Following the steps of Stonewall Jackson

Virginia: The legendary Confederate general left his legacy, conveniently for today's travelers, in the Shenandoah Valley along Interstate 81.

Short Hop

October 03, 1999|By Louise Lione | Louise Lione,Special to the Sun

Midweek, late summer, it is quiet under the shade of tall, old trees in the Lexington, Va., historic cemetery. It seems only the stern, straight-backed statue of Old Stonewall -- marking his final resting place and appropriately facing south -- stands in the sun.

And that is as it should be. This is, after all, Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. And the oddball Confederate general, one must conclude after even the most desultory wander about town, is Lexington's hero. Never mind that his commander, Robert E. Lee, lies entombed only a few blocks away. Forget the fact that Jackson was not a native son.

There was a time, before he was the brave and daring Stonewall, when Lexington paid Jackson little honor and he held no mystique at all. A time when he was the butt of jokes, when his students at Virginia Military Institute mocked the tedious and awkward Jackson, disparagingly referring to him as "Tom Fool." Thomas was his name before he became Stonewall and a legend.

Though the Stone-wall mystique and glamour are elusive, for those seeking the essential Jackson or following the famous field commander's storied 1862 Valley Campaign, Lexington is a logical launch for the quest. From this place, he set out for the Civil War and history.

A simple home in Lexington

In Lexington, on Washington Street, is the 1801 Stonewall Jackson House, the only house he ever owned. He would live there a mere two years, before heading off to war in April 1861, never to return alive.

The interior of the brick town house is tidy, well-ordered -- suggesting a domestic attitude in neat contrast with the general's careless attire and reckless actions on the battlefield -- with plain white walls and putty-gray trim.

In the living room, a balloon-back straight wooden chair faces the wall. That's how Jackson sat, to avoid distraction, when in the evening he silently reviewed lessons for his classes the next day.

In the dining room, where the profoundly religious Jackson led daily prayer for the household, there is a sofa. Perhaps a quiet nod-off spot?

Along with a handsome piano -- a touching bit since Jackson was reputed so tone deaf that he once requested his declared favorite, "Dixie," from a woman who had just finished singing it -- the unaccustomed presence of a sofa in the dining room suggests a certain luxuriousness not in keeping with his Spartan style.

"His tastes were simple," reported his second wife, "but he liked to have everything in perfect order -- every door 'on golden hinges softly turning,' as he expressed it; a 'place for everything, and everything in its place.' "

That second wife, mother of Jackson's only surviving child, Julia, was Mary Anna Morrison Jackson. In the family, she was known as Anna and frequently, fondly referred to in Jackson's Civil War letters as his "esposita" (little wife), a romantic holdover from his earliest military adventures, fresh out of West Point (Class of 1846) in the Mexican War. Like her predecessor Elinor, who died in childbirth, Anna was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and college president.

After Jackson's death at Chancellorsville, Anna Jackson returned home to North Carolina, wrote about the hero and played a celebrity role as "Widow of the Confederacy" until her death in Charlotte at 83 in 1915.

Entrance to the Jackson House is at the rear, through the ardent householder's restored kitchen garden, where he grew such hearty crops as beets and buckwheat.

First step inside puts the Jackson House visitor in its museum shop. Among its treasures: Stonewall charms for bracelets, in silver or, on request, gold; Stonewall billed-caps bearing his embroidered signature; Anna Jackson's books about her general; a full-color reproduction of his portrait and for the most-devoted, perhaps one of only 300 signed and numbered 14-inch high busts of the man for $450.

Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson arrived in 1851 to teach natural and experimental philosophy (physics) and instruct in artillery tactics, is not far away. Jackson could see the military institute from his back porch.

On the post, in Jackson Memorial Hall, is the institute's museum. Among other mementos and artifacts, it displays the black rubber raincoat Jackson wore -- fateful, tearing, ripping bullet hole there on the left shoulder -- when he was wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863.

Returning from nighttime front line reconnaissance -- which apparently in Jackson's customary secretive style, had not been signaled to his troops -- Jackson and his aides were mistaken for Union soldiers and fired on by members of the 18th North Carolina Regiment. Some of his men died on the spot. Jackson's arm was soon amputated and lies buried in a marked spot nearby. He died eight days later. His famous last words: "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."

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