Lexington’s Stonewall Jackson House offers rare glimpse into 19th Century life

Written by Hank Zimmerman  

When you first see it, the exterior looks historical enough, but not all that different from many other Federal period town houses a traveler can see while following Route 11, the Old Valley Pike, from town to town in the Shenandoah Valley.

But the house at 8 Washington Street in historic downtown Lexington, Va. was the home of a quiet Virginia Military Institute professor named Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who perhaps stood out only to his neighbors during his daily walks around town.  During the decade preceding the American Civil War, Jackson taught natural philosophy and artillery tactics at VMI and had not yet marched off to fame, glory and his eventual death as the legendary Confederate General, "Stonewall" Jackson.

Although Jackson would never return to his Lexington home alive, the house has remained much as it had been the day he rode off to his destiny in 1861.  After moving to Lexington ten years earlier, Jackson had mourned the death of his first wife and then married Mary Anna Morrison, and settled into a daily routine, much of which has been researched and is now interpreted by the Stonewall Jackson Foundation. The foundation owns and operates the Stonewall Jackson House, where public tours provide intimate looks at mid-19th Century life in the Valley of Virginia.

We really make an effort to represent the day-to-day life," says Michael Anne Lynn, Executive Director of the Stonewall Jackson Foundation. "Sometimes I jokingly refer to this as ‘Stonewall Jackson, the Back Story.’ What we really are talking about is daily life in that decade before the Civil War. And, of course, that was a time when half the population was directly involved in agriculture. When what a family could grow in their back yard had a great deal to do with how good their diets were."

The museum is operating on a limited schedule until March, but it will be open for two special events in January, 2010: The annual Lee-Jackson Day celebration on Jan. 16 and the Stonewall Jackson’s birthday on Jan. 21.  Free tours and refreshments will be offered to the public on Jackson’s birthday.

Tour visitors see the original wood stoves that would have been Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s main source of heat. Visitors also get a sense for how dim the interior lighting was in the 1850s, as well as real examples of the middle class comfort that was sought after at the time, things like carpets and upholstered furniture.

There are written records that link many of the existing household belongings to a copy of an inventory that was made soon after Jackson had died. It has also been possible for the foundation to document that many of the home furnishings arrived in Lexington on a canal boat, which at the time was one of Lexington’s primary transportation links to the outside world.  The records also provide more personal details, such as that Jackson took a cold bath every morning before he went for his daily walk.

Lynn says that, if Jackson could return to life in Lexington today, much of the town would still be recognizable to him. It means that visitors can best experience Lexington the way the Jacksons would have – on foot.  After parking at the Visitor’s Center a few paces down the hill from the Stonewall Jackson House, or in the free parking in the Court House lot, pedestrians can spend the greater part of the day visiting VMI, Lee Chapel and the campus of Washington & Lee University. There are also plenty of shops and restaurants along the way.

Although there are only two days in January that the Stonewall Jackson House will be open to the public, it may be worth it to schedule time for a visit. Any museum visit is one winter activity that does not require bundling up against cold temperatures.  The Lee-Jackson Day celebration also offers insights into why the life of Thomas Jonathan Jackson and his famous counterpart, Robert E. Lee, is celebrated in the first place.

"I think that the main reason why Jackson has endured as a figure of interest to people is not only because of his military leadership, but also because of his personal qualities," Lynn says. "I think, to a great extent, that explains why both Lee and Jackson are revered and thought of." Both Jackson and Lee were men of enormous integrity, great religious faith and determination.

“It’s interesting that the two of them emerge as figures of great interest – in a situation where it’s very unusual for a defeated general to be so revered. That they have qualities that hold our interest," she says.

Certainly, the career paths of these two great men crossed often when they were alive, and the location of this crossroads was among the streets of Lexington, Virginia.

More information about visiting the Stonewall Jackson House is online at StonewallJackson.org.  Travel information for Lexington is at LexingtonVirginia.com. A Shenandoah Valley Radio interview with Michael Anne Lynn is here.

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