Monday, October 3, 2016

VA Stonewall Jackson Shrine and the Empty Beds

This weekend I attended the annual symposium of the Institute for Pilgrimage Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. There were many excellent papers presented and so many deep and thought-provoking conversations between sessions and over meals that I now have many new and interesting ways to think about my Camino de Santiago experience this past spring. I met up with several friends from that hike in Spain, and met new friends as a bonus! The most intriguing aspect of the symposium, however, was exploring the theme of borders and border crossings, certainly relevant to these troubling times (made even more troubling by uninformed and pandering demagogues).  

Question Mark Butterfly - leaf mimic. Polygonia interrogationis

The idea of borders and boundaries has intrigued me for some time, especially as I look to frame new ways of looking at environmental history of the Mid-Atlantic region - one of the reasons for keeping this blog. Over the years I've studied stonewalls, hedgerows, field boundaries, trails, and other tactile, physical structures that define landscape boundaries. At the symposium we were all challenged to think about our role as pilgrims and to consider the meaning of border crossing for refugees, immigrants, migrants, and religious/political dissidents. On the long drive home, I stopped for lunch and to stretch my legs. My mind was swimming with ideas, inspired by everything I had heard. I stopped at the National Park Service Stonewall Jackson Shrine. I'd never been there and was curious what a shrine to a beloved Confederate General would look like. But like on the Camino, nothing is accidental - it is all serendipity. 

The plantation office where Stonewall Jackson died.

I pulled in to the parking lot in front of a small wood frame structure and a stone marker. I was expecting to see a giant Paul Bunyan-like statue of Jackson like the one at Manassas Battlefield. I looked around a bit, sat at a picnic table and ate my lunch, then read the signs. The small white building looked lonely and empty. I thought I might get a peek inside through a window. I waded through the flooded yard (it rained mightily all weekend!) and was surprised when a ranger came out on to the porch and smiled "We're open! Please come inside!" I was the only one in the park. It didn't seem like a shrine to me - especially considering the near cult-like status "Stonewall" Jackson has among Civil War buffs. Ranger Kevin gave me a brief history of the events and the building, but I wanted to know more. He was the perfect match for my quest to relate the ideas of the symposium to this place in its time. "We use the word shrine as it was used in the mid-1800s," Kevin explained, "not like Jackson-on-steroids up the road (Manassas). So shrine would have meant a place to pay respects, not a place of hero-worship or that holds religious connotations." 

The bed where Jackson died - in an outbuilding furnished for his rest.

This is where Jackson was brought to rest and recover from serious injuries - the amputation of his arm after being shot accidentally by one of his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863. The plan had been to move him by rail ( a station was only a few hundred yards away) but Union troops had damaged rail lines to Richmond. While repairs were underway and the general rested with doctors, family, and his enslaved servant in attendance, Jackson became ill with pneumonia and died.

Fairfield Plantation main house, smokehouse, and office, shortly after the war had ended. NPS photo.

The grounds of the old plantation had been a large Confederate camp at the time. Large battles were raging in the distance and skirmishes were happening  just miles away in any direction.  The countryside was awash with displaced people - farmers whose farms were ruined, city folks fleeing the bombardment of the cities, troops moving to battle, slaves escaping to freedom, soldiers streaming back to camps. "It must have been surreal," Kevin said. "There were so many dead in this triangle of war - 85,000 we think. There are so many unmarked graves, so many missing and unaccounted for. It was the bloodiest landscape in North America." I explained where I had come from, what I was thinking about. Kevin looked out the window into a meadow. "You've come to the right place to think about that."

Jim Lewis, personal servant to Jackson, slept on this rough-built cot.

I moved from room to room and observed the beds. Daybeds, rope beds, a couch, a rough wooden platform. Though few slept during the days of Jackson's dying, the Chandler family whose once-productive plantation had fallen to ruin, had moved their furniture to the farm office building to accommodate the small party of medical and military staff who would remain by the general's side. A deeply religious man, Jackson uttered his last words on Sunday May 10 at 3:10pm. "'Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."  Crossing boundaries, living to afterlife. Crossing battle lines. Crossing from enslavement to freedom. The theme of the symposium seemed framed by this small park, even within the walls of this old plantation office-turned-shrine.

Beds and chairs were placed in another room for staff.

Kevin suggested that at the time of Jackson's death there may have been upwards of 65,000 refugees and displaced people streaming through the rolling countryside between Richmond and Fredericksburg. With no homes, no beds to rest upon, where did these people find safety? Dr. Mark McLaughlin explained to his audience at the symposium that the empty bed is symbolic in Hindu shrines dedicated to gurus or saints that had passed on. The one who slept on the bed while living is still present after death in the absolute sense, he said. I certainly felt that here as Kevin pointed out that the bed linens, blanket, frame, pillow and case, even the rugs rolled up in the corner, were original to the event. The Chandler family, whose descendants still live nearby, carefully preserved and cared for the fabrics after Jackson's body had been carried away for burial.

