As Emerging Civil War continues its coverage of the 150th anniversary of Chancellorsville and the death of Stonewall Jackson, we’re pleased to bring you a guest post from Stonewall devotee Steph Mackowski.
As a four year old who had just spent a week in Washington, D.C., you would think a Civil War battlefield wouldn’t be particularly exciting for me. I hadn’t had any particular interest in the Civil War at the time, but little did I know that this day in January would spark a passion that has lasted my whole life.
I don’t remember seeing Manassas battlefield for the first time, but I do remember the moment that I was introduced to my hero. We went to the battlefield, according to my parents, looking for something to do that would kill a few hours. Manassas, about half an hour from D.C., seemed acceptable to them to keep me entertained and allow me to run around for a bit.
We saw a statue in the distance as we arrived at the visitor center, but we headed to the visitor center first. I remember being mildly interested in the exhibits inside, but I really just wanted to go check out the statue.
There he was, Stonewall Jackson. My dad described the statue later as the Greek god Ares. He told me the story of Jackson at Manassas to the best of his ability at the time. But something struck me about the statue, about Jackson’s story. For me, this is where it all began.
After that first Manassas visit, my curiosity didn’t cease about the Confederate general. On the way home from our vacation in D.C., the family stopped at Gettysburg, where my dad picked up a short book about the battle of First Manassas for me as well as a video about Jackson.
It wasn’t until May that our family visited some other Stonewall-oriented battlefields: the Fredericksburg-area battlefields in Virginia. Those are the places where my curiosity for Stonewall turned into passion. The day we visited Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Park was awesome, as the visitor centers helped my blossoming interest. We stopped at the visitor centers at Chancellorsville (the place where Jackson was shot) and Fredericksburg (battles where Jackson and his troops were major players), as well as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine (the place where Jackson died), which was unfortunately closed. That didn’t stop me from peering in the windows. I had to see it when it was open, though. We would have to come back.
We visited The Shrine in April the next year, during the day, and the building was open. I couldn’t have been more excited. I had been visiting various battlefields and reading up on Civil War books, so I was a bit more into history at that point. But Stonewall Jackson was still my main man. I got the tour of The Shrine, wide-eyed and excited the whole time. Still, we would have to come back. I couldn’t get enough of Jackson.
We took more trips: Gettysburg, PA, to see the table that was used as Jackson got his arm amputated; Winchester, VA, where Jackson’s office was located; Lexington, VA, where Jackson’s only home was located and where he taught as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute; and Jackson’s Mill, where the general grew up. I even dressed up like Stonewall for Halloween one year. I just couldn’t get enough Jackson.
My visit to The Shrine in 2001 is my most striking Jackson-related experience. I met two great friends and mentors, Frank O’Reilly and Keith Alexander. Keith was the historian to give me the “spiel” that day. He began by asking, “Do you know what you have in common with Stonewall Jackson?”
“Yes,” I answered. “We both have blue eyes.” Keith was a bit shocked, as normal kids my age have no idea about anything Jackson-related.
He asked again, and I answered, “Yes, we have both been to Niagara Falls.” That completely derailed Keith, who knelt down in front of me and asked, “Who are you?”
Keith usually answered his own question about what anyone has in common with Jackson: the sound of the clock, the exact clock that was in the room at the time of Jackson’s death. So, he was just blown out of the water that I had any knowledge about the general. Keith took me into the office and purchased a book for me, whose author, I would soon learn, was in the next room.
Frank, the author of my new book, was fixing the clock. Frank signed the book for me as I asked him some more questions. Brazenly, I asked him if I could touch the bed–the very bed that Stonewall died in. He said sure, and I soaked in the moment, carefully touching the bed. Still to this day, that is one of the most extraordinary memories I have. Frank and Keith have since been great leaders to me, as I have looked up to both of them in my Jackson expeditions.
I started volunteering for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Park a few years later, starting when I was eleven, spending most of my volunteer days helping visitors to The Shrine get familiar with Jackson’s story.
Jackson has always been so striking to me because of his uniqueness and the lessons he taught me. He always offered relevant advice, which is why I now have one of his quotes, in his handwriting, as a tattoo: “You may be whatever you resolve to be.”
I was also intrigued by Jackson himself: his fierce loyalty and his drive. He was definitely his own person, even if he seemed a little crazy in some respects. But his quirks were always lovable to me. As a kid, I even took the heart some of the myths surrounding his life: I started sucking on lemon wedges and I came down with a mysterious allergy to pepper that made my left leg numb. Both alleged habits are famous Jackson quirks.
Since going to college, I haven’t been able to visit any Jackson sites, but Stonewall Jackson will always be my hero, for more reasons than anyone will ever know.
Steph Mackowski began volunteering at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, with an emphasis on the Jackson Shrine and the Chancellorsville battlefield, when she was eleven. Recently, she finished her first year at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. Her essay “Before He Was Stonewall: Thomas Jackson in Lexington” appears as an appendix in the newly published Last Days of Stonewall Jackson, part of the Emerging Civil War series.