The Winchester Photograph: Portrait of A General’s Character

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sarah Kay Bierle

Jackson's Winchester Photograph
Jackson’s Winchester Photograph Autumn 1862

There were only two photos of General “Stonewall” Jackson taken during the war. One photograph was made during April 1863, shortly before his final battle at Chancellorsville and shows the general in profile, looking quiet and stern. The first wartime photograph was taken during the late autumn of 1862 in Winchester, Virginia; it was the favorite of Mrs. Jackson and was called “the official photograph” by military staff officers[i]. The Winchester photograph was produced under unique circumstances, some of which are evident in the image. The town where it was taken, the young woman who asked for it, and a crooked button reveal much of the “Stonewall” story in a single photograph.

Thomas J. Jackson – whose given name was most certainly not “Stonewall” (despite popular belief) – loved Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. While it was not his birthplace, it truly became his home when he moved there in the early 1850’s. Lexington – his adopted hometown – stood at the southern end of The Valley, and there he spent some of the happiest years of his life. The town of Winchester was poised at the northern end of The Valley, and, until the war, Jackson was not particularly familiar with that town. His name must have been occasionally mentioned in Winchester since some of the cadets under his instruction at Virginia Military Institute were from Winchester; whether the stories of the semi-eccentric professor were given much credence or simply laughed off as schoolboys’ complaints, the basic fact remained: Jackson was unknown to Winchester in 1860.

By early 1862, Winchester and the entire Shenandoah Valley knew Jackson’s name and fame. At First Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861, Jackson had acquired a sobriquet that would follow him through his Confederate military service and across the river into the pages of history. “Stonewall” had emerged, but what he would actually accomplish in his military campaigns remained a doubtful mystery. In November 1861, Jackson was transferred to the Valley District, with his headquarters in Winchester. This was the first time the Winchester folks got an up-close view of the commander of their boys; some were impressed, others not so much. Mrs. Jackson arrived and spent the winter. The General and his lady entered Winchester society and made new, dear friends. Jackson talked of wanting to move to Winchester when the war was over.

The fight was just beginning though. Political conflict emerged after Jackson’s ill-fated winter campaign, but ultimately, he retained command of the Valley District, much to the relief of the Winchester civilians. Jackson was their defender and their savior during the spring of 1862. The Valley Campaign took Jackson and his army on a march of 646 miles in 48 days, fought six battles, and defeated three Union armies.

And the Valley Campaign was just the beginning. Jackson and his army fought in the Seven Days’ Battles, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, and Sharpsburg during the summer and early autumn. After the Sharpsburg retreat, Jackson encamped in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley, not too far from Winchester. That town now took special pride and claimed the general for their hero…and one young woman had a special request.

William D. Washington's imaginative artwork of Jackson during the Valley Campaign illustrates the hero's place Jackson held in Winchester
William D. Washington’s imaginative artwork of Jackson during the Valley Campaign illustrates the hero’s place Jackson held in Winchester

Margaretta McGuire – called “Getty” by her family and close friends – was a young woman (about twenty-nine years old in 1862) living with her mother and two sisters in a beautiful brick house at the corner of Braddock and Amherst Streets. Her father and three of her brothers were serving with the Confederate forces; the youngest brother was attending school elsewhere in Virginia. By autumn 1862, Getty had already survived several occupations of Winchester by enemy troops, epidemics of illnesses, and had taken care of wounded soldiers. Her war experiences would become progressively harder as the years passed, but at this time Getty’s life was somewhat normal.[ii]

The McGuire Family was good friends with General Jackson. One of Getty’s brothers – Hunter McGuire – was the medical director for Jackson’s corps. They had socialized with General and Mrs. Jackson during the winter of 1861-1862 and had hosted Christmas dinner for the Jacksons. It is safe to assume Getty was good friends with Mrs. Jackson, but if they corresponded, no letters have been discovered yet. However, Anna Jackson remembered many of her Winchester friends in a letter she wrote to Mrs. Fanny Graham during the autumn of 1862: “…Remember me kindly to Mrs. Conrad & her daughters, Mrs. F.B. Jones… & Dr. and Mrs. McGuire’s family.”[iii]

