You shall not oppress a refugee. You know the heart of a refugee, for you were refugees in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

shenandoah-valley-sept-1864
Shenandoah Valley, Sept. 1864. Alfred R. Waud.

Diaries give us a unique, intimate look into the lives of people throughout history. They have a special ability to shed light on our present realities by exposing similarities and differences in daily life across time.

The Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives, located on the first floor of EMU’s Hartzler Library, is fortunate to have the diaries of Emanuel Suter, a Mennonite potter from the Shenandoah Valley. His diaries span nearly 40 years (1864-1902), and today I will highlight some entries from early October 1864, almost exactly 152 years ago. In September 1864, under the direction of General Sheridan, the Union army began a systematic burning of the Shenandoah Valley, which was known as the “breadbasket of the Confederacy”. Fearing for their safety and facing the destruction of their homes and livelihoods, Suter and his family, along with other Mennonite and Brethren families from the Valley, made the difficult decision to leave the Valley and were escorted to safety in the North by the Union army1 Here are his reflections on that trek:

Diary commencing the 5th day of October 1864

The federal army being in the valley of Virginia, burning barns dwelling houses mills &c a general destruction was threatnt [sic]. Myself and family decided to leave the Shenandoah Valley and go north. In the morning of the 5th day of October we left went to Harrisonburg then went with the army to Mt. Jackson, there we remained that night and all the day of the 6. I will here mention that my family at this time consisted of myself and wife Elizabeth, three children Daniel Reuben, Susan Virginia, John Robert…The sister Margaret Suter and father Daniel Suter were with us. Brother Christian Suter, also belonged to the family but he and a young man Albert Jenkins were back in the rear but came to us on the way.

On the morning of the 7th we were ordered to get in readiness to move at one o’clock we with the Army started down the Valley Pike, I will also mention here, that at Mt. Jackson we found many families of the Valley that we knew also going some north and some west. we were now pushed on hurretly [sic] in a fast walk but most of the time in a trot. This evening we came to Cedar Creek where we put up for the night. Here we had some trouble keeping my horses from being stolen. Father and I took turn about guarding them. One fellow cut the halter strap while in Father’s hand but found that he was seen and got away quickly.

This morning the 8th which was Saturday. The Army soon move down the valley2 We traveled like the day before mostly in atrot two wagons in abrest. We past through Winchester and at night we stopped at a place called Bunker Hill. It turned cold during the day. It was cold and blustery all night. We were constantly compelled to keep an eye on our horses, our nights rest was not at all comfortable. We had considerable trouble keeping warm.

The morning of the 9th Sunday we moved towards Martinsburg [WV]. We arrived there at 8pm. Here we spent another cold night out in an open field

The morning of the 10th Monday we moved on an old sawmill where we remained camped until the 12th. The two days while there all that were going north and west were required to take the oath of allegiance.

We left for Maryland, traveled nearly all day. At night myself and my family came to old John Horst we remained with him the next day and that night. The same day [the 13th] myself Father Suter Brother Christian…started with the wagons and…crossed the little South mountain through Adams and York counties. The first night we came to Christian Muslemans [sic]. We had some trouble to get a place to stay the people did not trust us they thought we were rebels but this man received us and treated us kindly.

We were away from home under very unfavorable circumstances, yet we engaged ourselves as well as could be expected. We were in a strange country and surrounded with everything quite different to what we were used to, but kind friends made us comfortable.3

By the time the Suter family reached their destination of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, they had traveled over 200 miles, mostly by foot.

Many Mennonites in North America today live lives of comfort, privilege, and stability. It is easy to see the news and feel removed from the experience of refugees whose troubles seem worlds away from our day-to-day life. It is also easy to forget that it wasn’t long ago that Mennonites were driven from their homes with little warning and forced to settle in new places to ensure safety for their families. The Suters fled just 150 years ago. Many Russian Mennonites had to flee the hostile Soviet regime in the early 20th century.4 And even today, Anabaptists in the Global South face intolerance and fear for their safety.5

Emanuel Suter wrote that at times it was hard to find a place to stay as “the people did not trust us.” Many refugees today are also met with hostility, xenophobia, and violence as they flee dangerous homelands and attempt to find security for their families. In Suter’s diary he notes the names of each person or family who helped his family and expresses his appreciation for “kind friends who made us comfortable.” We should remember the people throughout history who helped Mennonites in their time of need and seek to be helpers as well.

To learn more about the refugee wagon train that took many Mennonites out of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, you can read Shenandoah Mennonite Historian’s Autumn 2014 edition (v.22 n.4), or the book The Burning by John L. Heatwole.

To learn more about how you can help the cause of refugees today, visit Mennonite Central Committee’s website.

Works Cited:

1864 Diary, Box 1, I-MS-31, Emanuel Suter Diaries 1864-1884, Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives.

Epp, Frank H., Mennonite exodus; the rescue and resettlement of the Russian Mennonites since the Communist Revolution. (Altona, Manitoba : Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council, 1962).

Heatwole, John L. The Burning : Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley. (Charlottesville, Va. : Rockbridge Pub., 1998).

Waud, Alfred R. , Artist. Shenandoah Valley, Sept. 1864. September, 1864. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004660274/. (Accessed October 13, 2016.)


  1. Heatwole, The Burning, 30. 
  2. This means north. Valley folk use the northern flow of the Shenandoah River rather than traditional cardinal directions to indicate direction in the Valley. So you go “down” (North) to Winchester and “up” (South) to Roanoke. 
  3. Suter, 1864 Diary, 1-9. 
  4. Epp, Mennonite Exodus, 139-155. 
  5. For example, consider the violence and persecution facing Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). 

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