At Home with the Civil War
Major Stonewall Jackson and his sister Laura had a disagreement, the Stonewall Jackson House guide tells us. Laura stayed with West Virginia, she supplies reluctantly. When I ask directly if Laura was a Unionist, the reply is snapped back, Yes, she was. Now, can you please open that door and direct us back to the foyer?
Although I’ve lived more than half my life in the United States South and my two children were born in none other than Stonewall Jackson Hospital, my Philadelphia accent and blunt demeanor usually give me away as a Yankee. The soft, drawn-out syllables of the guide remind me again that I’m an intruder, a carpetbagger. Stonewall Jackson’s home is not mine. Su casa no es mi casa, even after decades of life in Virginia.
It’s much easier to navigate the silences of other countries’ civil wars. Without a grandfather thrown inhumanely into a common grave or a great-aunt forced into exile, you read avidly about the two sides of the war: atrocities, political motivations, tremendous loss of life, depths of economic crisis, despair. You care deeply about what you read and learn about others’ civil wars, and you even take sides, but you can’t claim true blood-involvement or kin-cache. Despair—desperation—the emptying out of hope. In Spanish esperar, a loaded verb, means to hope, to wait for, and to expect. Is civil war somehow the opposite of hoping, waiting for, and expecting?
I’ve been researching, writing about, and teaching the Spanish Civil War for two and a half decades. This three-year war set the stage, in a bone-chilling way, for World War II. Francisco Franco infamously sold off a Basque town, Guernica, to Adolf Hitler and his murderous bombs, while the Republican army, supported in part by Russia, struggled mightily to get aid from the future Allies. The war inspired thousands of writers to attempt to capture the global political shift, the absurdities of warfare, and the violence and loss in one little European country. Even before the war, Dolores Ibárruri (la “Pasionaria”), famous Communist labor organizer from the northern Asturias region of Spain, was penning memorable radio broadcasts, which would later be aired clandestinely and then archived carefully by the Communist Party.
Monumental Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s life neatly frames a cataclysmic era in Spanish history—his birth in 1898, when Spain lost the last of its colonies and could no longer call itself an empire, and his death in 1936, when Francisco Franco’s forces were sweeping through the south of Spain and stopped right outside of Granada to murder an outstanding poet and playwright who was “out.” García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, which debuted the same year as the Spanish Civil War, forcefully captures a society’s fear of beauty, passion, non-conformity, and change and presages the claustrophobic enclosure imposed by Franco in the early years of his regime. César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and George Orwell are just a few of the non-Spanish writers who wrote so movingly of the war, during the war. No one can forget Neruda’s call: “Venid a ver/la sangre en las calles/Venid a ver la sangre en las calles” (“Come to see/the blood in the streets/Come to see the blood in the streets”). And then to think that iconic Spanish poet Antonio Machado fled to France in 1939 to protect himself from the violent reprisals of the Franco victors, only to find that France, also now complicit with Hitler, was no longer a safe haven. Some people say that Franco killed García Lorca and left Machado to die. These legendary figures reveal a nation unafraid to make heroes of its teachers and its literati. They also make it easy to understand Spaniards’ deep connections to their literary and political pasts.
The many authors who wrote during the Franco regime from the shadows and out of the silences of the Spanish Civil War float across Spain’s postwar landscape. They portray familial violence, death and loss, extreme hunger, the emptying-out of the small pueblos into the big cities, and fear, lots of fear. Their own battles with the official censor speak through and around the edges of their fictional works, so fiercely populated by armed guards and frightened, tiptoeing almost-citizens. These authors—both the ones who remained in Spain and those who went into decades of exile—are the pallbearers of the Second Republic. In the literary coffins they put into the world we find dashed hopes of the separation of church and state, the voting booths that wouldn’t be needed for 36 years, women’s rights, open education, hope for laborers. These notions lie alongside the very real skeletons of the mass graves that would be exhumed well into the new millennium, when it was finally time to excavate for DNA and silence.
As a non-Spaniard, I, too, have been drawn into this narrative of change, of grand potential for peace, love, and literature—and how it was removed from its cradle in an increasingly violent world. When I teach the Spanish Civil War to classes in the United States, I usually have students from Mexico or Venezuela whose grandparents or great-grandparents were forced to leave Spain right after the war and then forged new lives in exile. I have other students who have lived for a time in Spain, whose “madres españolas” complain of a lack of order and respect in today’s Spain and express a longing for the “order” imposed by the Generalísimo. Inevitably, the students are pulled in by their familial links (by filiation or affiliation, as literary critic Sebastiaan Faber writes), the unfortunate attraction of atrocity, the international character of the conflict, the social, political, and religious implications, and, most of all, the impact of loss, love, and silence that seems to linger through several generations.
Somehow, I’m at home with the Spanish Civil War.