One day when the brightly hued leaves were swirling down and dancing in the streets of Winchester, General “Stonewall” Jackson came to town to visit his friends. He came quietly, wearing a clean uniform that had seen better days – in fact, it was missing a button on the front of the jacket, which the general had tucked into his pocket. The hero brought his local ambassador – Hunter McGuire – to make any introductions and provide an escape if any lady’s admiration got too extravagant. They called at the Lee home[iv] and probably several other residences before going to the McGuire home for dinner. Reverend Graham – a Presbyterian minister and one of Jackson’s friends – and possibly Mrs. Graham were also guests at the McGuire table.[v]

During the meal, Getty McGuire asked the general for a favor: would he have his photograph taken in Confederate uniform and give her a copy? Surprisingly, General Jackson agreed. At the photography gallery, there was a problem. Henry Douglas, though not an eyewitness, described the incident. “When the photograph was about to be taken, the artist called the attention of the General to the absence of a button and offered to sew it on. The General produced the button from his pocket, asked for a needle and thread, and said that as he was in a hurry he would put it on while the photographer was getting his camera ready. This he did, sitting in the chair without removing his coat. But the button is a little out of line – he did not get it as straight as he usually got things. It is the third button from the top left of his breast, and the little deflection is seen in all the copies of that picture.”[vi]

When the photograph was complete, Jackson received the two copies, and, returning to the McGuire home, he presented one to Miss McGuire, saying she should keep it to remember him. The other copy was promptly sent to Mrs. Jackson and it became her favorite photograph. Perhaps it was her favorite because there is a warm, pleasant expression on the general’s face. He is almost relaxed and his gentlemanly attitude is evident. As for Getty, she boasted sweetly to a friend about the fine photograph, then generously offered to have a copy made if the friend wanted it.

The “Winchester Photo” is significant because it was taken during the most influential year of Jackson’s military career. It captures him when he was the feared and conquering hero. Yet, the photograph does not reveal a man with unearthly fire in his eyes, brandishing a sword and bellowing orders. No, rather it reveals the real, quiet leadership of the mythical “Stonewall.” He was serious, terse, quiet, determined, and courageous. He was also gentle, faithful, and caring. All of these character qualities blend together in the photograph, giving admirers and historians a brief glimpse into the life and character of Thomas Jackson. The photo prompts some additional thoughts. It was taken in Winchester, the town Jackson learned to love and fought to defend. The young woman who requested the photo was respected by the general and he was pleased to gratify her and her family. And, lastly, the crooked button – which Jackson himself sewed on – lends a human quality to the image. Jackson was a man, not a myth or legend.

The beloved town of Winchester, Miss McGuire’s simple request, and stitching of a button were the unseen backdrop for General Jackson’s 1862 photograph. Comfortable among his friends, he allowed his image to be captured and preserved. Generations later, we too can view the photograph. Gazing into Jackson’s calm eyes, wondering at the almost-ready-to-smile expression of his mouth, and curiously pondering his thoughts as he sat there looking straight into the camera, we find ourselves considering what made him great. Was it his military genius? His faith? His love for his family? The crooked button catches our eye. Perhaps it was his humility.

[i] H.K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), page 199.

[ii] Note: The information about Margaretta McGuire’s life is drawn from many primary sources, including family letters, government documents, and the journals and writings of other Winchester residents.

[iii] J. Holsworth, Stonewall Jackson and Winchester, Virginia (2012), page 109

[iv] L. Lee, ed. by M.G. Mahon, Winchester Divided: The Civil War Diaries of Julia Chase & Laura Lee(2002), page 64

[v] J.I. Robertson, Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (1997), page 637.

[vi] H.K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), pages 199-200.


6 Responses to The Winchester Photograph: Portrait of A General’s Character

  1. As photography continues to progress through the centuries, I find it amazing and wonderful how old photos can be restored, digitalized, even colored–all without losing the original. Primary sources like this one should be “taught” in classrooms across America. Such a rich resource, and at our digital fingertips! Thanks for this article.

  2. My first time reading this. Great story! I knew my Great-aunt Getty, who was a niece of the Getty you mention. I always wondered why my grandmother was Margaret and her sister was Margretta (Getty) but with 9 children, I suppose Dr. HH McGuire and his wife Mary Stuart were OK with those similar names.

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