It’s ongoing… the Nature vs. Nurture debate. What has the greater impact on molding a personality? A person’s DNA or his life experiences and environment?
Personally, I thinks it’s a combination of the two. In my Civil War novel Blessed Shadows Dark And Deep, Private Bill Stamford of the Eighteenth North Carolina Regiment has a brief encounter with one of the pivotal personalities of the war, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. In a scene that takes place after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Stamford has been corralled by volunteer nurses to help tend to the wounded. He’s asked to read poetry to a dying general, Maxcy Gregg, in an upstairs bedroom of the Thomas Yerby plantation house near the battlefield.
In his last hours of life, Gregg remained troubled by a quarrel he had with the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps commander, General Jackson. Jackson had come to Gregg’s bedside to say goodbye to his friend. When Gregg expressed remorse for the quarrel, Jackson said, “Let me ask you to dismiss this matter from your mind and turn your thoughts to God and the world to which you go.”
Civil War generals, both South and North, sometimes engaged in bitter feuds. Jackson with his prickly Presbyterian personality feuded with many of his generals, including Gregg and A.P. Hill. A strict disciplinarian and deeply religious man, Jackson drove himself hard – and others as well. While doing research, I came across an anecdote from his days teaching at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. For the ten years leading up to the Civil War, Jackson taught natural and experimental philosophy at VMI. Jackson had an unusual teaching method. He committed various texts and materials to memory and recited them in class verbatim. Needless to say, cadets would sometimes ask him to clarify a statement, which he saw as insubordination. Things came to a boil in 1856 when a group of alumni tried to have him removed from the faculty. They failed, as he had more friends than enemies at VMI.
Incidents like the VMI controversy and Jackson’s wartime feuds made me wonder about his childhood. When one of my sister’s high school classmates contacted me with a special request, it gave me an excuse to look deeper into Jackson’s childhood. Charlie Lockhart wanted to know more about his great-great-grandmother’s sister, Julia Beckwith Neale, Jackson’s mother. What I learned revealed a troubling, even heartrending childhood for the boy who would grow up to become one of the most celebrated Southern generals.
Thomas J. Jackson was born in 1824 in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), the third of four children born to Jonathan Jackson, an attorney, and Julia Beckwith Neale. His brothers and sisters were firstborn Elizabeth (1819-1827), Warren (1821-1841), and Laura Ann (1826-1911). Just two years after Jackson’s birth, his sister Elizabeth, 6, and his father died of typhoid fever in March 1826. Typhoid is rare today in the U.S., but was a major killer in the 19th Century. Caused by Salmonella typhi bacteria, typhoid fever spreads through contaminated food and water or through close contact with someone who’s infected. Symptoms include high fever, headache, abdominal pain, and either constipation or diarrhea.
Julia Jackson gave birth to Laura the day after her husband died. Left with debts, the young widow of 28 sold everything to pay them. Declining family charity, Julia moved into a small one-room house. She took in sewing and taught school to support herself and her three young children, Warren, Thomas and Laura.
In 1830, Julia remarried, this time to Blake Woodson, clerk of Fayette County who reportedly disliked his stepchildren. Woodson’s dislike of Julia’s kids along with family financial difficulties disrupted the lives of Thomas, Warren and Laura. A short time after the marriage, Thomas and Laura were sent to live with Jackson relatives in Jackson’s Mill in what is now West Virginia. Warren, who died of tuberculosis in 1841, was shipped off to Neale relatives. On December 4, 1831, Julia died as a result of childbirth complications. The newly born infant, William Wirt Wood, lived for 43 years, passing away in 1875.
Thomas and Laura spent the remaining years of childhood with their paternal uncles. The future Civil War hero was extremely close to his sister. Just two years separated them. One story from his childhood years tells about the time when Thomas at age 12 appeared at the house of Federal Judge John G. Jackson in Clarksburg. Thomas explained to the judge’s wife, “Aunt, Uncle Brake (referring to the relative he was then living with) and I don’t agree. I have quit him and will never go back anymore.” According to the tale, he never did. Instead, he walked 18 miles to the farm of Cummins Jackson, bachelor half-brother of his father. He lived there until he was appointed to West Point through the influence of his Uncle Cummins.
Before going to West Point he held his only political office, that of constable. VMI has archived many of his letters to Laura, who obviously treasured them and most likely kept them in an attic chest. She died in 1911 in Buckhannon, West Virginia, at the age of 85, Julia’s only child who survived to old age.
A staunch unionist, Laura became estranged from both her brother and her husband at the outbreak of the Civil War. Remember, Union sentiment was so high in the western portion of Virginia that the “mountaineers” seceded from Virginia, becoming the state of West Virginia in June 1863. A Union officer who knew Laura said she “would rather know that he was dead than to have him a leader in the rebel army.”