Although I had studied my own country’s civil war in middle and high school, I didn’t give it enough thought until I saw, on the first day of my first year of college in Charlottesville, Virginia, a large Confederate flag hanging on the wall of a first-year student in a neighboring dorm. I am white and from Philadelphia, Betsy Ross land, and, while I had seen various versions of the 13-star flag, I had never seen a Confederate flag “live” before. Being white brings with it many spoken and unspoken privileges, as we know all too well in “this land of milk and honey” (Grandmaster Flash), and one of them must be that I was able to scoff at the Confederate flag, to write it off as a relic, a silly recollection of a loss, a weak rendering of bygone days. But then I started to realize how that flag’s weight distributed itself across the campus—in its code of civility, the Kappa Alpha tradition of the “Old South” gala, deep networks of money and power, and daily contradictions in the very figure of Thomas Jefferson himself. While I naively appreciated neoclassical, Enlightenment ideals of education for all, public libraries, and predictable architecture, I also felt beneath those Jeffersonian layers, emerging from the orderly, white columns, a Confederate embrace—something of a warm, inner-circle hug that I could sense but not join. And certainly black friends of mine were even more distanced from that white man’s embrace. Being poor kept me out of the inner circle, but being white certainly brought privilege.
Two years later, when I became a Resident Assistant in a dorm known as one of the most Southern on campus, a fellow RA and I walked down the first-floor hallway and saw not just a large Confederate flag on the wall of one of the residents, but a large Confederate flag with nooses hung on either side of it. The shock I had felt two years before shot exponentially through my body, as the starkest possible link of Confederate flag with race-based murder somehow blithely decorated an 18-year-old’s walls. I froze, staring at this scary-ass symbolism, and slowly realized that my fellow RA, a black student from Washington, D.C., had run, run away from this display and the idea that he would live for the next year right down the hall from it and its owner. Even if the display were to be removed (as it was), its ghost remained, floating menacingly through the halls and insinuating its race-based threat.
This is my country’s civil war.
Twenty years ago, when I moved to Lexington, Virginia, I understood that Thomas Jefferson’s analog here was Robert E. Lee. His legacy was everywhere—street names, yearly celebrations in his honor, the Robert E. Lee Museum in the campus chapel, quotes on fraternity t-shirts, and, again, Confederate flags decorating the “recumbent Lee” in the Chapel. I started reading the stones and placards and obelisks on and around campus—all to men who, as a friend framed it, “had gotten their asses kicked in the Civil War.” I had lived in the South at that point for a good number of years and had grappled with Mason-Dixon cultural differences and my own biases. In part, moving to the south had galvanized my own liberal sense of self—my awareness about race, religion, gender, sex—and had challenged me to sift through what could be cherished, combatted, left alone, or discarded in my new culture. I cherish the landscape and the local pride in it. I combat the blind adherence to tradition and the love of the status quo. I try to understand (and come to grips with my own hypocrisies about) why friends and neighbors love to hunt. And often I must discard—the constant barrage of racist, sexist, locally produced text whose content is morbidly predictable.
I always come back to Lexington’s hero Stonewall Jackson as a strangely compelling symbol of a politics of defensiveness. This man, celebrated as a war hero and strategist, was shot by his own troops when he had gone on a re-con mission and told them to shoot anything they saw.
I met Laura Jackson Arnold at her brother’s house on Washington Street, but barely. The guide so insisted on everything Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson that it was hard to find Laura there at the house. Laura seemed to be everything Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was not. It seemed that, while Thomas was slow to learn and dull to others’ ways, Laura was quick as a whip and notably perceptive about the world. Folks said that Thomas was always the last in his class, but that severe self-discipline and handy connections helped him to find a place in his college class, a commission in the army, and not one, but two, women to agree to marry him (at different times, of course). Thomas muddled along to prove himself competent for and worthy of the posts and spouses awaiting him, while perhaps his sister Laura was busy reading every book in the family library. I imagine her learning the natural sciences (she did become a nurse) and mastering French. Maybe she also learned to play the harp and gave serious thought to the politics of the day.
When I first encountered Laura, I saw her as the firecracker of the family, and I understood right away that no one—not Thomas and Laura’s parents, not Thomas’s teachers, not the local church preacher, not the stern family friends—would pay Laura enough mind to perceive the differences between her and her increasingly famous brother. Thomas was The One, The Chosen One, The Military Officer, The Church Deacon, The College Professor. Nevertheless, Laura watched her brother scrape his way up the ladder from 99th (out of 99) in his military school class to 17th (out of 59; can you say ‘attrition’?). Thomas also lobbied his friend the minister to allow him—finally—to read in church, as he believed was his due. Reluctant to acquiesce to this uncomfortable social request for a favor, the minister subtly told Thomas that he was a weak reader and would have to work on his style. I imagine Laura knowing the minister would give in, knowing that Thomas’s dull, dutiful voice would get its day in the sun every single Sunday in that stark, cavernous, greystone Virginia church. Laura watched Thomas give gifts that he himself wished to have—pedestrian, fairy-tale blue-sky paintings of children in school and of children praying together. He gave these gifts to loved ones, and they remained in his home for him and all to see.
