A subtle but important change is underway at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FSNMP): the site where Stonewall Jackson died is getting renamed. The building formerly known as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine will henceforth be officially referred to as the Stonewall Jackson Death Site.
The reasons for the change, says FSNMP Chief Historian and Chief of Interpretation John Hennessy, is to help give visitors a clearer a sense of what to expect when they visit.
“[T]he name ‘Jackson Shrine’ is not very helpful to visitors,” he says. “Most people have no idea what to expect. They expect a shrine in a modern sense, and of course, the term ‘shrine,’ which was commonly used for a historic site in the 1920s, is hardly ever used in that context today.”
The name “Jackson Shrine” dates back to a casual reference in a newspaper article written by Virginia Lee Cox for the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 16, 1926:
Yesterday in the simple, little, frame house near Guinea Station where, on May 10, 1863, General Stonewall Jackson died, a group of interested women transformed the bare, little room in which he “crossed over the river” into some semblance of its original setting, and made there the beginnings of a Jackson Museum which they hope will grow into a fitting tribute to one of the South’s great heroes.
The group which yesterday made that first pilgrimage to the Jackson Shrine was composed of….[i]
At the time, the word “shrine” was a commonly used synonym for museum. For instance, a 1934 pamphlet published by the Virginia Commission on Conservation and Development, Historic Shrines of Virginia, listed thirty-five sites, including “Jackson’s Deathplace.”
Today, the term as originally used is largely unfamiliar to modern travelers.
“‘The Jackson Shrine’ was an informal name,” Hennessy says. “It is not a legally applied name. It’s not in our legislation or anything of that sort.”
Among National Park Service sites, only Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine includes the word in its official designation. The Alamo, too, remains an officially designated shrine.
The Fredericksburg area apparently had a plethora of shrines once upon a time, at least according to the Free Lance-Star. Today, only the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, which sits on Caroline Street, has a sign that says “Shrine open daily.” But reporting on October 13, 1928, on the dedication of Jackson’s death site as a museum, the local newspaper boasted, “This section, already rich in historic shrines, and due in the future to boast even more, had another shrine added to its list yesterday when the house in which ‘Stonewall’ Jackson died was formally dedicated as a place where lovers of history and heroism might journey and worship.”
“But certainly the term ‘shrine’ is not consistent with our organizational commitment to objective and holistic interpretation of history,” Hennessy explains. “I mean, we get people who come in who are bristling from the start because, ‘What is this? Why are our tax dollars running a shrine to Stonewall Jackson?’ And then we also get people coming in from the start not expecting objective, holistic interpretation—expecting a kind of invitation to mourn. That’s not what the site is, either.
“We think the new name, the new label, puts the site on more neutral ground for visitors coming in. Just makes for a better environment for us to do our work,” he says.
Park officials also hope clarifying the name will make the site safer.
“[T]he intensity of the discourse over Confederate iconography—or Confederate icons, in the case of Jackson,” raised security issues, Hennessy admits. “There’s no question that in the present tumult over Confederate symbols and icons in the aftermath of Charleston and, especially, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, there was a good deal of chatter online that we saw about ‘What is this shrine to Jackson? It needs to go.’”
The name change offered a way for the park to defuse some of those concerns. “It’s such a simple thing to remove that aspect of it without altering the site, without altering the experience,” Hennessy says. “The focus is still on Jackson’s death and why it mattered and why it matters.”
“It remains our most personal site,” he adds. “One, it’s the only site that we have that’s focused on an individual. And secondly, it’s the site where our visitors have the most personal experience with our staff. It’s often one on one, or one and a family. And so it’s a site that has tremendous interpretive potential that . . . all our staff who’s worked there over the years has recognized. And none of that, none of that is changing.”
The park changed the site’s name once before, back in 1979. At the time, the site was known as simply “The Jackson Shrine.” Adding “Stonewall” to the name clarified the difference between the Civil War General and former president Andrew Jackson, another Southern military commander with a catchy nickname—“Old Hickory”—who first earned renown in the War of 1812. The seventies also saw the Jackson Five peak in popularity and Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson make five trips to the World Series, creating additional layers of cultural confusion.
New highway signs—the most visible indication of the name change—went up in August at a cost of $50,000. “But other than the signs, everything else will be replaced in due course on a normal schedule,” Hennessy says. “So the cost of doing it is really confined to the signage.”
Hennessy says the park staff has been using the new name internally for about a year already, and the park’s website already reflects the change. Otherwise, he predicts the name change will take about three years for the park to fully implement.
“It will have to filter its way through other media,” he explains. “Our brochures, for example, were reprinted last summer just before we … made the decision, so that’s going to take three years. We ordered a three-year supply of brochures, so that’s not changing on the brochures.”
For the park’s outside partners, the name change may take even longer. “Our tourism partners, localities—it’s probably going to take five to seven years to filter through entirely,” Hennessy says. “And, you know, in twenty years, there will probably still be people out there who’ll call it ‘Stonewall Jackson Shrine.’ That’s just the way these things work.”
In the end, he says, visitors can bring whatever perspective they want to the site. “To some eyes it will remain a ‘shrine,’ and that’s fine. Our intent is not to impose on any visitor how they ought to view the site,” he says.
While the name change might be a “significant issue” for some, Hennessy thinks the benefits far outweigh those issues. “[B]ecause the nature of the site’s not changing, and we think it really serves our visitors and serves the site, too, and its security, we think it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “So we’re forging ahead.”
[i] Virginia Lee Cox, “Jackson Museum is Begun Where Great Stonewall Died,” Richmond Times Dispatch, November 16, 1926. The author is indebted to FSNMP historian Eric Mink for providing this newspaper article. Eric was also kind enough to furnish the pamphlet Historic Shrines of Virginia and “First Civil War Shrine” from the October 13, 1928, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.