previous next

Stonewall Jackson in Lexington, Va.

[Anything that throws light on the life and character of “the model infantryman” is worth preserving in these pages, and we therefore publish the following letters — the first from an old student of Washington College, and the second from J. D. Davidson, Esq., of Lexington]:

My first recollection of Stonewall Jackson is when I was a college-boy at Lexington, Va., in the fall of 1860. I am not able to say whether it was the peculiar carriage of the stiff, military-looking Institute professor, who daily passed the college grounds, that was of chief interest to the students of Washington College, or whether the stories told of daring and reckless courage in his early military life invested him with a halo of romance and made him an object of hero-worship in their youthful minds. Whatever the cause, the solid tramp of Major Jackson on the plank-walk would be the signal to stop all games or mirth that may have been in progress on the college campus until he had passed. The stiff, stolid-looking man would pass on, turning his head neither to the right nor left, but a single touch of his cap was the silent recognition given of the deferential respect shown by the boys.

“Old Jack,” as he was familiarly called by cadets and students, was so plain in manner and attire, there was so little effort at show, his feet were so large and his arms and hands fastened to his body in such an awkward shape, that the cadets didn't take much pride in him as a professor. They feared him in the lecture-room, they paid the strictest deference to him on parade, but in showing a stranger the sights about the Institute a cadet was never known to point out “Old Jack” as one [42] of the ornaments of the institution. He was more popular with the college students, who did not have the same reasons for fearing the austerity of his manner, but who knew him as the son-in-law of their college president, Rev. George Junkin.

My first meeting with General Jackson in the social circle was one evening, when he called to see a friend at our boarding-house. I shall never forget the impression his manner and appearance made upon me. Boy as I was, I looked upon him with a reverential awe. I had heard the stories of his struggles in early life; of how he had walked from his house in Lewis county to Washington to receive his appointment as a cadet to West Point; of his being ill prepared, and the difficulty he had in keeping up with his classes; and then I had heard of his brilliant career in Mexico, of his mounting the walls of Cherubusco with. the American flag in his hands; and here now was the hero of my youthful enthusiasm before me. He was so different from what I thought a hero ought to be! There was so little animation, no grace, no enthusiasm. All was stiffness and awkwardness. He sat perfectly erect, his back touching the back of the chair nowhere; the large hands were spread out, one on each knee, while the large feet, sticking out at an exact right angle to the leg (the angle seeming to have been determined with mathematical precision), occupied an unwarranted space. The figure recalled to my boyish mind what I had once seen — a rude Egyptian-carved figure intended to represent one of the Pharoahs.

But when the conversation commenced I lost sight of the awkward-looking figure. I even lost the reverential awe which had so deeply impressed me at first. I only saw the mild eyes emitting gentle beams, and only heard a soft, melodious voice — speaking, it is true, in short, crisp sentences — but withal as mild and winning as a woman's. I then understood why it was that Major Jackson could be a hero. Underlying that rough, uncomely exterior, was a vein of the most exquisite sentiment. In the soul of the man was that magnetism which attracted and that power which controlled and made him the master of his fellowmen. In after days, when I saw the uplifting of his dusty cap excite the wildest enthusiasm among his veteran legions, I knew whence the power emanated.

The next time I heard Jackson talk was in a political meeting one night in the town of Lexington. It was during the memorable presidential canvass of 1860. Rockbridge county was a staid old Whig community. The majority of Democrats, under the leadership of Governor Letcher, supported Douglass. The Breckinridge men had a small force. The leading spirits of this faction called a meeting one evening [43] at the court-house. It was a small gathering, and when the two leaders, Colonel Massie and Frank Paxton, had reported their resolutions, a voice from the rear part of the building, in a quick, decisive tone, was heard to call out, “Mr. Chairman.” All eyes were instantly turned toward the speaker and beheld the stiff-looking figure of Major Jackson. No one suspected him of being a politician, and a general anxiety was manifested to know what he was going to say, and consequently the strictest attention was paid. In a speech of fifteen minutes he reviewed the resolutions, endorsed them, spoke of the dangers threatening the South, the duty of taking a firm stand, and then sat down. He displayed one quality of an orator not always exhibited by political speakers; when he was done he quit.

