Most students of the American Civil War know Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson as a great General and devout Christian but few know him as a family man. When we visited Lexington, VA last week we had the opportunity to learn about General Jackson’s home life by taking a tour of the house he and his wife lived in from 1858-1861.
The tour guide was excellent and shared some personal glimpses into Jackson’s life that I will share with you all now, thus saving you the price of a ticket although I think you should visit the house anyway if you are ever in Lexington, VA.
Jackson was married twice. His first wife was Elinor Junkin. Her father was President of Washington College. Jackson was an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute following the War with Mexico. The newly married couple lived with her parents on the campus of Washington College. Although frugal, Jackson didn’t have enough money to purchase a home of their own. They married in 1853 and Elinor died in 1854 in child-birth.
( Jackson’s early life was marred by many deaths within his family. Not uncommon in those days. What sustained him was a remarkable faith that I may write more about in another post. Suffice it to say that he took Romans 8:28 very seriously and meditated upon it much. ” And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 ESV)
One of the things that struck us in our visit is just how often death was a visitor to America’s early families. When we toured the Lexington Cemetery it was common to see the graves of young children, young adults and young moms like Elinor who died from different diseases and\or what passed for medical care in the 1850’s. Dying in childbirth was not uncommon at all. Judging from the grave stone inscriptions most of the people were deeply spiritual and keenly aware of the brevity of life and what it meant to be in the providential hand of God. (Our tour included visiting the Presbyterian Cemetery attached to the church that Jackson attended in Lexington.)
Jackson married again, this time to Mary Anna Morrison, a woman from North Carolina whom he had met once years prior on a kind of a “double-date” with future Confederate General, D.H. Hill.
The tour guide said he sent her a letter proposing a renewal of the relationship after Elinor died and Mary Anna agreed. The tour guide said she must have been shocked by the letter that came out of the blue. He added that Jackson was not known for his social skills and was conscious of his awkwardness. That kind of explains his letter to Mary Anna whom he had only met once!
He and Mary Anna bought the house in Lexington and made it their home until the Civil War broke out. The home, like most of the time, featured a parlor where Jackson had splurged and purchased a piano while stationed in New York. Jackson himself could not sing a lick but Mary Anna could. Often times Mary Anna would play the piano and sing and Jackson would join her. In the confines of his own home Jackson would often polka while Mary Anna played the piano. The tour guide remarked that the image of Jackson doing a polka was in contrast to his image as a devout Presbyterian who frowned on dancing. I found that story particularly amusing because it shows the side of Jackson few would see. In other words, in the confines of his own home Jackson was fully capable of letting his hair down so-speak.
The guide further mentioned that one of Jackson’s favorite games was to hide from Mary Anna and suddenly spring out and surprise her much to her annoyance. This is not something that fits Jackson as the stern, no fun, religious fanatic that some would paint him as.
Jackson the military disciplinarian was not ever too far from his personality. He held family devotions every night for his wife and nephew who lived with them for quite a while. At 7:00 p.m. sharp he would lock the door and if Mary Anna was late it was too bad and she had to wait till Jackson finished the devotion.
Jackson lived close enough to VMI to walk there and rain or shine he would. Walking around town seemed to be a form of relaxation for the Jackson family. I found that interesting since it explains something that is lacking in American culture today, that is getting to know your neighbors and conversing with them. Jackson also had an interest in gardening and the home has reproduced Jackson’s garden where he spent much time.
The guide also spoke of Jackson’s relationship with his sister. They were very close and wrote to each frequently. Her name was Laura. Laura and her husband were pro-union Virginians, not uncommon and would in fact result in the State of West Virginia in 1863. Our guide said the Civil War terminated their relationship but another guide at a different location said that it did not. He pointed to the fact that Jackson’s sister inherited his Bible although she herself did not believe, despite Jackson’s best efforts to convert her. She kept the Bible and passed it down to her son, the one that frequently stayed with Jackson and eventually the Bible came home to Lexington where it is on display today (it is quite large!).
Sometimes one wonders how a devout Christian could be in favor of slavery but it’s actually not the right question. Many Southerners opposed slavery and few Southerners owned slaves, although Jackson owned six, three in the household and three that worked some land Jackson owned.
The guide said on more than one occasion that slavery was indefensible (he was from PA, hence a northerner) but it would not be right to paint all Southerners with the same broad brush. He quoted the below almost verbatim:
James Robertson wrote about Jackson’s view on slavery: Jackson neither apologized for nor spoke in favor of the practice of slavery. He probably opposed the institution. Yet in his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.
This is actually a complex theological question and Jackson’s views reflected covenantal theology.The telling remark is the fact Jackson treated his slaves by New Testament standards and the guide noted the slaves were quite loyal and in one case very close. Again, let me be clear. This is not a defense of slavery. It is, as the guide noted, an attempt to understand what went on and to note it is not right to paint the South with one broad brush. (As a point aside, US Grant supposedly said that if he thought for one moment that the Civil War was about slavery he would resign and join the other side. The comment speaks volumes about the North’s general attitude toward slavery. There were abolitionists but they never were a majority.)
This is something else I am considering doing a further post on.
Suffice it to say at this point is what many Southerners viewed as the larger principle was loyalty to the Government in Richmond and the idea of State’s Rights, meaning that the sovereignty of the State took precedence over loyalty to the Union. Educated Southerners like Jackson and Lee would argue that the US Constitution made the State sovereign, hence when the Confederate States banded together it was a confederation rather than a federation. I found this ironic given the power of the Federal Government today.
This is what US Grant was referring to. His motive was “for the Union.”
Getting a glimpse into Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s personal life was one of the early highlights of our trip. It’s one thing to study the battles and campaigns and quite another to realize that these momentous events were fought by people just like us, people who had families. dreams and values.
- Stonewall Jackson’s Historic Garden (countryliving4beginners.wordpress.com)
- Stonewall Jackson’s Grandson was a Fighter Pilot in WW2 (broeder10.wordpress.com)