William John Rostron
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – #4 "Writing in the Wind" - Blog - Travel Category
Updated: Jun 11, 2019
While traveling on I-95 through Virginia, travelers pass a sign that reads, “Shrine of Stonewall Jackson.” We often wondered why this was a “shrine,” (usually a religious designation) instead of merely a memorial. In 2013, decided to tour the area and answer this question.
We first visited the four significant battlefields surrounding the city of Fredericksburg and found each of them a unique experience. Ironically, as we visited the National Park Ranger Station each day, we came upon the same tour guide at four different locations. We discovered that we had unwittingly followed his rotating schedule. By the end of the fourth day, we felt that we had become good buddies with him and joked that he had shown us everything that there was to see in the area. He put on an amused smile and said, "Well, almost. I have one more place for you to visit before you heading over to "The Shrine.” He gave us a conspiratorial look and took out a key and handed it to us. He then told us the story of Stonewall Jackson's final hours.
Stonewall Jackson was perhaps the most effective Confederate general of the entire war. Considered a better strategist than Robert E. Lee, he had led the South to numerous victories early in the war. That is why his death was so tragic to the Southern cause, and some believe that the outcome of the entire conflict might be different if he had not been wounded –by his own soldiers. Returning from a tour of the front lines, he was mistakenly shot in the upper arm by the guards he had posted around the camp.
Mortally wounded, he was taken to a nearby house that adjoined railroad tracks that led to Richmond, the Confederate capital and home to its best doctors. In an attempt to save his life, his left arm was amputated—and that is where our story gets strange.
The park ranger handed us a key and gave us directions to a remote farm. The key would open the gates and allow us to drive on a road to a secluded farmhouse. We understood that very few people were ever given this privilege. After we parked the car, we walked to over a mile to a small clearing in a field of extremely tall corn. There we found a little fenced off "cemetery." With all the pomp of Arlington, this remote graveyard had only one headstone which read, "The Arm of Stonewall Jackson, May 3, 1863." Though the rest of his body lay somewhere else, his amputated arm had been given an honorary military burial in this desolate location. Still reeling from this bizarre experience, we made our way back through the cornfield for a climactic visit to the actual "Shrine" and there heard the dramatic moments of Jackson's last days.
The house where he died is set next to the railroad tracks that were supposed to be his salvation. A short trip on those tracks would bring him to the doctors who would save his life and therefore save the Confederate cause. However, that was not to be. The Union army had pulled all the tracks ups thus effectively ended all rail travel in that section of Virginia. In a story filled with irony, this perhaps the most ironic. The union officer in charge of this sabotage was none other than Stonewall Jackson's West Point roommate!
With no chance of receiving the medical care needed, Jackson died in the house that would eventually be designated his "Shrine." This story was immortalized in a song that would be a hit for both Joan Baez and The Band – "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
And so, we found ourselves standing over the bed Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson died in and asking the question, "So why is this a shrine? Shrines are usually reserved for God-like figures?" The ranger's simple answer told us much about the 21stcentury South and its feeling toward what they often refer to as the “War of Northern Aggression.” –
“He was a god to us.”