The Frank Paxton spoken of in this connection, went out the next spring as a lieutenant in the Rockbridge Riflemen, and when he was killed at Chancellorsville, held the position of brigadier-general, and fell at the head of Jackson's old “Stonewall” brigade. His was as dauntless a spirit as that of his old commander, and they are quietly sleeping together in the Lexington cemetery.

At the request of a young friend in the town of Lexington, who expected to be absent several weeks, I agreed to supply his place temporarily as a teacher in the colored Sunday school. Accordingly on the next Sabbath afternoon I repaired to the lecture-room of the Presbyterian church. I found the room well filled with colored children, whose clean clothes and shining ebony faces evinced their appreciation of the interest taken in them by the white folks. I found present a dozen or more young white ladies and gentlemen who acted as teachers, and standing by a table on the inside of the railing surrounding the pulpit, was the superintendent of the school.

I doubt whether in after days, during the great historical events in which he was the chief actor, General Jackson felt more sensibly the responsibility of his position than he did that afternoon as the commander of that little army of sable children. With characteristic promptness, just as the hand on the clock touched the figure 3, the exercises of the school were opened by his saying, “Let us pray.” According to the Presbyterian mode he prayed in a standing attitude. My recollection is that his prayer was striking for its beautiful simplicity. There was no superfluous ornamentation about it, neither were there any rhetorical flourishes. It was the simple pleading of an earnest soul. It was free from the preamble so often used by both ministers and laymen in their public prayers, wherein they undertake to inform Deity of the current events of the past. Taking it for granted [44] that Omniscience knew all things, he commenced his prayer by praying. It was the petition of one conscious of his own weakness and praying for strength. There was the true contrition of heart, accompanied by a faith which took a sure hold on the promises. And his voice seemed to tremble as he prayed for a special blessing on his little charge — the negro children of the town whom he had gathered together in a Sunday school. It was in the days of slavery, and their neglected condition excited his sympathy, and a sense of duty impelled him to make an effort to redeem them from the slavery of sin. Some of the Bourbon aristocracy criticised his action, and even went so far as to threaten prosecution. But a healthy Christian sentiment in the community sustained him, and he went forward in the path of duty. It can be very well understood, then, why he betrayed emotion when presenting his little army of dusky soldiers to the review of the Great Commander. It was the faithful soldier making a full report to Head quarters. It was the obedient soldier seeking for instructions. “That was stone-wall's way.”

The next spring the fires of war threw their lurid glare over the entire land — then it was Jackson took a final farewell of Lexington, never to return until he was brought back to be buried, according to his dying request, “in the Valley of Virginia.”

The cadets were ordered to the field. Major Jackson was selected to command them. After the passage of the ordinance of secession on the 17th of April, 1861, the war-spirit was at fever heat in Virginia. The steady-going old town of Lexington had suddenly been metamorphosed into a bustling military camp. Volunteer companies were being organized, and every preparation being made for a horrible war. But no event of that memorable period has left a more vivid impression upon my mind than the departure of the Cadet battalion from the Military Institute.

It was a bright Sabbath morning, early in May, and a vast concourse of people had gathered on Institute Hill to see the youthful soldiers start for the war. The baggage and camp equipage had been put into the wagons, the horses hitched in, the drivers mounted, with whip in hand, waiting for the command to pull out. The cadets were in line, their cheeks aglow, and their eyes sparkling with the expectation of military glory awaiting them. Poor boyslittle did they know, as they stood there in their bright uniforms, and with their bright guns shining in the morning sunlight, how few of them would be left to answer at the last roll-call of the Army of Northern Virginia. As they stood thus, Major Jackson, mounted on an ordinary-looking horse, [45] rode up. His face was as calm and unmoved as ever, the thin lips tightly compressed, and looking just as he looked at Kernstown and Manassas. Riding up to the side of an elderly-looking gentleman in clerical cloth, standing in front of the main entrance to the institute, Major Jackson wheeled his horse, and facing his battalion as he raised his cap, said, “Let us pray.” The venerable Dr. White, pastor of the Presbyterian church, then stepped forward, and baring his gray locks to the sun, poured forth a feeling prayer. It was a memorable scene! Just as the clergyman pronounced the “Amen,” Jackson wheeled his horse, and in a short, crisp manner, gave the command, “Forward, march!” Waving a silent adieu to the assembled crowd, he rode off at the head of the column. That was the last time his gaze ever fell upon the town of Lexington.

