Friday, January 16, 2009

Day 58/365 Lee-Jackson Day Served With Delicious Irony

Today's post was to be all about moonshine (it helps with the cold), but then it occurred to me that it was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, and the rest of you non-Virginians might enjoy our peculiar state holiday.

A bit of short pre-history: when we first moved here in 1997, we would see signs up at banks and libraries that they would be closed on Monday for "Lee-Jackson-King Day". Coming from old-time Virginia families I immediately recognized Lee and Jackson as part of the holy mantra muttered by my grandmothers, but it took a minute to realize that the state had officially rolled Martin Luther King Day together with the commemoration of its most prized southern sons.

Savor this moment.

It was either a conscious push back at a holiday the state really didn't want to recognize,or someone in the upper echelons of Virginia state regulations had a delicious sense of irony and restitution, not to mention a wicked sense of humor. I know it made me giggle everytime I saw a Lee-Jackson-King reference, something I can't say about any other holiday.

Unfortunately, several years ago, the tangle was straightened out -and now state employees get two holidays - today -Friday is Lee-Jackson Day, and Monday will be Martin Luther King Day.

Then on Tuesday, we will inaugurate our first black President. There is a beautiful, somewhat surreal, symmetry to it all.

This is the print that my grandmother had framed and hanging in her dining room. She got it from her mother-in-law, my great-grandmother, whose father served under Stonewall Jackson in the Fourth Virginia. This was not unusual room decor for that generation. Great -grandmother also had a second portrait of Stonewall across the room, plus the mounted-on-horseback one below and the top portrait of General Lee, the last two hung in promenient spots in the parlor.

I prefer this portrait of the 27-year-old Thomas Jackson from his VMI teaching days, before war and history turned him into a mythological legend. He looks thoughtful, and seriously grownup, but still open to possibilities.

Biographies of Jackson abound. He's one of the most researched figures of military history, and his lessons are still taught at VMI. But there are small lesser known tidbits, perhaps pertinent to this particular Jackson day:
  • During his teaching days at VMI (1851), Jackson took it upon himself to finance, organize and teach a colored Sunday School at his Presbyterian church. From his journal:

In my tent last night, after a fatiguing day's service, I remembered that I failed to send a contribution for our colored Sunday school. Enclosed you will find a check for that object, which please acknowledge at your earliest convenience and oblige yours faithfully. ( in a letter to his Pastor)

  • The Jackson family owned six slaves. Three were wedding gifts, two approached Thomas Jackson and asked him to purchase them so they could work for their freedom (which they did), and the last was a four-year-old orphan with a learning disability, brought to Jackson by an elderly widow from his church.
Upon joining the Confederate Army, Jackson assumed command of what would become the Stonewall Brigade, formed entirely of soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley, and including my great-great grandfather in the 4th Virginia. This brigade participated in almost every major battle fought in Virginia. My great-great grandfather was the first soldier from his county to be wounded (a fact constantly reinforced throughout my childhood) during the Battle of Manasses/Bull Run, returned to the fighting after recovery, and was wounded again at Chancellorsville/The Wilderness, recovered, and returned to the fighting, finally returning home for good after the official surrender at Appomatox.

Not that he ever mentioned this. Never. He never spoke of the war, or his experiences, to any of the family. What we do have is his dictated accounting, given on his deathbed, to his closest friend, a pastor, and signed by him in shaky, barely legible handwriting. We also have letters he wrote home during the war, describing the events with minimal, somewhat resigned, words: Marched 14 miles. No food. Small skirmish. No word as to tomorrow. And we have his official muster papers, and of course, the history books full of where the Stonewall Brigade was.

One thing we do know: Stonewall Jackson was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville/Wilderness by friendly fire, May 2nd,1863, then lingered for 8 days until his death. Harper's Weekly in New York published a full page obituary, as well as a full-page portrait. Somehow, my great-great-grandfather (still fighting with the Brigade, mind you) got hold of one of those full-page portraits and sent it home, folded up, with instructions to put it on the wall. Ninety-seven years later, I could sit at my great-grandmother's dining table, and still look at Stonewall's portrait. She use to say her father would have followed General Jackson into hell, if he had asked.

In honor of Virginia's peculiar holiday, and in light of its odd juxtaposition this year, of all years,
and while emphasizing that I am so incredibly proud that Virginia was firmly in the Obama column and helped to make history, still, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are deserving of their day.

In the words of Robert E. Lee's New York Herald obituary (October 12,1870):

Here in the North, forgetting that the time was when the sword of Robert Edward Lee was drawn against us—forgetting and forgiving all the years of bloodshed and agony—we have long since ceased to look upon him as the Confederate leader, but have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us—for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be today unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly.

“Never had mother a nobler son. In him the military genius of America was developed to a greater extent than ever before. In him all that was pure and lofty in mind and purpose found lodgment. Dignified without presumption, affable without familiarity, he united all those charms of manners which made him the idol of his friends and of his soldiers and won for him the respect and admiration of the world. Even as in the days of triumph, glory did not intoxicate, so, when the dark clouds swept over him, adversity did not depress.


  1. Well written, Carole, and interesting as always.

  2. Yes, I find this a fascinating day--oddly fascinating to consider that it was paired with MLK Day. As a county employee, I appreciate the (additional) paid holiday, but I'm uncomfortable with it. But I have a long way to go before I understand the subtleties of the way things are here. (And I mean that in a good-for-VA way, iykwim.)

    Perhaps if I say that I grew up in California and spent the last 20+ years in Colorado, you'll understand what I'm trying to say?

    Anyway, Carole, as confused as I sound, your post is great food for thought...