stonewall's childhood -- 11/5/14

Today's selection -- from Rebel Yell by S.C. Gwynne. Legendary Civil War General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson had a deeply tragic childhood. But that was not altogether unusual in America in the early 1800s:

"Thomas ['Stonewall' Jackson] and [his sister] Laura were born in very modest circumstances in Clarksburg, Virginia, a river junction town in the mountains and narrow valleys of far northwestern Virginia, not far from Ohio and Pennsylvania. (The area is now part of West Virginia.) Their father, Jonathan Jackson, was a failed country lawyer, a poor business manager, and a compulsive gambler whose main talent seemed to be running up large debts. Their mother, Julia Neale, from nearby Parkersburg on the Ohio River, seems to have been a much better sort, described by contemporaries as 'very intelligent' and having a 'comely and engaging countenance' and 'a graceful and commanding presence.'

"Jonathan and Julia married in 1817, and set up housekeeping in Clarksburg. They had three children: Elizabeth in 1819, Warren in 1821, and Thomas in 1824. They struggled financially. While Julia was pregnant with her fourth child, typhoid fever killed six-year-old Elizabeth. Less than a month later, her husband, Jonathan, died from the same illness. The day after his death Julia gave birth to a daughter, Laura. Julia was now, at twenty-eight, a widow with two small children and an infant.

"She was also destitute, and soon accepted the charity of the local Masonic order, which offered her the use of a tiny, twelve-foot-square, one-room house. She sewed, taught school, and somehow managed to feed her children her situation did not improve. Her children were pitiable sights in town, wearing ragged clothes and sometimes accepting the charity of local merchants and tradesmen. In 1830, when Tom was six, Julia met and married a man fifteen years her senior named Blake Woodson, another hard-luck country lawyer, but this time with eight children of his own scattered in various places. Desperate to save her family, she had made another mistake, worse than the first one: Woodson not only made little money but was harsh and verbally abusive to the family. The family moved far from Clarksburg, to the tiny hamlet of New Haven (now Ansted), south-east of Charleston, so that Blake could take a government job. He and Julia struggled and fell deeper into debt. She was soon pregnant again.

Jackson's Mill, owned by Cummins Jackson

By the fall of 1831 there was so little money left that Julia decided, reluctantly but with no real choice, to send her children away. [The infant] Warren would live with Neale relatives in Parkersburg. Seven-year-old Tom, as he was known, and five-year-old Laura would travel north to live with a collection of Jackson relatives at a place called Jackson's Mill, eighteen miles south of Clarksburg near the town of Weston. Little Tom begged not to be sent away, and when an uncle and his slave arrived to fetch them, he hid in the woods. When he left home, on the back of a horse, his mother wept uncontrollably. A month later, she gave birth to a boy, William Wirt Woodson. Three months later Tom and Laura were back in the same place, watching their mother die. She had fallen ill and had summoned her children to say good-bye. On December 4, 1831, she passed away. Tom and Laura, now orphaned, went back to the mill. ...(Blake Woodson remarried and died penniless a year and a half later.) ...

Laura Jackson Arnold, the sister of
Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

"In spite of the relative comforts of Jackson's Mill, there was one more dislocating trauma the children would have to face. Four years after they arrived there -- they were now eleven and nine years old -- their step-grandmother Eizabeth Jackson died, an event with life-changing consequences for the children. Because the two maiden aunts had married and left the mill, Elizabeth had been the sole remaining female on the compound, which meant that the only people left to care for Tom and Laura were bachelor uncles and the slaves. To Neales and Jacksons alike, this was unacceptable. So Tom and Laura were sent away again. Laura went to Parkersburg with a Neale aunt; Tom went to a farm near Clarksburg owned by his father's sister Polly and her husband, Isaac Brake. Though Laura found a warm new home, Tom found nothing but a troublesome relationship with his uncle Isaac, who disparaged him, treated him like an outsider, and gave him at least one hard whipping.

"A year later, Tom could endure it no longer. He ran away. In Clarksburg he told relatives that he was not going back. When a cousin begged him to return to the Brakes, he said simply, yet for a twelve-year-old boy quite stubbornly, 'Maybe I ought to, ma'am, but I am not going to.' The next day he walked eighteen miles to Jackson's Mill, where Cummins Jackson happily welcomed him back. He spent the rest of his childhood in that sturdy masculine environment, attending several small, rural schools and working alternately for Cummins and at a variety of jobs that included surveying, teaching school, and serving warrants and collecting delinquent accounts as constable for Lewis County. His childhood was, in that regard, not altogether exceptional for someone from that rural county in Virginia in the 1830s. ... Nor was Jackson's orphanhood -- for all that has been made of it -- terribly unusual. Outbreaks of typhoid, yellow fever, and smallpox were common at the time, destroying families and leaving children bereft of parents. (The early 1800s were the heyday of orphanage-building in America.)"


S. C. Gwynne


Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson


Scribner a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Copyright 2014 by Samuel C. Gwynne


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