Christmas 1861. The effects of the Civil War were already felt in Winchester, Virginia—a city poised at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. Men had been recruited from the city and surrounding area and many served in a company of the 2nd Virginia Infantry, “Stonewall” Brigade. The First Battle of Bull Run had brought the realities of war home when the coffins arrived with several boys from Winchester. But the town civilians felt a surge of confidence in the late autumn and heading into the holiday season: the army had returned.
When General Thomas J. Jackson took the troops away from the Winchester area to join General Johnston in July 1861, the citizens felt outraged. They felt that the Shenandoah Valley had raised an “army” (basically the Stonewall Brigade and some cavalry and artillery units at that point during the war) to defend their homes from the dreaded Yankees. The fact that their army left to fight in another portion of the state made little sense to many of the civilians.
However, in the autumn, Jackson was ordered back to the Shenandoah Valley to take command of the army there, and he made his headquarters at Winchester. By that time, Jackson had moderate local fame in Winchester; the name “Stonewall” was already in use after its appearance connected to the officer and brigade at First Bull Run. With officers and soldiers originally from Winchester in Jackson’s command, the residents were more aware of his actions and rumored quirks than other parts of the South or even the rest of Virginia. Jackson would not rise to fame through the South until after his Valley Campaign in the following spring.
By Christmas 1861, Winchester had not “met the Yankees.” There had been no occupation of the town, food was still readily available, and with a Confederate victory at the first major battle of the war (and one of those battle heroes in town), the civilians were ready to celebrate the holidays with traditional Virginian hospitality.
In the weeks after Jackson’s arrival, he had been the object of curiosity. During his brief stay at the Taylor Hotel on Loudoun Street, people loitered and spied, trying to catch a glimpse of the general or, more boldly, sought meetings or just tried to walk in. Jackson sent officers to find a new and more secluded structure for headquarters, eventually settling in the Moore House on the north edge of town. While his army looked hopefully for winter campsites, Jackson continued plotting winter campaigning. He took a brief break from the military focus on Christmas Eve to meet his wife at the stage stop in the city.
Anna Jackson arrived after a cold journey from North Carolina. She had been told that her husband was not in Winchester and had resigned herself to a lonely and dreary arrival. Her traveling companion—”a kind-hearted but absent-minded old clergyman”—had managed to lose her baggage on the trip and she climbed out of the stagecoach at midnight, watched by a lingering group of soldiers around the hotel. But one of the soldiers followed her up the hotel stairs and caught her around the waist; she knew it was her husband who explained (after several kisses) that he had waited to make sure it was her before surprising her in that way and carrying her off to their lodgings.
The following day General and Mrs. Jackson spent Christmas at church and the McGuire home. They likely attended services at Kent Street Presbyterian Church where their friend Reverend Graham pastored. The McGuire home—on Braddock Street—had been the childhood residence of Dr. Hunter McGuire who served as the medical director on Jackson’s staff.
Hunter McGuire’s father—Dr. Hugh McGuire—had started the first medical school in Winchester and lived prosperously in the large brick home with his wife—Ann Eliza McGuire—and their three daughters. It’s not quite clear how many of their four sons might have been present at the Christmas gathering in 1861. Hunter was certainly there and likely the youngest son, but the other two boys may have been absent with other military units.
Apparently, when Dr. and Mrs. McGuire entertained, they went full-scale with their hospitality. Not only did they host General and Mrs. Jackson, but also the majority of the staff officers and a few other military friends. John Preston, Sandie Pendleton, Alfred H. Jackson, John Harmon, George Junkin, and William Hawks were listed among the guests. It’s also possible that civilian friends may have been present or stopped by during the day. At minimum, they probably had fourteen people around the dining table.
Mrs. McGuire, her daughters, and the enslaved women in the household had likely spent significant time planning and preparing for this holiday dinner. The dining table creaked and groaned with the weight of the food! We’re not quite sure what was on the McGuire’s menu, but it likely offered a vast variety of dishes, and Mrs. McGuire was probably proud of the traditional idea that everyone would find something to enjoy.
We can only imagine her disappointment when the famed general took little interest and delight in the holiday spread. Instead, “Stonewall” ate simply, savoring cornbread, butter, and buttermilk. Perhaps her son had warned her about the general’s plain eating habits; we can only hope, since there’s a sinking feeling experienced by hostesses in every era when a guest doesn’t seem to appreciate the offerings. However, it’s probably safe to guess that the staff officers and family did full justice to the meal and it would not be the first time in “Jacksonian headquarters history” that his young officers happily ate the food and sent the compliments on their general’s behalf.
The grand feast prepared at the McGuire home marked one of the last of its kind for years in Winchester. Christmas 1861 would be the last plentiful war-era Christmas for the town during the Civil War and the advent season in the next three years would be celebrated very differently or barely remembered in the struggle for civilian survival and the need to look after the casualties constantly recovering in the war-zone town. But that still seemed far away in 1861 as Jackson worshipped and dined in Winchester.
Jackson and his army’s presence in and around Winchester had brightened the citizens’ hopes, but their very arrival signaled the beginning of the darker side of the war for the town. Their strategic location was confirmed in the lower Shenandoah Valley, fixing a target on the city that would leave to the streets changing hands over 70 times in the next three years. The army also brought a new struggle to the civilians: sickness. The epidemic-like diseases that swept through the camps and hospitals spread quickly to the civilian population that winter. Jackson’s return signaled a new chapter of the Civil War on many different levels for the Winchester community.
But they didn’t realize the extent of the coming changes and challenges as Christmas day dawned in 1861. They were still a town of curious civilians, anxious to catch a glimpse of “Stonewall” at church or boast about hosting the general and his lady for Christmas dinner.
To be continued…
James I. Robertson, Jr. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend, page 301
Mary Anna Jackson, Memoirs of Stonewall Jackson, pages 210-211.