Posts Tagged ‘Stonewall Jackson House’

Another camera-walk in town revealed a secret garden.  Well, secret to me since I have not visited there in some time.  As I walked through the gates to the Stonewall Jackson House rear entrance, I was taken by a brilliant flower show.  Whereas most things are fading about now, the cloistered Jackson House garden is still thriving in spite of our flagging summer season.

Note the Little Critter Top Left

Although visitors come to tour the home of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (of Civil War fame), there is a tendency to discount the wonderful kitchen garden at the back of his house on Washington Street.  I wandered into that place where he actually enjoyed participating in the planting and cultivating.

Beauty of White

Storage Shed -Jackson House Garden

Jackson’s historic garden space is small, but contains a generous variety of heritage fruits, vegetables and rose bushes, all delightful to the eye, each in its own season, and all manned by dedicated volunteers.  I think it is a lovely prelude to entering the house, itself, where he lived prior to the Civil War with his second wife, Mary Anna Morrison.  It is told that he was accidentally shot by his own men in friendly fire and died in the war at the age of 39.

Stonewall Jackson house located at 8 East Wash...

Stonewall Jackson house located at 8 East Washington Street in Lexington, Virginia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas "Sto...

English: Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson photographed at Winchester, Virginia 1862. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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A visit “downtown” always gives me a jolt because I feel I am peeking at the past.  Lexington, Virginia (no, not Kentucky!) was the county seat of Rockbridge in 1778, and is a place steeped in history and charm.  In fact, the historic core of the city is a Nationally Registered Historic District.

In 1993 a film crew, actors and actresses came here from Hollywood.   The town’s main streets were quickly transformed for the filming of a quick segment in the movie, Sommersby, starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere. The story is of a confederate soldier returning to his wife and home at the end of the the Civil War.  If you have seen this movie, do you recall the hanging scene?  The hero’s ride to the gallows (supposedly in Richmond) was actually shot right here in Lexington.

In preparation for the scene, the city’s main streets were quickly covered with layers and layers of dirt and building facades were dramatically changed to reflect another era.  Long-skirted women moved around town, busy with their daily lives, and the streets were alive with the comings and goings of horse drawn wagons and carriages.  It was magic. For a moment as I stood on the sidelines, I actually felt I had really traveled back in time.

Store Sign Saved from the Movie Sommersby
Main Street Lexington, Virginia

Sign from the Movie, Sommersby

But 1993 was not the first time the streets of Lexington were transformed.   Am I treading where so many others have gone before or is this a different street entirely?


Even before the American Civil War, downtown Lexington, Virginia was a city of steep hills with crude unpaved roads.   Goods and people were transported through town by horse drawn wagons.  Can you imagine the transportation problems encountered during wet weather when Virginia red clay roads became sinkable quagmires?

Lexington was known to bottleneck at the hilltop intersection of Main and Washington Street, because in inclement weather the clay road became almost impassable.  Goods were hauled in by large covered wagons which would stall when they sank into the mud up to the horses’ knees and sometimes to the axles.  In 1852 a project to lower the town’s hill by eight to ten feet was finally completed.  That project left the currently standing Alexander-Withrow House on Main Street with an extra floor (once a full basement, but now suspended as a third story), requiring the owners to reorient their entrance.  There were other such changes to entryways around town that can still be seen today.

Alexander-Withrow House
Was 2 Stories – Now 3

An Artists’ Cooperative in the Once Full Basement
of the Alexander-Withrow House

Below is a photograph I took of the Stonewall Jackson House.  It was the pre-Civil War home of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and was built in 1802.  If you join a docent-guided tour, you will come close to experiencing how life was before the war in an ordinary house in an ordinary small southern town.

Stonewall Jackson House
Front Entry No Longer at Street Level

From 1907 to 1954 the “Jackson House” was utilized as the area’s only hospital (the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital).  In 1954 the house was converted to a museum, now open to the public.  In my time there as a docent I met many visitors who were born or were treated in the house when it was a hospital.

But, back to streets – do we even notice the uneven elevations of front doors in a city?  Why do I have to climb to get into one building and step down to enter another?  How did they lower the main streets by ten feet without modern machinery?  I have asked around, and although some people claim to have heard the story about lowering the streets in Lexington, they aren’t quite sure how or why and haven’t really noticed the cattywampus foundation levels.

Here’s a Front Door That Used to Be at Street Level

Entrance was Once at Street Level
Virginia Born & Bred Gift Store

I am drenched in images of downtown Lexington in the days of wagon travel and unpaved roads.  Surely city streets are as much a part of history as the wood stoves used for cooking, the rope beds, and the horse-hair-stuffed furniture found in restored homes and museums.  But every time I go downtown, I am struck by the unusual variations in entry way access.  Perhaps our roads and streets should be considered the infrastructure of the past and noted on city plaques to be remembered as they once were and for what they eventually became.

As I drive into downtown Lexington,  I am reminded that I am once again on a Time Traveler’s Road to a colorful past.

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There is a comparatively small old house in Lexington, Virginia that belonged to Thomas Jonathan Jackson from 1859 to 1861.   He was “Stonewall” Jackson, a confederate general in the American Civil War who was Robert E. Lee’s right hand.  It was the only house Jackson ever owned.  He died in the war when he was only 39 years old.

I was a volunteer docent for six years, showing The Jackson House to visitors and lecturing in 30 minute tours through the kitchen with its wood cooking stove, the entryway and parlor with a lot of his original furniture, and his bedroom with its rope bed.  Did you know the saying, “Sleep tight,” came from the use of rope beds?  The ropes holding a mattress firm would eventually begin to sag and would have to be tightened.

The Stonewall Jackson House
Lexington, Virginia

Each group passing through the house had its own unique characteristics.  Like there was a contingent of third grade children who came down from the mountains.  They had never been to a city before.

At one time in recent history, the house was converted into a hospital and was the only hospital for the entire county.  A friend of ours had his broken leg set there when he was a teenager.  And many people who come through in the groups were actually  born in the Stonewall Jackson House.


Oddly enough, Stonewall Jackson returned while I was a tour guide.   And he wanted to go through the house!   He was a ghostly apparition, but a real live, flesh and blood fellow, in full confederate dress with a long sword at his waist, and looking very smart indeed.

“HELLO,” he boomed in a very commanding voice.  “I’m Thomas Jonathan Jackson, come to visit my old home.” 

“That’s nice,” said our receptionist.  “But you will have to pay the usual admission fee.”

“Absolutely NOT,” boomed Stonewall.  “It’s MY house and I should not have to pay to see it!”

“I’m sorry sir, but I am under orders not to allow anyone in without paying for an admission ticket.”

“Can’t you see how I am dressed?  I am Stonewall Jackson returned and this is MY house!”

This was a serious conversation indeed and though the receptionist was quite flustered, she stood her ground.  The rest of us stood around too, but in stunned silence.  We were imagining Stonewall really had returned in ghostlike fashion.  And what right did we have to charge him for visiting his own home?

The-Ghost-of-Stonewall Jackson eventually gave up and returned to his regiment.  It turned out he was a modern day Civil War Reenactor, who looked exactly like the real thing, complete with beard and fully dressed for the part.  We never did find out why he made such a scene, and as far as I know, he never came back to pay his fee or to see his old house.

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