CAROLINE COUNTY, Virginia — In Woodford, Virginia, there’s a little white house on a hill.
It could be any house, on any hill. But what happened inside its pure-white walls, here in the heart of Virginia, had an undeniable effect on the course of the Civil War.
The white house in question is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, located near the corner of Stonewall Jackson Road and Guinea Station Road, in a quiet northwestern part of Caroline County characterized by a rolling green landscape. It was built in the 1820s and was once used as an office building on the 740-acre Fairfield Plantation.
In a room just around the corner from a set of stairs, one of the most decorated Confederate commanders and revered military strategists of all-time uttered his final sentiments.
This is what he said, according to a second-hand account by Dr. Hunter McGuire:
“Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
Those succinct and poetic words ended six days of bed-ridden suffering for Stonewall Jackson, who was brought here to recover from injuries suffered from friendly-fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Jackson’s left arm was amputated after two gunshots shattered his humerus on May 2, 1863.
Around 3 p.m. on May 10, 1963, Jackson — in the final throes of a battle against pneumonia — uttered those famous words, closed his eyes, opened them again, smiled at his wife, then drifted into that dark, permanent night.
With Jackson’s final exhale, the Confederacy’s chances of winning the Civil War took dropped significantly.
Enter Ryan Quint, a seasonal park historian in a rotation at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. Quint has a roiling enthusiasm for history. He also has a disarming way of resetting his glasses when they slide down his nose in the middle of a vibrantly-told story.
It’s a eerily warm Saturday afternoon in November. In the distance, gunfire booms. It’s deer season in the South, so such violent noise is commonplace, but with a bit of imagination, one can imagine these muffled sounds originating from the firearm of a Confederate soldier in a nearby battle.
As Quint points out, what happened within the walls of this house changed everything for the Confederacy. Two months after Jackson’s death, the Army of Northern Virginia was defeated at Gettysburg in the most violent battle of the Civil War.
It was the Confederacy’s final attempt at a Northern invasion.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Jackson would have won the the Battle of Gettysburg or the Civil War as a whole,” Quint says, adjusting his glasses. “But what is undeniable is that [General Robert E.] Lee had a relationship with Jackson where they always seemed to be on the same page. Lee never again finds somebody like that.”
Lee’s frustration at his inability to find another commander of Jackson’s skill boiled over during the Overland Campaign in June 1864. When General A.P. Hill failed to exploit a crucial attack, Lee purportedly got in his face and shouted: “Why didn’t you do as Jackson would have done?”
Less than a year later, the war was over.
Jackson is perhaps the most famous person to ever die in Caroline. But he has stiff competition with John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s infamous assassin, who bled out on a porch in Port Royal in 1865. Wherever Jackson may rank on the county’s list of all-time deaths, his importance in American military history is undeniably substantial.
“When you talk about the Civil War, you have to talk about Stonewall Jackson,” Quint says. “He’s always going to be a presence in the study of that conflict.”
The room of Jackson’s death features a number of items that were present the day he died: a clock on the mantle (ticking), a blanket with red embroidery at the foot of the bed, and even the bed frame which held Jackson’s rapidly deteriorating body.
“The room of Jackson’s death features a number of items that were present the day he died: a clock on the mantle (ticking), a blanket with red embroidery at the foot of the bed, and even the bed frame which held Jackson’s rapidly deteriorating body.”
After pointing all of this out, Quint dives into a high-minded appraisal of Jackson’s place in American history.
“He’s one of the great commanders of the Civil War,” he says. “When the Confederates were at the height of their power in 1862 and 1863, it’s because of what Lee and Jackson were doing and the people under their command”
Jackson certainly left behind a stout military resume.
He was Lee’s right-hand man — indeed, after the amputation of Jackson’s left arm, Lee famously said: “Jackson may have lost his left arm, but I’ve lost my right arm.”
At the first Battle of Bull Run, where he earned the nickname “Stonewall,” Jackson’s brigade provided crucial reinforcements in a signature Confederate victory. His Shenandoah Valley Campaign in 1862 kept 52,000 Union troops from reinforcing an offensive in Richmond.
Perhaps his best work as commander, however, came at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The fighting took place 19 miles north of that little white house on a hill.
The story, as told by Quint, goes like this:
Union General Joseph Hooker had approximately 100,000 soldiers, mostly bunkered, at Chancellorsville. Lee and Jackson had about 42,000 men combined, a few miles to the south. After learning from Confederate Officer J.E.B Stuart that Union Army’s XI Corps wasn’t digging trenches on the western side, Jackson requested to take all 30,000 of his men to attack the perceived weak spot.