This is not from the Stonewall Jackson Shrine! (Manassas Battlefield, NPS)

The loss of Stonewall Jackson was a stunning blow to the Confederacy. Across the land, as his body was carried to burial in Lexington, Virginia, a deep sadness added to the grief over a ruined land. Resources were scarce. There was sometimes violent competition for food, water, horses, and shelter. Yankee troops as well as Confederate soldiers had little to share. Large numbers of refugees begged at the camps in search of food, shelter, clothing, water. The Chandler family guarded carefully the linens and furniture from the office building. Kevin stressed that nothing much survived the months of battle, especially as farms and plantations were raided for resources. The bed frames might have been destroyed for cooking fires in the camp. The linens might have served as bandaging. But the family worked quickly to dismantle and hide these items from raiding parties and desperate people. After the war, they were cared for by family, various friends groups, and put on display in the old building as a local museum. Like Hindu temple beds, everything was placed as it had been while the beloved general lay dying. By the 1920s and 30s there were caretakers, keepers of the space, tellers of the story. "It never became a "holy" place," Kevin insisted, "they were careful to not let that happen. Just a place to come and pay respect. A shrine of beds." The National Park Service came into ownership of the site in the 1930s.

Day bed and couch in the attendants room.

As the war raged on more people fled from the terror that had become north-central Virginia. At the time of the terrible battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg, and Richmond,  there was ample opportunity to leave. "Slaves ran at every chance," Kevin explained. "They abandoned plantations, industry, and domestic service by the hundreds and risked their lives to forge through the conflict to find places to hide, roads and paths that were safe to travel, rivers to cross, all heading northward or westward." The plantation's seventy slaves had gone long before Jackson arrived on a litter carried atop a slow moving wagon. Jim Lewis, Jackson's personal manservant, was given a bed in the house where Jackson was laid, though he never left his master's side and did not sleep in it. "Loyal slave narratives abound in these parts," said Kevin, "Partly because of Jim Lewis, and partly because some enslaved peoples were too old or too young or too afraid to run for it. Fear of escape meant staying put. This was re-interpreted as loyalty to their masters." The loyal slave narrative, indeed, gave us the gray-haired butler (who would dance with Shirley Temple) and the rotund kitchen maid (Aunt Jemima), familiar "grateful servant" tropes in literature and films of the early 20th century.

Plantation office turned dispatch room.

This was a region on the move. "Everyone was running - into battle, away from battle, to safety, to freedom." Kevin said. "You wouldn't be in one place for long before a battle swung too close, a place of rest was taken over by troops, or you feared capture." Underfed or starving, people surged across the land like skeletons. On the Camino there is a rule that in any albergue you may not stay more than one night. It's an old rule that addressed the number of 'fake' pilgrims in the Middle Ages, people who took advantage of the free and nearly free services provided to those traveling to holy sites. For anyone who looked suspiciously unkempt, dirty, underfed, or without credentials, there was often "no room at the inn" when in fact there may have been a bed. I encountered these people for myself as I hiked across northern Spain and was nearly robbed by a person pretending to be a pilgrim in need of "supplies." I remember one afternoon when a hospitalier escorted a ragged-looking young man from a spotless albergue. "Please find another place," he instructed. "I have room only for honest pilgrims." No room at the inn. Where are those honored Christian principals when the unwanted show up? From this place just south of Fredericksburg, I stand about 150 miles from the Mason Dixon Line. The price on the head of a runaway slave could easily triple or quadruple if he made it across that line. Fortunes were made recapturing fugitives or ambushing freemen above the Line to sell into slavery below it.

Plantation office front.

A pilgrim is not a refugee, however. Pilgrims choose to engage in their long quest. Refugees are launched into the journey, often without warning and with little preparation. Pilgrims will eventually arrive at a destination and look forward to returning home. Not so for the refugee who wants to go home but may not have a home to return to. We had discussed transformative journeys at the symposium. Certainly, many scholars agreed, a refugee's story can become that of a pilgrim. Francis Fredric's account of his long escape to freedom is an epic tale of pilgrimage laced with fear and uncertainty.

