An uncomfortable encounter with the Civil War

Confederate General Stonewall Jackson taken in 1863 by Mathew Brady (courtesy US National Archives on Flickr Commons)“Stonewall Jackson ate pancakes on this griddle.”

This was a fitting end to a museum tour that for me was getting a bit too syrupy about the Confederacy; a bit too positive about the revered, upstanding, famously Presbyterian Stonewall.

No one seemed ready to ever acknowledge that, hey, this was a rebellion that failed, and more importantly, the rebels were wrong with regard to a state’s right, or anyone’s right, to allow people to be held as slaves.

But why bother saying anything….we were in the rose-hued Church of Stonewall and there was nothing to do but smile and move on to the next room. Our diminutive 70-something tour guide was not going to change, so I stewed to myself.

The pancake griddle comes in near the end of the standard walk-through of artifacts in the Winchester, Virginia home where Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson lived in 1861-62, as he planned military operations against the Union that ranged up and down the surrounding Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War.

The house was offered to Jackson by Lewis T. Moore, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Fourth Virginia Volunteers and a distant ancestor of actress Mary Tyler Moore. The rooms today contain exhibit cases, period furnishings and memorabilia that belonged to Jackson, his staff or his family members.

In the United States, it is the Civil War’s sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) for the next four years, beginning with the first shots fired on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter and grinding on for four years of agony.

Like many history enthusiasts, I take a great personal interest in the war. I couldn’t put down Michael Shaara’s mesmerizing Gettysburg novel Killer Angels – one late night my exasperated husband got fed up with the light still being on and said, “Look, we need to get some sleep. I’ll tell you how it ends: the North wins!” Further, we both studied the Civil War extensively at the US Naval War College.

It’s magical to feel history come alive, but that day in Winchester when we stood in front of a washstand in the General’s bedroom and the guide said, “Jackson washed his face and combed his hair every morning in front of this mirror,” I started wondering if a shrine with lighted candles was around the next corner, awaiting genuflection.

Wouldn’t it have been great if the Underground Railroad’s Harriet Tubman had somehow materialized amongst the Stonewall ghosts that day, to bring a jolt of reality to the proceedings?  The woman they called Moses didn’t get to spend much time eating pancakes and combing her hair as she shepherded terrified slaves north to freedom from the Confederacy that Jackson represented.

I appreciate Stonewall Jackson’s brilliant military campaign that confounded the Union in the Shenandoah Valley, but I never forget what he was fighting for, and that remains a fatal flaw to me that should be admitted and clearly acknowledged, even in historic houses full of his memories.

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  1. Dominique May 6, 2011
    • Sheila Scarborough May 6, 2011
  2. Dominique May 6, 2011
  3. Alison Stein Wellner May 9, 2011

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