Stonewall Jackson’s Last Words

shrine070411One 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.

————

Notes:

  1. Mary Anna Jackson, Life and Letters of “Stonewall” Jackson by His Wife (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1995), 471.
  2. James I. Robertson, Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1997), 753.
  3. Thomas Jackson, letter to sister, 20 August 1851.
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14 Responses to Stonewall Jackson’s Last Words

  1. Diane Mcvey Member of the ReLee Civil War Roundtable of Central New Jersey says:

    We will never know what General Jackson was referring to in his last moments but as he was a man of Faith I believe he was entering into Heaven

  2. fundrums says:

    I have always thought it had a scriprtual meaning. As Jackson was well versed in the bible his devotional faith may have come to him in his last moments. The precise phrase river of life does not appear in the Bible. However, Revelation 22:1–2 does refer to “the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” The apostle John, in his vision of the New Jerusalem, describes the river as flowing “down the middle of the great street of the city.” The “water of life” referred to here does not have to be considered physical water as we know it. Rather, the water flowing from the throne is probably symbolic of the water of eternal life, crystal clear to reflect the glory of God in a dazzling, never-ending stream. The fact that the stream emanates from the throne tells us that eternal life flows from God to His people. Just a thought. – Michael Aubrecht

  3. J. Chase says:

    Your last two paragraphs are so very poetically beautiful. Thank you for your insight.

  4. Theodore Savas says:

    Or perhaps, he said nothing at all.

  5. The last moments of death are very often “mystic” in how they manifest. While I very much believe that Jackson’s words could have been motivated by any of the scenarios described, it’s also possible that those who heard them have assigned more meaning than was real. Jackson was delirious from fever so, who knows for sure? His last words were as mystifying as was Jackson’s life.

    • Theodore Savas says:

      I believe almost nothing recalled from memory, or set down on paper years later. See my experiment below….

      In the “Virginia Magazine of History and Biography” a couple decades ago was a fascinating article on Lee’s death by two or three doctors (both I believe neuro / brain experts). I read it again a couple months ago. They dug through all the firsthand accounts (there are more than people normally believe) and demonstrated to my satisfaction that Lee could not have said anything at the end.

      Memory, recall, eyewitness testimony, etc. is nearly worthless and the literature on it is voluminous. I used to do a lot of trial work and handled a lot of criminal and tort matters for a dozen years. I trust almost nothing anyone recalls about anything because each time we recall a specific memory, we bring it up, and then re-save it, overwriting the original. Meanwhile, life experience, additional data input from others, etc. reshapes it.

      When I taught college I even had a guy run into a classroom, scream at me about a grade, etc. and then after 30 seconds of confusions and verbal exchanges, leave. I then gave the glass a brief test. They could not agree on his height, weight, hair color, hair length, color of his shirt, etc. There were a dozen variations on what he said.

      I also did an experiment years ago with three people–a person who attended a big party at my house, and two kids. I filmed them each, separately, and we had a three minute discussion about a specific topic (boy (10): a baseball game he played and what happened; girl (12) about a big school project; and the woman about about the birthday party.

      I put the tapes away, and they forgot about them.

      Two years later I had a conversation with each and asked them to recall the main topics of discussion. Other than broad sweeps, very little was the same. The boy thought he played that year on the Royals (it was the Dodgers), that he had hit a triple (it was a double), that he caught a fly ball by the fence–it was caught off a bounce–and how hot the day was. It wasn’t. It was windy. Same basic thing with my the girl, the party attendee recalled two people at the party and a specific conversation, but they weren’t even there. I asked her what they were dressed in, and she recalled certain specific things–but again, the person wasn’t even present.

      Did Jackson really say something? Maybe. But the broader point I am making about history is that anyone recalling a conversation or event about anything of any consequence deserves a lot of skepticism and my thumb is always on the side of doubting it.

      • I did a lot of work during my MFA and PhD on the reliability and unreliability of memory when it comes to memoir, and I agree, it’s generally a highly fallible source.

        However, in the case of Jackson’s last words, the phrase first appeared in Southern newspaper accounts just days after Jackson’s death, so it’s not a matter of someone years later trying to recall the words. They were recalled fresh by witnesses in the room at the time (most notably James Power Smith and Mary Anna Jackson).

        Hunter McGuire, whose accounts of Jackson’s last days stand as the “definitive” primary sources, were first publicly recorded fewer than three years after Jackson’s death. While he was not in the room at the actual moment of Jackson’s death, he did interview witnesses immediately thereafter and record his impressions. Remember, too, that as a doctor, McGuire was trained in close observation of detail, so he’s a more reliable source than most folks would otherwise be, particularly when it came to Jackson’s death, which was unquestionably the biggest case of his career up to that point (and probably ever after).

        So, there’s more than reasonable evidence to suggest Jackson did, in fact, utter his famous last words and that they were not some poetic invention added as a literary flourish to the end of his career.

      • Theodore Savas says:

        HI Chris

        I agree, with Jackson there is decent evidence he said something.

        The contrarian / attorney / historian / researcher / writer / skeptic just doesn’t believe all that much of anything. When the doc came out to tell me I had a son, I decided to check for myself. 🙂

        Merry Christmas buddy.

  6. I like the story and ,the evidence SO if we must favor one over the other because we simply do not know ,What is wrong with choosing the positive one rather then the negative one ? .I side with Chris on this one .
    Smile more Ted

    • Theodore Savas says:

      Heh. Ted smiles a lot, Thomas Place. He’s always been on the right side of life. (friend me on FB and see what I do for kicks.)

      Merry Christmas.

  7. Jessie Riggs says:

    My wife grew up in Buckhannon, WV, which is ‘just up the mountain’ from Weston, WV where Jackson’s Mill is located. Upon my first visit there, I immediately keyed in on a spot across from the mill on the river, a small piece of land that juts out covered with trees as Prof. Robertson mentioned. Looking at the site left little doubt in my mind that this was what Jackson thought about; a special place from a tough childhood.

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