I read some of Jackson’s letters to Laura. In one he wrote from West Point, “Times are now far different from what they once were. Once I was in my native state at my adopted home none to give their mandates none for me to obey but as I chose surrounded by my playmates and natives, all apparently eager to promote my happiness. But those were the days of my youth, they have fled never again to return. They have been succeeded by days of quite a different aspect. They have brought forth manhood with all its cares.” Jackson wasn’t the first choice for his Congressional District’s appointment to the military academy, but the top applicant withdrew after only one day. Jackson graduated in June 1846, standing 17th out of 59 graduates. He began his U.S. Army service as second lieutenant with the First Artillery Regiment, just in time for the Mexican-American War.
So what more can we learn about Jackson’s mother Julia? Born in 1798 at the end of the 18th Century, Julia Beckwith Neale came into the world at a place called Peach Orchard in Loudoun County, Virginia. She was the daughter of Thomas and Margaret Winn Neale and granddaughter of Richard Neale and Francis Underwood and Minor Winn and Betty Withers, all of Virginia. Moving west, her father achieved prosperity as a merchant in the Ohio River town of Parkersburg. I know Parkersburg well, it’s about 30 miles from where I went to high school in Southeastern Ohio. A fellow Writing Wranglers & Warriors blogger, Joe Stephens, is a teacher at Parkersburg High School.
Historical accounts say Julia was very intelligent, a devout Christian, and a belle in society. Julia married Jonathan Jackson of Randolph County, now Upshur County, in Parkersburg in 1817. Julia had three brothers and a sister. The sister, Harriet Neale, was three years older than Julia and passed away in 1823 in Parkersburg, just 28 years old. Julia’s father Thomas died in Vienna near Parkersburg on February 28, 1834.
The one thing that really struck me as I researched Jackson’s mother is how so many people died young in those days, especially women. Harriet passed away in her late twenties, Julia in her early thirties. The killers? Childbirth complications and diseases like typhoid, yellow fever, small pox and cholera. When a killer disease claimed a husband, it could leave a family destitute, as evidenced by Julia’s struggles to provide for her children after her first husband’s death. Marrying another man brought some relief, but at the cost of Julia’s children being shipped off to other family members.
Julia’s bad times in the 1820s didn’t happen in isolation. Jonathan’s death in 1826 occurred during a dismal time in the nation’s economic history. The Depression of 1815-21 was technically over, but the economy continued to stagger, stuck in the doldrums. Recessions, stock market panics, tight credit and high tariffs were the norm well into the 1830s. Sending Julia’s three children to more prosperous relatives makes sense in a callous way. Of course, karma comes conjoined with life – and three years after Julia’s 1831 death Woodson passed away.
History demands balance, and so I present another view of Blake Woodson, one presented in a souvenir program for the unveiling of a Stonewall Jackson statue in Clarksburg, West Virginia, his place of birth, on May 10, 1953. For you history buffs, it was the 90th anniversary of Jackson’s death. The program reads: “When Thomas Jonathan Jackson was three years of age his father died with typhoid fever, contracted while he was nursing his little daughter, who also died. He left a widow and three children in very limited circumstances. Mrs. Jackson, after recovering in a degree from the double shock – the death of her daughter and husband – supported her little family as best she could with her needle and by teaching school for about three years, when she married Capt. Blake B. Woodson, a gentleman from eastern Virginia, of excellent family and delightful manners, but visionary and unsuccessful. When her health became impaired the children were placed temporarily with relatives. A year later Jackson’s mother died, and thus at the age of 7 he was left a penniless orphan.” So there you have it from another perspective, the children were sent to relatives because Julia’s health was so bad she couldn’t look after them.
One of Jackson’s former soldiers, Captain Thomas Ransom, had a marble marker placed over Julia’s unmarked grave in Westlake Cemetery, located in Ansted, West Virginia. He did it to make sure the final resting place of Jackson’s mother wasn’t lost forever. I tried to find a painting of Julia, but came up empty. She died before photography came into general use, so no tintypes or daguerreotypes of her exist.
Jackson plays a minor but important role in my novel, and it revolves around an inborn mystical gift my chief character, Bill Stamford, has but doesn’t want. When Bill sees a fiery halo around someone, the victim soon dies. It has happened only a handful of times, and Bill has had trouble dealing with its awful ramifications. Paralyzed into inaction, he finally decides to try change fate, but only after a halo shines around his best friend Charlie. When the time comes during nightfall at the battle of Chancellorsville, Bill makes his move to save Charlie – just as Jackson, General A.P. Hill and their staffs return to Confederate lines after reconnoitering Yankee positions for a possible attack. There’s been ongoing rifle fire and even artillery exchanges… Bill, Charlie and the others in the Eighteenth North Carolina’s Company G are skittish. Halos, fate and God’s enigmatic ways play out at Chancellorsville as Jackson emerges from blessed shadows dark and deep. Death pays a visit – not to Charlie, but to Stonewall Jackson. The general didn’t die on the battlefield but succumbed a week later from pneumonia, a byproduct of the friendly-fire wound and the surgical arm amputation.
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I’m the author of a fantasy trilogy, Larenia’s Shadow. The trilogy consists of The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin and Assassins’ Lair. They can be purchased on the websites of Amazon and Barnes And Noble.