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War in winchester: New book is first for local freelance writer

Jerry Holsworth walks
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Jerry W. Holsworth of Winchester walks through the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery along a line of Confederate graves. Holsworth just completed a book regarding the Civil War in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily

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A confederate flag stands along a row of confederate graves
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A Confederate flag stands along a row of Confederate graves. Rich Cooley/Daily

"Civil War Winchester"
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A copy of “Civil War Winchester,” written by Jerry Holsworth, is shown. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- It's been almost 10 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and most Americans who lived through it will never forget that day or what it means to them.

According to local author Jerry W. Holsworth, the same can be said for another attack on American soil that happened nearly 152 years ago: On Oct. 17, 1859, followers of John Brown shot and killed Heyward Shepherd, a free black man, in their effort to free slaves in the South.

"That's a critical moment," says Holsworth, 60. "This is the 9/11 of the Shenandoah Valley."
Emotions had already been heightened in response to rising tensions between the North and the South, but Holsworth says it wasn't until the first attack on the lower Shenandoah Valley that the war really hit home for area residents.

"John Brown's raid changed the way that people in this town thought," he says, "because then their lives were in danger."

In his book "Civil War Winchester," published by The History Press in Charleston, S.C., Holsworth explains how the war affected the valley, how small-town people became heroes and how -- if not for the surviving journals written by area girls and women -- many of the war's greatest stories would have been lost in history.

"We are very lucky in Virginia and Winchester because of all these women who kept diaries," Holsworth says. "Their desire to record the truth" made the book possible.
Women left behind in Winchester, and towns like it, during the war spent almost every day in hospitals taking care of soldiers, who numbered four to five times the Winchester population, much of which had gone to battle, Holsworth says.

Winchester's unique role during the Civil War comes to light in Holsworth's book.
"It's the most fought-over town in the Civil War," he says. "It changed hands over 70 times."

In Winchester, during the war, homes and public buildings like schools and churches became makeshift hospitals practically overnight.

"The aid needed to come instantly and easily," Holsworth says. "They made do with what they had. There was no one else. There was no place to take them and the numbers were overwhelming.

"It was not forgotten what they did. It was not forgotten by the people of this town or the Union or Confederate soldiers who were here helpless during the war."

"This was an incredible burden, but also it was an incredible achievement by these women because they saved a ton of lives," he says. "A lot of young men came home during the Civil War because of what they did here."

A freelance sports writer, Holsworth says he also has written articles for Civil War magazines. He was a park ranger for Antietam National Battlefield, in Sharpsburg, Md., from 1993 to 1995 and manager of George Washington's Office museum in Winchester for three years, from 1997 to 2000. He is still a docent there. He currently works at the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives, Handley Regional Library in Winchester.

"They're all part-time jobs," he says.

Holsworth had never written a book, but when Ted Alexander, park historian for Antietam National Battlefield, recommended him to The History Press for a book they wanted to publish, Holsworth jumped at the opportunity.

In a way, he has been waiting 52 years to write this book.

Holsworth became interested in the Civil War when he was 8 years old and traveled to see his grandparents in Jackson, Miss. He remembers stopping along the way to visit the battlefield in Vicksburg, Miss.

"It's been my passion ever since," he says of the war.

"Since I've been collecting this stuff for 15 years, and I work at the library," Holsworth says, it didn't take long before he had all the information he needed to write the book he envisioned. He credits Becky Ebert at the archives and Cissy Shull at the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society for their help contributing to the book.

"It's about the people who lived here and what they experienced during the war," he says.
Holsworth also drew on his reporting experience, not only when researching the book, but later when writing it over the course of only a few weeks. He had a deadline for the book, and says he treated it like any other writing assignment.

There's no time for writer's block, he says, "because there is no such thing as writer's block if you're a newspaper reporter."

"The illustrations were harder than the writing of the book," he says, adding that 99 percent of the artwork is from the Handley Archives collection or from the collection of friend and historian Ben Ritter, who wrote the book's foreword.

"He is the most well-versed, preeminent Winchester military historian ... ever," Holsworth says.

Another expert, Tina Helms, helped revive some of the more timeworn photos, he says.
"[Helms] is a wizard at making bad photographs look good," he says.

Local cartographer Wilbur Johnston provided most of the maps for the book, Holsworth says.

Another difficulty of publishing the book? "Getting them [the publisher] to understand the unique geography of the Shenandoah Valley."

The Shenandoah River, for example, flows north, so the lower Shenandoah Valley is in the north, while the upper valley is in the south, he explains.

Holsworth has two upcoming book signings, today from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Winchester Book Gallery and on Monday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters. Both are in time for Monday's commemoration of D-Day, which Holsworth brings to notice in the first words of his book's introduction.

"Each year on June 6 many people around the world commemorated D-Day, with the television and newspapers filled with reminiscences of the great events that took place on the coast of France that momentous day in 1944," he writes. "But for a few hundred people in Winchester, Virginia, the focus will not be on the liberation of Europe or anything else that took place in the twentieth century. Every year during the early afternoon of June 6, a large procession of cars journeys from all parts of Frederick County, Virginia, toward the old section of Mount Hebron Cemetery. They come from all walks of life and all political persuasions. They are the old and young, male and female, wealthy and humble and Democrat and Republican."

"Civil War Winchester" is at the following places: the Winchester-Frederick County Visitor Center, Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters museum, George Washington's Office museum, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester Book Gallery and Belle Grove Plantation. Holsworth said it soon will be at the Old Courthouse Civil War Museum also.

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