“O LAUGHING RIVER”
“Let us determine to die here and
we will conquer. Look! There is Jackson
standing like a stone wall.
Rally behind the Virginians”
Bernard E. Bee
IN the ballad of nostalgia and lament, the laughing river is the Shenandoah, ‘Bright Daughter of the Stars’ in the enchanting tribal metaphor. Divine, to love her daughters; to long for her verdant pastures; her pine and beech-clad slopes, and tumbling cascading waters. Nature in all her glory, before the trampling of tarmac and rubber; the clank of engine and the stink of exhaust. Pre-cursed by the echoing crack and acrid whiff of gunpowder. Death-dealing harbingers of desecration. Humanity, plodding from a simple struggle for existence within nature, to an arrogant, uncaring divergence. In the days of the native tribe alone, what arcane and squalid rights were dreamt-up and enacted amid those sun-bright and shadowed glades? When Red disputed with encroaching White, what cruel and vulgar horrors were not perpetrated in a gloomy twilight, deep in the dripping forest?
Towards the close of that vicious struggle between the recently arrived in America, Phil Sheridan and his Union horsemen reduced ‘Paradise Valley’ to an arid desert of ragged starvation and wary hate. Not for the first time during the war had the Valley been desecrated as a battle ground; but two years previously there were differences. The tramping boot heels and clopping hooves were not those of the alien striving for domination; but those of defensive locals. Virginian and Valley Confederate soldiers led by Virginia born and bred Thomas Jonathan Jackson, recently dubbed – and already recognised verbally, if not always visually in those fortunate days before the media became over-weaning – as ‘Stonewall’. His Shenandoah Campaign, in the opening months of 1862, is a gem of the futile art of war, which the truly great captain of any era would be proud to include on their record. To have served with ‘Old Jack’ marked forever those who were involved with him, in a similar way to those who fought with ‘Old Ironsides’ in the New Model Army of England’s Parliament.
Tucked away at the end of an early biography of Jackson is a revealing anecdote, recorded for the Southern Historical Society by Mr W.P. St John, one-time president of the Mercantile Bank of New York. Long after the ‘War between the States’ had ended, Mr St John visited the great Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with Thomas Jordan, formerly General Jordan of the Confederate States Army. During the trip they had the occasion to seek refuge in the rustic hut of “a ‘track-walker’ for the railroad. … The unprepossessing look of everything was completed when the host came in and took his seat at the head of the table. A bear out of the woods could hardly have been rougher, with his unshaven hair and unkempt beard. Imagine the astonishment of the travellers when this rough backwoodsman rapped on the table and bowed his head. “Never,” recalled Mr St John, “did I hear a petition that more evidently came from the heart. It was so simple, so reverent, so tender, so full of humility and penitence, as well as of thankfulness. We sat in silence, and as soon as we had recovered ourselves, I whispered to General Jordan ‘Who can he be?’ … ‘I don’t know’, he replied, ‘but he must be one of Stonewall Jackson’s old soldiers,’ and he was. As we walked out in the open air, I accosted our new acquaintance, and after a few questions about the country, asked: ‘Were you in the War?’ ‘O yes’, he said with a smile, ‘I was out with Old ‘Stonewall’.”
Jackson’s spirituality, his religious motivation, was a defining characteristic of his memory and contributed greatly to the enduring freshness and immediacy of that memory for those who had been involved with him. ‘He lived by the New Testament,’ it was said of him, ‘and fought by the Old.’ “No one, when he had gone, ever left behind him among the ranks greater reverence or a more tender memory,” wrote the youngest member of Jackson’s wartime staff. “The morning after the unveiling of the Lee Statue in Richmond as the sun rose over the city, its first rays fell upon a row of figures, wrapped in grey blankets and sleeping on the grass around the Statue of Jackson in Capitol Square … ‘Could you find no other beds in Richmond?’ ‘Oh yes,’ was the riposte … ‘all Richmond was open to us … but we were his boys and wanted to sleep with the old man just once more’.”. To recall Jackson’s special brand of the winning art of command. To experience, however f leetingly, the unique satisfaction of life under the sun, rain and stars, with the trusted leader who, they believed, “could do anything he wished” and who, in return, believed that “they could do anything he commanded.” By then, his fame had spread far beyond their Valley, although nearly a Century would pass before this second Jackson name would be installed amongst the great of America’s ‘Hall of Fame’. It is quite conceivable that the man who at a young age decided, “his every thought and act was under the constant guidance and direction of the Maker, and all for his glory alone,” would neither have approved of such a list, nor of his inclusion on it. “You can,” he would say, “be whatever you choose to be,” and all he achieved, he ascribed to God’s will alone.
In half the time it took his name to reach that list, Field Marshal Lord Roberts recognised his greatness and kept a likeness of the Virginian in his study at home, when he was Chief of England’s Imperial General Staff. The CIGS, like the Lord Protector, the Duke and Old Jack himself, demonstrated beyond doubt that Victory prefers intellectual finesse to bludgeoning muscle, for Defeat never dared show its face in Southern Lines when Jackson was present on the battlefield. After his death, Victory defected to the North, and no matter who was in charge, erstwhile and worsted colleagues in that renowned Army of Northern Virginia were heard to murmur, “O for another Jackson.”
“Maybe I ought to Ma’am,
but I am not going to.”
THE individual whose character, methods and achievements so lastingly captivated those with whom he came into contact, as well as those whose minds were made up from reputation and hearsay, was born into financial poverty and into a family circle rich in relations. His ancestry was Irish-Scotch. His family were immigrants to America in the Seventeenth Century, on both his mother’s side – Neale (probably changed from O’Neill or O’Neal) – and his father’s – Jackson – all from Irish counties; she from County Limerick and he from around Derry. Many of their predecessors had reached Ireland from the border country of Scotland. It was said that of all the immigrants to America there were none tougher than the Irish-Scotch of Celtic origin, whose self-reliant and resolute courage largely populated the frontier, leaving it to those from other parts of the British Isles to provide the more prosaic and niggling trappings required to weld nascent communities. “Taken all in all, they were generally men and women of whom posterity may be proud. We will find many things in the character of our early settlers to command our admiration … fearless of danger yet fearing their God … their word was their bond, its seal their honour.”
The first quarter of the Nineteenth Century was ending when Thomas was born into this community of enterprising border stock. The true frontier days of the ‘pale’, as it were, for incoming settler groups had been extended inland beyond the western border of the Old Dominion of Virginia. The need to cultivate, export and import; to negotiate business, apply the law, and enjoy simple, boisterous moments of drinking and eating, live-music and dance, all within quick concentrating distance of a log and plank stockade, had passed. The last battle with the Redman, east of the Ohio River, had taken place some fifty years before, in 1744. No more did the Jackson’s, the Neale’s and others, established in the counties round about Thomas’s birthplace of Clarksburg, in Harrison County, need to keep an eye and ear ever-alert for the sting or thump of an arrow and the glint of metal heralding the rush of half-naked, fur and paint clad men. Participating Frenchmen had been thrust away north into a corner of Canada, and the Redman himself had been driven to a remote, more inland wilderness, there to renew the doomed contest with a chain of more militarily sophisticated forts, and men more trained, drilled and equipped for the purpose.
If Tom Jackson did not grow up under out-and-out frontier living conditions, everyday life still meant the unremitting hard work demanded by an implacable nature, and, in the face of harsh elements, a vigorous determination to survive. Death, if less from violence, was a familiar companion still, in his guise of disease, weakness or accident. Jackson was named Thomas after his mother’s father. He himself added the Jonathan, when nearly an adult, in memory of his own, who was both lawyer and frontiersman. The family had been commended for their exertions in the Indian wars of the previous Century, and the practising lawyer and inland revenue agent was made first lieutenant of a troop of volunteer cavalry, which the family’s home county of Harrison, offered to the president – fellow Virginian James Madison – for the conf lict with an England whose struggle to unseat Napoleon still had three years to run. There is no record
of the Harrison County irregulars being called upon to confront an enemy. Having nursed his elder daughter, Elizabeth, through a terminal fever, father Jonathan died just three weeks after her, of that same fever, leaving his wife Julia, two boys; Warren the eldest, Thomas just two months into his third year, and their sister Laura, whose own son would write later; “At that period a lawyer in practice did well if his profession yielded a support for himself and family. If he acquired anything in excess of this, it was almost invariably the result of speculation, … the little family was left in destitute circumstances.” Father Jonathan had been a Freemason for more than the last ten years of his life, and the Order, with true concern for its own, supplied the family with a furnished, three-room cottage. Although reputedly of good looks, Julia Jackson was not strongly constituted. She started a private school to help make ends meet and took in sewing. She re-married, and the family moved to newly constituted Fayette County, where her second husband, Captain Blake Woodson, was appointed clerk of the county court in Mountain Cove, the seat of local government. But the strain of trying to survive with her young family, gradually asserted itself. Warren was sent to live with a maternal uncle and, when Thomas was six, it was decided that he and his sister Laura should be taken in by their father’s grandmother, who lived alone with unmarried daughters and sons, in Lewis County. When the pair were told of the reason for the visit of their Jackson uncle, Thomas actively protested against being parted from his mother. He bolted for the surrounding woods and was not found until he chose to return at nightfall. It was two days before brother and sister were persuaded and the move completed. A courageous and self less action by a mother who had glimpsed the end, and wished to see her surviving children at least secure, before she followed their father to the grave. Within a year, Laura and Thomas, in the care of a trusted slave-servant known as Uncle Robinson, returned in time to be at the bedside of their dying mother. Julia was a devout woman, and it was described as a ‘happy death.’ Thereafter, neither she nor the circumstances of her death, were far from her son’s thoughts. Given his very young age when father Jonathan died, mother Julia was the one true inf luence of their son’s childish decade. Acknowledgement of his father came later, when Thomas met with men and women who had known him, and could recount their first hand memories, thus giving the son a vicarious image of which to be proud, and a relationship to acknowledge and to remember, rather than one by which to be influenced.
