Generals in the Garden?

Flowers from Spring 2018 at the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia.

The first day of spring was March 20, and signs of spring are definitely starting in Virginia. As I’ve been watching my little window-box plants sprout, I remembered some stories about Civil War generals who liked to garden. I’m sure these two weren’t the only ones who liked the useful hobby, but they were the ones I could easily identify and prove the claim by primary source.

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is usually remembered as a Confederate battlefield warrior and for his campaigns in the opening half of the war, but during pre-Civil War life in Lexington, Virginia, he spent quite a bit of time gardening and writing about his garden. Similarly, Winfield S. Hancock is typically pictured in heroic moments of holding the lines or ordering counterattacks, but in his more peaceful moments he headed the unofficially committee of one for the beautification of U.S. Army forts by gardening.

Most of Jackson’s writings about garden appear in letters to his wife, Mary Anna, when she was absent from their home during the late 1850’s for family visits or seeking health cures. He continually uses the second person possessive “your” when referring to the different details about the garden and other agricultural interests, suggesting they both took an interest in the growing things and fresh produce for their table.

In his April 27, 1859 letter, Jackson wrote: “All your fruit-trees are yielding fruit this year…. We had lettuce for dinner today from your hot bed. Heretofore I have been behind Captain Hayden’s calendar for gardening, which he wrote out for me; but this day brings me up with it, and I hope hereafter to follow it closely. I have arranged under each month its programme for the different days, so I have but to look at the days of the month, and follow its directions as they come.”

Ten days later, the garden report continued in another letter:

“I was mistaken about your large garden fruit being peaches, they turn out to be apricots; and just think—my little woman has a tree full of them! You must come home before they get ripe. You have the greatest show of flowers I have seen this year. Enclosed are a few specimens. Our potatoes are coming up. We have had very uncommonly dry weather for nearly a fortnight, and your garden had been thirsting for rain till last evening, when the weather commenced changing and today we have had some rain….”

In September 1859, between reciting lectures in the Virginia Military Institute classroom, church duties, and social activities, Jackson continued looking after the garden. “I watered your flowers this morning, and hoed another row of turnips, and expect to hill some of the celery this evening. Your old man at home is taking good care of one somebody’s flower-slips, and they are looking very nicely. Yesterday I went into the kitchen and sealed some jars of tomatoes….

In August 1860, the Jackson garden produced celery (which apparently was not one of the major’s favorites), lima beans, snap beans, carrots, parsnips, salsify, onions, cabbage, turnips, beets, potatoes, and some “inferior” muskmelons. The letter writer then asked, “Now, do you think you have enough vegetables?”

The war did not diminish Jackson’s garden observations, though, of course, it ended his own planting and harvesting at his home. In June 1861, he wrote from Harper’s Ferry, describing the green yard around the house he was using as headquarters and detailing a prickly situation. “My chamber is on the second story, and the roses climb even to that height, and come into my window, that I have to push them out, when I want to lower it. I wish you could see with me the beautiful roses in the yard and garden….” In February 1863 spring weather prompted Jackson to write: “I have been thinking lately about gardening. If I were at home, it would be time for me to begin to prepare the hot bed. Don’t you remember what interest we used to take in our hot bed? If we should be privileged to return to our old home, I expect we would find many changes….”

Unlike Jackson who resigned from the U.S. Army in 1851 and gardened at his home, Winfield Scott Hancock was a career officer and frequently moved between forts and other assignment posts during the 1850’s. His wife noted his fondness for planting “trees and shrubbery” at the different military outposts and his belief that the greenery would be a positive benefit to others stationed at the sites in the future. Hancock sometimes wondered if people would know who planted the trees, saying, “Some day I may return here, if I live, and venture to ask some knowing one (while looking at my beautiful trees) who planted them. He will, in all likelihood, name some one who had nothing to do with t. But ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’”

In his wife’s words: “This strange, jealous love he bore fore every tree and shrub which he caused to be planted, continued throughout his life, and in giving them his tender care and watchfulness—as many garrisons can bear testimony—he found a vast amount of daily relaxation.”

During the Civil War years, there is one recorded incident of Hancock’s gardening. Forced from the army after the Battle of Gettysburg to recuperate from his serious wound, the general spent the latter part of his recovery leave at Longwood, a country home near St. Louis, Missouri, and he spent part of his time, “trimming the forest trees on the lawn and planting others, always a delight to him.”

Gardening is not the first image that comes to mind when “Stonewall” Jackson and Winfield Hancock’s names are mentioned, but I find it is interesting to see what these leaders enjoyed doing as a productive hobby. They both chose something that modern experts have recognized to be healthy for mind and body and a relaxing activity.

Perhaps one of these days, I’ll be able to do some research and travel to find out if any of Hancock’s trees at the military forts have survived. Jackson’s garden in Lexington continues to grow, until the watchful care of the staff and volunteers at the Stonewall Jackson House. Happy Spring!

Sources:

Mary Anna Jackson. Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson. 1892. Accessed via Google Books. (The excerpts in this blog post are not all that was written about the Jackson’s garden, just a few passages to give the idea of the scene and how Jackson wrote about gardening.)

Almira Russell Hancock. Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock. 1887.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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2 Responses to Generals in the Garden?

  1. What a wonderful blog post for a pretty spring day. We so often only view our generals and other Civil War officials through the lens of the war, tending to forget they were multifaceted men who [Heaven Forbid!!] loved to garden, not to mention loved their spouses..

  2. Meg Groeling says:

    I hope my own garden grows as well–roses mostly. Mr. Lincoln is one of my stars, but wouldn’t it be fun to grow Civil-War-themed roses? Sterling Silver should change its name to Robert E. Lee, and we need a yellow Hood rose. Union roses galore in reds and white.! YES!

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