His subsequent history is known to all. No hero in the annals of war ever won more enduring fame than Stonewall Jackson. His fame is the common heritage of Americans. The Federal soldier takes as much pride in recounting his valorous deeds as does the Confederate foot-cavalryman who followed him on the long and wearisome march. We can point with just pride to the fact that he was a native Western Virginian--

For oft when white-haired grandsires tell
     Of bloody struggles past and gone,
The children at their knees shall hear
     How Jackson led his columns on.

G. H. M. Cloverlick, W. Va., February 16, 1880.

Lexington, Va., August 16, 1876.
Ed. Lexington Gazette,--In the spring of 1858, T. J. Jackson, then a professor in the Virginia Military Institute, at Lexington, Va.--now our Stonewall Jackson — was organizing a negro Sunday school in the town of Lexington.

At that time such a school was regarded by our laws as an “unlawful assembly.”

On Saturday evening of May 1st, 1858, I left my office, and on my way home met Major Jackson on the pavement in front of the court-house, in company with Colonel S. McD. Reid, the clerk of our courts, and William McLaughlin, Esq., now judge of our circuit court. They were conversing on the subject of his Sunday school.

Colonel Reid said to him, “Major, I have examined the statute and conferred with the commonwealth's attorney. Your Sunday school is an ‘unlawful assembly.’ ” [46]

This seemed to fret him much. Mr. McLaughlin then said to him that he had also examined the question, and that his school was against the letter of the law. This fretted him still more. I then said to him, “Major, whilst I lament that we have such a statute in our Code, I am satisfied that your Sunday school is an ‘unlawful assembly,’ and probably the grand jury will take it up and test it.”

This threw him off his guard, and he replied with warmth: “Sir, if you were, as you should be, a Christian man, you would not think or say so.” Thus also thrown off my guard, I replied tartly, in words not now remembered; when he turned upon his heel and walked to his house on the opposite side of the street.

I passed on home, and had not gone half way when I began to rebuke myself for my rudeness to Major Jackson, and determined to return and apologize to him.

Reaching home, I found my wife and relative, Major Dorman, sitting together. I told them what had occurred, and requested my wife to give me an early supper, that I might return and make my apology.

I returned to my office after dusk taking with me a negro boy to bear my apology in writing to Major Jackson.1

I had commenced writing it, and when half written I heard a tap at my office door, when Major Jackson stepped in, saying: “Mr. Davidson, I am afraid I wounded your feelings this evening. I have called to apologize to you.” “No Major,” I replied, “no apology from you to me. I am now writing my apology to you.”

He remained for more than half an hour conversing with me, and when he left he said in these words: “Mr. Davidson, these are the things that bring men together and make them know each other the better.”

The half-written note of apology I now find amongst my papers.

This incident speaks for itself, and reveals some, at least, of the features of that great and good man.

1 The following is a copy of the unfinished note of apology referred to:

Saturday night, May 1, 1858.
Major Jackson,
Dear Sir,--As I shall not have an opportunity of meeting you again before Monday, I will not rest content until I shall have tendered you a becoming apology for the hasty, and I fear, uncourteous reply made by me to you in conversation this evening----.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Stonewall Jackson (21)
J. D. Davidson (4)
Reid (2)
William McLaughlin (2)
E. C. White (1)
W. Va (1)
Stonewall (1)
Frank Paxton (1)
S. McD (1)
Massie (1)
Letcher (1)
George Junkin (1)
T. J. Jackson (1)
Douglass (1)
Dorman (1)
Chairman (1)
John C. Breckinridge (1)
Americans (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1860 AD (2)
May 1st, 1858 AD (2)
February 16th, 1880 AD (1)
August 16th, 1876 AD (1)
April 17th, 1861 AD (1)
1858 AD (1)
May (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: