sentry at Manassas National Battlefield as it and other local civil war sites prepare for a big summer of visitors for the 150th anniversary, April, 18, 2011 in Manassas, VA. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
File: A statue of Stonewall Jackson keeps sentry at Manassas National Battlefield in Manassas, Va. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

In the 1960s, the future history professor and Civil War historian Kenneth Startup spent his teenage summers with relatives in Lexington, Va., always paying a visit the Stonewall Jackson House, where Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had lived before the Civil War. He was befriended by the two elderly women who worked there.

According to a delightful piece written by Upstart’s friend  and college history professor Duane Bolin, on one of Startup’s visits to the Jackson House, one of the women beckoned to her 14-year-old visitor to follow her up the back stairs. Years later, Startup would write that, “in my memory the boards still squeak as we ascended the stairs in near darkness.”

Bolin wrote that Startup was directed to look at a shadow box hanging on a wall. He continued: “Now you look at that,” the woman said. “What do you think of that?”

Kenny was not sure what he thought, because he did not know what he saw. In the frame was a wreath-like something, an impressive floral arrangement, but he saw nothing that would connect the thing to Stonewall Jackson.

She whispered now, in a hushed, reverent tone. “Don’t you see? Don’t you know?”

“No, m’am,” the future Civil War historian whispered back. “What is it?”

“Now, don’t you know? Can’t you see? That’s his beard—that’s Stonewall Jackson’s beard.”

I hate to ruin a good story, but I needed to know if the Victorian mourning hair wreath was still displayed at the Jackson House. The house is now owned and managed by the Virginia Military Institute, which  has a large collection of Jackson artifacts, including Jackson’s stuffed horse, Little Sorrel. When I called the director of VMI museums, Col. Keith Gibson, he said there was no such hair wreath in their Jackson collection.

I had ruined a good story and couldn’t use it for this blog.

But  several days later, Gibson called back. He was very excited. He, too, had become curious about the existence of a Jackson beard wreath, and went scrounging. He eventually found it in a storage area.

According to information attached to the back of the picture, it had been donated to the Jackson House museum in the 1950s by the late Julia Jackson Christian Preston, the granddaughter of Jackson’s widow, Anna.

Gibson, who knew Preston’s handwriting, confirmed that she had written the card, which read in part: “Hair picture, made from the hair of General Jackson’s beard, his wife Mary Anna Jackson and his baby daughter Julia, [Preston’s mother] the very blond flowers.  …The large corase [sic] flower in the middle is made from the hair of the tail of General Jackson’s horse ‘Little Sorrell…’”

Gibson said the hair wreath was from sometime after the war and is the wrong period to display now in the Jackson House, which is furnished as it would have looked in the early 1860s.

He is not sure whether or when the picture will again be displayed.