Last winter I read Fredric's Fifty Years a Slave (1863) and Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave (1853) after watching the film 12 Years A Slave (2013). I found the actual accounts to be powerful counterpoints to the film which, despite its hard hitting and often brutal scenes of slavery and a great story based on Northrup's book, still relaxed into the well-worn "white savior" narrative. Here is a short excerpt from Fredric's 1863 book that I thought about while visiting the Stonewall Jackson Shrine:

I had been flogged for going to a prayer-meeting, and, before my back was well, my master was going to whip me again. I determined, therefore, to run away. It was in the morning, just after my master had got his breakfast, I was ordered to the back of the premises to strip. My master had got the thong of raw cow's-hide; when off I ran, towards the swamp.

He saw me running, and instantly called three bloodhounds, kept for the purpose, and put them on my track. I saw them coming up to me, when, turning round to them, I clapped my hands, and called them by name; for I had been in the habit of feeding them. I urged them on, as if in pursuit of something else. They instantly passed me, and flew upon the cattle. I saw my master calling them off, and returning. No doubt, he perceived it was useless to pursue me, with dogs which knew me so well.

I now hurried on further, into a dismal swamp, named the Bear's Wallow; and, at last, wearied and exhausted, I sat down at the foot of a tree, to rest, and think what had best be done. I knelt down, and prayed earnestly to the Almighty, to protect and direct me what to do. I rose from my knees, and looked stealthily around, afraid that the dogs and men were still in pursuit. I listened, and listened again, to the slightest sound, made by the flapping of the wings of a bird, or the rustling of the wild animals among the underwood; and then proceeded further into the swamp. My path was interrupted, every now and then, by large sheets of stagnant, putrid, green-looking water, from which a most sickening, fetid smell arose; the birds, in their flight, turning away from it. The snakes crawled sluggishly across the ground, for it was autumn time, when, it is said, they are surcharged with their deadly poison.

When awake in the morning, I tried to plan out some way of escape, over the Ohio River, which I knew was about thirty miles from where I was. But I could not swim; and I was well aware that my master would set a watch upon every ferry or ford, and that the whole country would be put on the alert, to catch me; for the planters, for self-protection, take almost as much interest in capturing another man's slaves, as they do their own.

At length, driven by hunger and desperation, I approached the edge of the swamp; when I was startled by seeing a young woman ploughing. I knew her, and called her by name. She was frightened, and shocked at my appearance - worn, from hunger, almost to a skeleton; and haggard, from the want of sound sleep. I begged of her to go to get me something to eat. She, at first, expressed her fears, and began to tell me of the efforts which my master was making to capture me. He had offered $500 reward - had placed a watch all along the Ohio River - had informed all the neighbouring planters, who had cautioned all their slaves not to give me any food or other assistance, and he had made it known, that, when I should be caught, he would give me a thousand lashes.

The woman went, and fetched me about two ounces of bread, of which I eat a small portion, wishing to keep the rest to eat in the swamp, husbanding it, as much as possible. When she told me that I should receive a thousand lashes, I felt horrified, and wept bitterly. The girl wept also. I had seen a slave, who had escaped to the Northern States, and, after an absence of four years, had been brought back again, and flogged, in the presence of all the slaves, assembled from the neighbouring plantations. His body was frightfully lacerated. I went to see him, two or three weeks after the flogging. When they were anointing his back, his screams were awful. He died, soon afterwards--a tall, fine young fellow, six feet high, in the prime of life, thus brutally murdered.

Abundant rain brings mushrooms.

Outside the sparse rooms was the small park that surrounded what remained of the plantation. The outline of the main house was barely visible in damp grass and it exploded with new mushrooms. The skies were gray, heavy with storm clouds. It had been a long three days of heavy rain. Tidewater areas had flooded. I remembered how miserable I was on my hike when the rains came. Blisters would bubble up as soon as my socks got wet. My boots did little to keep out the deep water. I fretted over my feet. When I came into an albergue for the night I made sure take a hot soapy shower, dry my feet carefully, sit in the sun (if there was sun), and apply pain relieving ointment and fresh bandages for the night. Pain was definitely part of my Camino experience. (I am still dealing with some pain months later - mostly from calluses that press on nerves when I try to wear shoes or boots that before the Camino fit well - and now don't.) I realized that my Keens were still wet from hiking through the flooded yard. I'd left a trail everywhere I walked in the plantation office! Embarrassed, I offered to wipe up the water and mud.

Kevin, NPS Ranger.
Kevin assured me, again, that the idea of "shrine" did not mean sacred or religious and that some water and dirt added to the authenticity of the place. Please don't worry, he said. People had been tracking in water and mud for days."Imagine the water and mud tracked by 65,000 people fleeing this area," he added. "And the care some took to erase their steps."


Stonewall Jackson Shrine

You can read Fifty Years a Slave online here:

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