If those f irst ten years were years of insecurity and much grief, for a child capable of the determination and courage, which we are entitled to assume from the decades of manhood, they were years which brought an understanding of a harsh reality. He had the strength of character, independence of mind and everyday physical and moral courage, to deal effectively and well with every combination of circumstance. Having a fundamental strength and goodness he became accomplished at living under very challenging conditions. Thomas and sister Laura still suffered disruptive change, then, in addition, separation. A guardian was appointed for Laura, “but for some reason this was rescinded the same day … shortly after this, Laura rode behind her Aunt Rebecca White to Parkersburg.” After two years, Tom went to live with his uncle Isaac Brake; but soon left. Stopping for something to eat with a relative in Clarksburg, he discussed with her why he was leaving. She told him he should go back. “Maybe I ought to, Ma’am,” he replied, “but I am not going to.” One can only wonder what line of thinking led to so absolute a decision and so firm a response by the youthful orphan. Elder brother Warren, meanwhile, continued to live in Parkersburg with Alfred Neale, a relation on his mother’s side.
His mother’s position of influence in the earliest years, was assumed, in the main, during the teenage decade by the uncle, Cummins E Jackson, with support from maiden aunts and uncles and, for the first few years, a grandmother, the second wife of Edward Jackson, Tom’s paternal grandfather. In all he would spend twelve years at the family home of Jackson’s Mill, near Weston, on the West fork of the Monongahela River, in Lewis County, which uncle Cummins had enlarged by adding fresh holdings of land to the original homestead, inherited from Edward Jackson. Tom developed into a skilled, all-round countryman, contributing both to the family and to the wider community. For uncle Cummins, he was more of a colleague than a growing boy, who he would often task with overseeing the work force on tree-felling and logging, to feed the sawmill which supplied the surrounding area with seasoned and cut timber; then the material of choice for many trades, including builders, furniture-makers, and packagers of a wide variety of products.
A gristmill was housed in a separate building nearby. For Tom there were chickens to feed, and eggs to be retrieved, ahead of some furry denizen of the riverbank or nearby woodland burrow, and a collie dog for all occasions, be it quiet high-summer moments with a book beside the millstream, organising the sheep for shearing, or the local lads with their ‘coon dogs’, for a racoon hunt. Collie, the enthusiastic companion, ever eager for a dawn excursion to reset and relocate rabbit traps; but happy investigating his or her own agenda of scent trails during less active fishing trips. Young Tom turned skill at tickling or hooking fish into pocket money, by having a commercial arrangement with Conrad Kester, the Weston gunsmith. Seeing him early one morning with “a threefoot pike” slung over one shoulder, Colonel Talbott offered a dollar. “… this fish is sold to Mr Kestler … a dollar and a quarter, Tom, surely he will not give you more than that?… Colonel Talbott, I have an agreement with Mr Kestler to furnish him fish of a certain length for fifty cents each. He has taken some from me a little shorter than that; now he is going to get this big fish for fifty cents.” The gunsmith’s dollar for the big, bony predator was refused also, and for the same reason. Like most boys, Tom could make “corn stalk fiddles” for himself; but when he came by a broken down violin, Conrad Kestler took care of the restoration. Practice and determination alone brought proficiency enough for the ‘makee-learn’ fiddle-player to lead a small band of would-be soldiers down farm tracks, and along the trails of a rapidly depleting forest. A keen interest in music probably went with that for mathematics, a chosen subject when he attended a local school. He had a repertoire of negro spirituals, both the words and the music. In the vicinity of the homestead, a magnificent chestnut tree had been spared the axe, and became the chosen refuge of a big raccoon on one hitherto fruitless, hunt. The animal got the better of the first boy sent aloft, who fell from the tree, declaring the animal to be a bear not a racoon. Tom Jackson climbed up and settled the matter with a club. One wonders about the pelt of the racoon, for he would wear clothes made from yarn spun from the wool of sheep he had sheared. Hunting then had a purpose more important than the kill. There is no record of Tom Jackson ever having affected Davey Crockett headgear. William Arnold, a distant cousin, writing years later in the ‘Weston Democrat,’ described him as “one of those untiring matter-of-fact persons who never would give up an undertaking until he accomplished his object … not quick to decide, but when he made up his mind to do a thing, he did it on short notice and in quick time.” The same cousin Arnold recounted the somehow traditional tale of Tom pitching into a big school bully who was rude to two girls on the way to school, and was mistaken enough to be contemptuous of the smaller boy’s invitation to apologize.