“That’s a big no-no in the army,” Quint says. “You don’t split up your forces in the face of an overwhelming enemy. But Lee trusted him, and tells him to go ahead.”
Jackson is successful: he overwhelms the XI Corps and sets out to secure two positions — Elys Ford and U.S. Ford — that, if gained, will likely lead to utter victory over the Union troops. Jackson rides out in front of his lines to do some “personal reconnaissance,” as Quint puts it, then, while riding back to his lines in the semi-dark — around 9:30 p.m. — he’s shot by his own men.
The next day, with an injured Jackson in transport to Caroline, the Confederate Army takes Chancellorsville.
Thanks, in part, to vital military accomplishments such as this, Jackson has become a saint-like figure, of sorts, in Confederate folklore. His personal eccentricities — which included lemon-sucking, taking cold baths (even in the winter) and holding his right hand in the air “so the blood wouldn’t pool unevenly,” as Quint puts it — only add to his outsize legend.
His statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond is one of the most recognizable works of art in a city that was once the Confederate capital. He has a high school named after him in Manassas and a state park named after him in West Virginia — for now, at least. The fact that the place of his death is now referred to as a “shrine” also speaks to the high level of reverence his name conjures up within certain groups.
But his personality was contradictory, his legacy mixed.
He’s often hailed as a brilliant commander (indeed, part of Jackson’s curriculum are still present at Virginia Military Institute, where he taught, to mixed reviews, from 1851 to 1863), yet numerous poor performances during the Seven Days Battle nearly cost the Confederacy a signature victory.
He owned slaves and fought for a cause that sought to protect slavery, yet he broke the law to teach slaves how to read — albeit only the Bible — in his weekly Colored Sabbath School.
In the contemporary political climate, with the idolization of Confederate war heroes coming under heavy fire, Jackson’s legacy is being critiqued perhaps more closely than ever than ever.
James Grossman, the executive director at the American Historical Association, admitted in an email interview that “like all humans, Jackson was complicated.”
However, Grossman believes Jackson’s place in history is cut-and-dry, citing Jackson’s “willingness to commit treason, command death and destruction, and die for one purpose: the creation of a new nation committed to the right of some people to own other people.”
“As far as I know,” Grossman said in an email. “He leaves behind no meaningful accomplishments other than playing a central role in a failed attempt to defend the brutal and immoral institution of human slavery.”
Jackson’s great-great-grandsons, William and Warren Christian, struck a similar tone in a letter to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. Their letter went viral after being published on Slate.com in the wake of deadly violence surrounding a statue of Lee in Charlottesville on Aug. 12.
In the letter, the Christian brothers applaud their great-great-grandfather’s initiative to teach slaves how to read and conceded that he may have been “thoughtful and loving…toward his family.”
Yet the pair ultimately concluded that, “we are in need of a new context — one in which the statues have been taken down.”
“While we are not ashamed of our great-great-grandfather, we are ashamed to benefit from white supremacy while our black family and friends suffer,” they write. “We are ashamed of the monument.”
“While we are not ashamed of our great-great-grandfather, we are ashamed to benefit from white supremacy while our black family and friends suffer. We are ashamed of the monument.”
The Christian brothers prefer, instead, to lift up the ideals of their great-great-aunt, Laura Jackson Arnold, an ardent Unionist, abolitionist — and Jackson’s sister.
“We stand on the right side of history with Laura Jackson Arnold,” they write.
Jackson and Arnold were once quite close. Their bond was formed at a young age, as the two siblings had to rely heavily on one another after the death of their parents, Quint says. However, when Jackson sided with the South, the two never spoken with one another again.
“You always hear about how this war split families in two,” Quint says. “This is a perfect example of how that played out.”
Nowadays, it’s Jackson’s legacy — and the Confederate legacy as a whole — that’s dividing perhaps some families, and certainly a whole nation.
Quint is standing in a white house on a hill, just a couple rooms over from where the Confederate war hero took his final breath. With muffled gunshots booming in the distance and a small lamp illuminating a map of the Battle of Chancellorsville on a nearby desk, he adjusts his glasses and says one more thing about Jackson.
“He was an interesting guy. And his personality creates a lot of conundrums.”
This article originally appeared in the Caroline Progress.