For the forthcoming August 2017 issue of Civil War Times, I had the privilege to write an article about Stonewall Jackson as a father, “Stonewall’s Greatest Joy.” It’s a story that has deep personal interest to me. Here’s why . . . .
When my daughter, Stephanie, was four years old, she fell in love with Stonewall Jackson. Visiting the battlefield at Manassas, she saw the monolithic statue of Jackson there and it was love at first sight. That he had a cool nickname—“Stonewall”—only made her fascination stronger. She became, at that moment, an instant, lifelong Stonewall Jackson groupie.
In the months and years that followed, we visited other Stonewall Jackson-related sites: the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia, the only home Jackson ever owned; the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught before the war; Jackson’s Mill in Weston, West Virginia, where he grew up; the Stonewall Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station, where he died.
If Stonewall Jackson fought at a particular battlefield, Stephanie wanted to check it out. But no Stonewall? No thanks. As far as she was concerned, the Civil War ended May 10, 1863. Gettysburg was notable only because the visitor center displayed the stretcher used to evacuate Jackson from the field at Chancellorsville after his wounding and the table he lay on as surgeons amputated his left arm. “Blood stains!” she said in hushed awe. She saw the artifacts as relics.
When this started, I had no particular interest in the Civil War. Instead, I came to the story of the war through the story of Stonewall Jackson—through this particular narrative of Stonewall Jackson, as discovered with and filtered by my daughter. Therefore, the story of Jackson as a father has always resonated strongly with me because it was through my own role as father that I discovered his story.
In 1999, artist Mort Kunstler painted a scene in which Jackson meets his own daughter for the first time. Called Julia, the painting situates the baby at the center of the image, just as she is at that moment the center of Jackson’s universe. Even as the train depot around them roars with the cheers of Jackson’s men, and the locomotive hisses off steam behind them, and the rain patters on the umbrella Jackson holds, it’s as if none of that matters or even exists. Jackson cannot take his eyes off his daughter.
I get that.
My own daughter is now twenty-three. I think of the joy she has given me in nearly two and a half decades. Jackson, meanwhile, got to spend a total of ten days with his own daughter, and the last one was on his deathbed. It’s the one thing in the world he wanted more than anything—to be a dad—and he had hardly time to relish it, and even that was tainted by a deep fear that God would get jealous and take the baby away from him if he loved the baby too much. To me, that’s heartbreaking.
It’s also so very human.
Fewer figures from the Civil War have been more memorialized, more mythologized, more “marbleized,” than Stonewall Jackson. It’s easy to forget he was an actual person—a father and husband, just like me. I might not have understood the fervor of his religious zealotry, his complicated views on slavery, his alleged love of lemons, but Jackson as a dad? Yeah, that I got. And from there, I was able to explore and better understand all the rest.
The Jackson I’ve come to know over the past two decades isn’t, in all honesty, a guy I would want to hang out with, but he does have many qualities I’ve grown to admire. Mostly, he has taught me the value of empathy as a lens for understanding the past. These are not monolithic figures on the field or dry facts on the page, but people just like me—with the same hopes and dreams for their children that I have for my own.