(Photo credit: Plantation office, Stonewall Jackson Shrine, Fairfield Estate, courtesy Jim Bowen, Flickr Creative Commons)
Last month, while we were on vacation, my wife and I were heading up I-95, from Richmond to Fredericksburg, when we saw a roadside sign for the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. This was an unexpected surprise, since we hadn’t been looking for an additional monument-viewing opportunity. But this is one part of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park that passes really close to the highway, so we couldn’t pass it up. It was late in the afternoon, but we decided to pull off anyway and drive over to the shrine just as the sun was getting low, casting a beautiful orange glow over everything: it was approaching “golden hour.” The stop was worthwhile.
Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was, after Robert E. Lee, the South’s preeminent general during the Civil War. As many people know, he got his “Stonewall” nickname right at the first major battle of that war, the First Battle of Bull Run (known to the Confederates as First Manassas.) He burnished his reputation for tenacity and brilliance in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, and later at Second Manassas, Antietam and especially Chancellorsville (the battle that, indirectly, was to seal his doom—see below).
Following the directional signs we drove onto a side road with a dead-end loop. We were in the countryside, though one or two private homes lay nearby. We arrived at an open glade with some distinctive National Park Service interpretive signs off to the left and a small, white-painted wooden clapboard building standing just beyond. This, it turned out, was the place where Jackson spent his final days and hours on this earth.
Back in 1863 the building was a working office for plantation owner Thomas C. Chandler, and part of the Fairfield plantation. The plantation itself was being used by Confederate forces at the time. In early May 1863, this was the building where Jackson was brought after being wounded (by his own troops, accidentally) at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Although hit three times, twice in the left arm and once in the right hand, it was pneumonia that took his life a few days later.
Chandler’s main house did not survive but the plantation office did and was turned into a shrine, as such places often are. Jackson himself has been widely memorialized in the South. Bronze statues to the general on his horse can be found in Charlottesville, VA and the Virginia Military Institute, and parks, streets, U.S. navy submarines and other bits and pieces have been named after the man. Perhaps the most prominent memorial, however, is to be found at Stone Mountain, Georgia, where an enormous bas-relief of Jackson, Lee, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis—all on horseback—has been carved into the side of an 800-foot high quartz monadnock (basically, a huge lump of rock sticking out of the ground).
As for the Fairfield plantation, the park service took over the site and surrounding area and now cares for it for the nation. The building was closed when we were there, but I was able to peer in through the windows. Standing back, I found the whole site to be particularly beautiful in its low-key simplicity. We stayed there for a while, sitting in the car as the sunlight was fading and the orange glow grew slowly duller. As this was a Friday in late September, we listened to NPR doing its Friday news roundup with David Brooks and E. J. Dionne; they were talking about the impending government shutdown and the growing levels of dysfunction in the federal government—something that these two men, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, could readily agree on. Yet here we could sit quietly and contemplate something very cool that that same government had done, albeit many years ago. Of course, within a few days this area, along with every other site run by the National Park Service, would be closed to the public, thanks to that very shutdown taking effect. Sad.