One of the most common questions I get when I’m on the road, sharing the story of The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson with Civil War roundtables, concerns Jackson’s last words.
Jackson had spent the afternoon of May 10, 1863, fading in and out of consciousness, in and out of delirium, and at one point started shouting out battle orders. Then he abruptly stopped, and his whole body relaxed, and a gentle smile passed over his face. “Let us cross over the river,” he said calmly, “and rest under the shade of the trees.”
“What river do you think he was referring to?” people often ask.
In her memoir, Jackson’s wife, Mary Anna, addressed this question. “Was his soul wandering back in dreams to the river of his beloved Valley,” she wrote,
the Shenandoah (the ‘river of sparkling waters’), whose verdant meads and groves he had redeemed from the invader, and across whose floods he had so often won his passage through the toils of battle? Or was he reaching forward across the River of Death, to the golden streets of the Celestial City, and the trees whose leave are for the healing of nations? It was to these that God was bringing him, through his last battle and victory; and under their shade he walks, with the blessed company of the redeemed.(1)
Jackson biographer James “Bud” Robertson, in his definitively study, offered a different interpretation, suggesting that Jackson’s life flashed before his eyes as he neared his final moment. “[S]cenes in reverse order of time began flashing through Jackson’s mind,” Robertson wrote. The scenes took Jackson all the way back to his childhood at Jackson’s Mill, near Weston, Virginia (now West Virginia). “The West Fork River was still curling like a moat around the boundaries of the family home place . . .” Robertson wrote with a bit of creative license. “On the other side of the West Fork was the little grove of white poplars that was his solitude—and his refuge—from the cares of the world.”(2)
Or, perhaps it was the Maury River, which flows through Jackson’s adopted hometown of Lexington, Virginia. Jackson was so enamored with the town that he called it “the most beautiful place that I . . . [have] ever seen,” and during the war, he often longed for the quiet domesticity Lexington once offered.(3)
Perhaps he referred to a southward crossing of the Potomac, into Dixie, the South, his homeland and nascent nation, which at the time of his death still held hope for independence.
Or perhaps he saw Bull Run, the steep-banked creek near which he earned immortality as “Stonewall” during the battle of Manassas—but rather than the fury of the fight, he thought of the morning quiet of Sunday, July 21, 1861, not yet shattered by violence, when he greeted dawn with a prayer.
He might even have thought of the Hudson River, familiar to him because of his four years at West Point. The wide river valley was among the most beautiful and most-painted landscapes in early America, and even today, it offers breathtaking vistas of ample serenity.
Or maybe, rather than Mary Anna’s description of the River of Death—a Styx-like image—perhaps Jackson crossed the River Jordan, which represented a crossing into the Promised Land that could be as literal as it was spiritual.
Some of these alternatives are more probable than others, but one of the things I find so sublime about Jackson’s last words is that they’re open to multiple interpretations. Jackson’s life can be viewed through any and all of these many rivers, offering rich terrain for exploration.
It could also be that Jackson meant none of these things. Like so much else about him, his final words may be one more riddle left by a man known for his Sphinx-like mystery. In the end, we are left to ponder not what Jackson’s last words meant, but rather, what they mean to us.
- Mary Anna Jackson, Life and Letters of “Stonewall” Jackson by His Wife (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1995), 471.
- James I. Robertson, Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1997), 753.
- Thomas Jackson, letter to sister, 20 August 1851.