oct. 7, 1864 3d Cavalry Division, Army of the Shenandoah.

Scott, Norman H. Shenandoah Iron: A History 0f Mining, Smelting, and Transporting Iron in the Virginia Counties of Clarke, Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah, and Warren. Self-Published. 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s