Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger

Guinea Station Road winds through the Caroline County countryside the way a boxer might weave and duck and juke and roll. In places, tall cathedrals of trees line the road. Elsewhere, the road runs along low wetlands that look ready to spill over onto the blacktop. Open horse pastures and shadowy woodlots alternate.

It’s May 10, and it’s the 160th anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death. I’m on my way to the Stonewall Jackson Death Site—formerly called the Stonewall Jackson Shrine—to pay my annual respects to the fallen general. His time of death was 3:15 p.m., which means 4:15 p.m. to us in the age of Daylight Savings Time.

To get in the mood, I’ve chosen to listen to a few selections from the soundtrack to Stonewall Country, a 1984 musical by Robin and Linda Williams based on the life of Stonewall Jackson. The musical ran for 20 years at the Lime Kiln Theater in Lexington, Virginia, before retiring in 2004. It’s a neat blend of country folk with lovely harmonies.

The obvious tune for today’s observance is “Let Us Cross Over the River,” which is based on Jackson’s final words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

But another fine song on the album is the one that precedes that final tune: “Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger.” In the song, Jackson, who has become world famous, worries that he’ll return to his hometown as someone unknown to the people who live there and that they’ll be people he in turn no longer recognizes. When one travels far away, can you ever go home again?

One particular set of lyrics struck me as not only poignant but also timely:

Will there come a time when the memories fade.
and pass on with the long, long years,
When the ties no longer bind?
Lord save me from this darkest fear.

Jackson, once revered throughout the South, has fallen out of fashion. The great martyr of the Lost Cause is now side-eyed suspiciously because of the White Supremacist government he served. We live in a black-and-white world that has no room for the ambiguities and complexities of grayness—particularly Confederates grayness. History is messy, but we want things neat and tidy and clear-cut.

Ironically, Jackson himself saw the world as a black-and-white place, so perhaps it’s fitting that his own life story has fallen victim to the very sort of worldview he himself held. I’ve always found his black-and-whiteness to be one of his most fascinating complexities. There’s a lot we can learn in that space if we’re willing to engage it.

As a society, our own memories of Jackson have faded with the long, long years. The ties no longer bind. In some cases—where our memories have been clouded by Lost Cause propaganda—I think that process of forgetting is a good thing. But it’s unfortunate that we too often fill that gap by rushing to judgement rather than seeking understanding. I wonder how history, in turn, will judge us.

Remembering Stonewall Jackson is, for me, as much an exercise in memory as it is history. My own personal experience as a Civil War person are inextricably bound up with Jackson’s story in ways that make it impossible for me to not show my respects on this day. I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for him. This tie will always bind.

And so I follow the road past pasture, forest, and marsh until it comes out near the railroad that once gave birth to Guinea Station. The Stonewall Jackson Death Site sits on the far side, waiting for me to cross the rail line, waiting for me to return, waiting to welcome me back, an old familiar friend in an age where the memories fade.


6 Responses to Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger

  1. It will judge us as the sanctimonious prigs we are. Everything easy, textually no different than the Lost Cause ideologues we so piously condemn.

  2. Chris, I am so pleased that you connected Robin & Linda Williams to your discussion of Stonewall. Their music is wonderful; I will dig out the Stonewall Country CD and listen to it again.

  3. The white supremacy of Lincoln and his administration, not to mention most of his constituency in the North, was far more sinister in its anti-black sentiments, and wanted blacks gone to any god-for-saken place but here. The reason Lincoln made clear:

    “There is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe, will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Abraham Lincoln, Fourth Lincoln/Douglas Debate 1858)

    The attempt to redeem Lincoln by modern historians saying he “evolved” is special pleading of the most desperate sort. Until the week he died he was negotiating for a place to deport all blacks out of the country; obviously still believing their “physical difference” was permanent and beyond assimilation.

    Contrast that with the white supremacy of Jeff Davis who, along with his brother, created a manual for slave owners with the purpose of preparing slaves for the day they would be assimilated into American society:

    “Slavery is for its end the preparation of that race for civil liberty and social enjoyment… When the time shall arrive at which emancipation is proper, those most interested will be most anxious to effect it.” (Jefferson Davis, prior to secession upon the floor of the US Senate)

    Even in the infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” there is a line conveniently overlooked by modern historians where Alex Stephens anticipates the day when blacks would by education be assimilated into America’s Christian civilization:

    “We hear much of the civilization and Christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa. In my judgment, those ends will never be attained, but by first teaching them the lesson taught to Adam, that ‘in the sweat of his brow he should eat his bread,’ and teaching them to work, and feed, and clothe themselves…”

    The North looked on blacks as a permanently alien race that was, as Lincoln Cabinet member William Seward put it:

    “The negro is a foreign and feeble element, a pitiful exotic unnecessarily transplanted into our field, and which it is unprofitable to cultivate.”

    The Government Stonewall Jackson served stood on higher moral ground regarding blacks than did the government of the Union in 1861. That slavery ended as an unintended consequence of a war for economic exploitation lends that war no moral merit. Nor does the subsequent amendments passed by that government that had as its goal not the real elevation of the black man but rather the using of black people for political advantage.

  4. “. . . .because of the White Supremacist government he (Jackson) served.” As compared to the many pro-civil rights governments of the time. The ones that passed the “Civil Rights acts of 1845” and the like.

  5. thanks for this thoughtful note Chris … hope you had a nice visit w/the General … you make a great point about society’s penchant these days to paint with only two colors — black and white … it makes for short and unsatisfying scholarly discussions … there’s plenty of room to acknowledge the poverty of the southern cause, yet admire the soliderly virtue, tactical prowess and physical courage of men like Jackson … we all need to do better.

  6. Very well written, Chris. You prompted me to reflect on the times of General Jackson during a time I did not experience. I appreciate your admonition against judgment because I am generally inclined to diminish the words and heroes of the Lost Cause.

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