Soon after his marriage to Mary Anna Morrison in 1857, the man who would become Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson took up gardening. The Virginia Military Institute professor living in Lexington, Va., got his hands dirty while digging and planting a garden in his back yard that included flowers for his wife.
According to a wonderful account by Jackson scholar James “Bud” Robertson in his masterful biography “Stonewall Jackson,” the teacher of physics and artillery “cultivated plants in an orderly and scientific manner.” His meticulous care paid off with a bountiful supply of food for the family’s meals.
He studied gardening books and particularly liked Robert Buist’s “The Family Kitchen Gardener: Containing Plain and Accurate Descriptions of All the Different Species and Varieties of Culinary Vegetables,” penciling in numerous notes in the margins. After tomatoes, asparagus, watermelon, spinach and turnips was the one-word notation “plant.”
A kitchen garden wasn’t enough for Jackson. That same year, he bought an 18-acre farm about a mile from his house and grew wheat, corn and vegetables. When his wife, whom he called Anna, became ill the following spring, he took her to New York for treatment and wrote her long letters from Lexington while she recuperated. His favorite subject, besides his concern for her health, was the state of the gardens.
“I was mistaken about your large garden fruit being peaches,” he wrote in one letter. “It turns out to be apricots & I enclose one which I found on the ground today, & just think, my little Dove has a tree full of them.” Jackson preferred to use “your” when referring to anything the two shared in life, Robertson explained, and he was fond of calling Anna by sweet, romantic names.
In another letter, he wrote: “Our potatoes are coming up & I shall send you a sample of a leaf. . . . Your garden has been thirsting for water until last evening.”
Anna returned home only to leave again in September for more treatment, but this time at a closer hospital. Jackson wrote her, saying, “I watered your flowers this morning, and hoed another row of turnips, and expect to hill some celery this evening.”
Before Anna could return home, the news came of John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry, W.Va., on Oct. 16, 1859. At the request of the governor, the Virginia Military Institute sent two companies of cadets to Charles Town to help maintain order at Brown’s execution, and Jackson was one of the officers on that excursion. From there, the lead-up to war took its course, and Jackson would become a household name for his role in the Civil War. There was no more mention of gardening in Robertson’s book.