Exhibit Marks 150th Anniversary of Jackson’s Death
Cadet Trevor Tafolla ’14 adjusts Jackson’s raincoat to display the hole made by the bullet that struck Jackson’s left arm. – VMI Photo by John Robertson IV.
LEXINGTON, Va., May 6, 2015 – On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s death and burial, the VMI museum system is commemorating the legacy of the eccentric VMI professor who had become a war hero by the time of his death at age 39 in 1863.
The VMI Museum is offering a new exhibit of artifacts related to Jackson’s death and burial, which will remain open through the end of September. The exhibit, “Fourteen Days in May: T.J. Jackson’s Wounding, Death, and Burial,” draws its title from the 14 days that elapsed between Jackson’s wounding by his own men at the battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, and his burial in Lexington on May 15 of that year.
To mark the anniversary of these events, the VMI museum system will sponsor a lecture by Frank O’Reilly, a National Park Service historian with ties to Lexington. O’Reilly’s talk will begin at 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, May 19, in Jackson Memorial Hall. That hour was chosen, said Col. Keith Gibson, executive director of the VMI museum system, because Jackson died at 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, May 10, 1863.
“Frank began his career as an historian by acting as a weekend tour guide at the Stonewall Jackson House while he was an undergraduate at Washington and Lee [University],” noted Michael Lynn, site director of the Stonewall Jackson House. “He’s gone on to a long and distinguished career.” Gibson added that O’Reilly now lives at Guinea Station in Caroline County, within a stone’s throw of the small outbuilding where Jackson died of pneumonia after amputation of his left arm.
Following O’Reilly’s talk, a reception will be held downstairs, in the VMI Museum, where visitors will be able to see a variety of artifacts connected with Jackson’s wounding, death, and burial, many of which are not usually available for public view. Also on Sunday, May 19, the Stonewall Jackson House will be open for tours from 1 to 5 p.m.
In the upcoming museum exhibit, the public will have a chance to view a portrait of Jackson by the well-known 19th-century portrait artist William Garl Brown. That portrait was once on display at the Stonewall Jackson House, but has been in storage since 2004.
Also coming out of storage will be a lap desk used by Margaret Junkin Preston, Jackson’s sister-in-law from his first marriage. Lynn and Gibson explained that Preston had just written a letter to Jackson, presumably on that lap desk, and was coming downstairs to put the letter in the mail when she was told that her brother-in-law and close friend had died.
Other items scheduled to go on display include a blood-stained linen handkerchief belonging to Jackson and bits of greenery from his casket, plucked by mourners as the casket was being borne by caisson through the streets of Lexington.
The general’s final journey home had culminated with the arrival of his body at Jordan’s Point, on what is now the Maury River, after a long and winding trip from Guinea Station to Lynchburg by rail. At Lynchburg, the body was put on a canal boat and towed upstream by mules through the James River and Kanawha Canal, a journey that Lynn said moved at a pace of three or four miles per hour. The railroad was not an option, she explained, because rail lines were not extended to Lexington until the 1880s.
By coincidence, Jackson’s burial took place exactly one year before the battle of New Market, which was fought on May 15, 1864. With the 150th anniversary of that battle approaching rapidly, along with the 175th anniversary of the Institute’s founding, which will also be marked in 2014, Gibson and Lynn have begun receiving inquiries as to what special events will be held.
For right now, though, they’re keeping the focus firmly on Jackson – an iconic figure whose loss was felt so keenly at the time that Virginians reeled upon hearing the news of his death as if they had lost a member of their own family.
“Jackson’s death has to be viewed in context of his relatively short career as a Confederate general,” said Gibson. “He was one of the great hopes for the future for Confederate victory. His death brought an end to that military hope, to a large degree. … There would never be another Stonewall.”
– Mary Price