Laura’s Bible seemed to be just such a gift. Thomas could have given her oilcloth, an item she dearly needed, but he insisted on the Bible. It might have been something he believed his wayward sister needed, but it seemed something she didn’t want. That extra-large, old, leather-bound holy book inscribed by her brother and intended for her was never actually delivered to Laura’s hands—yet another of Thomas’s gifts for others that was tagged for (and by) Thomas himself.
In Thomas’s house, where I met Laura, few talked of Laura. I learned of Thomas, his two wives, the infant children buried nearby, the enslaved people owned by Thomas, his teachers, his minister, his students and neighbors, even his physician, but very little about his sister Laura. Laura’s life exists in the opposite spaces of Thomas’s—not like a chessboard, where the black makes the white more visible and the white throws the black into sharp relief; not like the Ying/Yang symbol where the one so clearly relies on the other; not even like the sun and the moon, where one illuminates the day and the other the night. No. Laura’s opposite spaces are shadowy, dusty corners covered over by the muted reds of the centuries-old wall-to-wall carpeting of that house on Washington Street. Even today, 155 years after the death of Thomas and 107 years after the death of Laura, Laura’s name in that house is a whisper.
The Stonewall Jackson House foyer leads to the gift shop, where Major Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is celebrated as a sort of small-town, Main Street muse. You can buy replicas of his letters, uniforms, and photographs. You can visit the small kitchen of his house to see the plastic representations of the breads, cakes, and pies that Major Jackson was too stern, and maybe too hypochondriac, to eat. The gift shop even has a Dover Thrift Edition of a coloring book titled Famous Women of the Civil War. But you can’t find Laura—not in the coloring book, not in the house, not in most histories of the United States Civil War.
That Bible intended for Laura, the holy book that sits in the family dining room of the house on Washington Street, holds tight the Stonewall signature dedicated to his upstart sister. There exists a copy of a rather quotidian letter from Thomas to Laura, in which he exhorts her to take good care of herself:
April 16, 1860
My dear Sister,
I have been desiring to write to you for some time, but have been prevented from doing so. I am sorry to learn that your eyes trouble you so much. I wish you would try the simple remedy of washing them with cold water, lifting the water to the face in both hands and washing the face until a little water gets into the eyes and they commence smarting. Do this at night just before going to bed, and again immediately after getting up. I hope that you are improving, and that Mr. Arnold is likewise. Anna is suffering from a very bad cold. She has been confined to her bed for nearly a week, but is up this afternoon…
I hope that the children are all doing well. Anna joins me in love to you all.
Your affec. Brother Thomas
This same website tells us that a Pennsylvanian Cavalry officer recounts that Laura is saddened by the news of her brother’s death in May of 1863, but that she would rather know that he was dead than to have him a leader in the rebel army. Laura Jackson Arnold: faithful nurse to the Union soldiers, mother of four, honorary member of the Society of the Army of West Virginia, affectionately named “Mother of the Regiment” of the 5th West Virginia Cavalry. We in Lexington aren’t allowed to learn of her abolitionist leanings.
The Bible didn’t even become a ghostly representation of Laura’s and Thomas’s fraternal relationship, for Laura cut ties with her Confederate brother and, later, with her unsupportive husband. One of the few women known to have formally divorced in the late 1800’s, Laura knew her mind. She would serve the Union and care for Union soldiers until the end of the war or her life, whichever came first. Her steadfast devotion to the Union was one element in her permanent split from both her brother and her husband. A local Beverly, West Virginia, attorney said this of Laura (also from the Civil War Women blog): “Mrs. J. Arnold—sister of Gen. Jackson—went off with the Yankees. Arnold stayed at home, says he is a good southern man, that his wife is crazy, but Hell he says, could not govern a Jackson.” I want to meet Mrs. J. Arnold for real, see a statue to her, know what she ate for breakfast, understand how she became a nurse, learn what her children called her, find out what kind of artwork she liked, research her religious preferences. I want her to have a grave and a statue and a celebrated horse, a museum, a biography, and a place in history. Civil war often means familial strife. The Unionist manifestations of the Jackson clan are not to be explored, much less celebrated, in Lexington, Virginia, one of the homes of the United States Civil War.
My nation’s civil war in contemporary times includes some overwhelming battles—mass incarceration of black men and women, illegal traffic stops, rounding up of brown-skinned peoples, gun violence in schools, gun raffles for sports teams, rape as a common experience in the educational environment—in sum, the diminution of existence of those rendered less important. White supremacy, the KKK, and Nazis asserting power and threatening lives. This civil war has everything to do with dignity, respect, group identification, money, power, and greed. Those silences that we thought were a part of our past—1865, Reconstruction, 1920s, and 1950s and 60s—live with and in us. They are our continued civil war. This is no longer a Mason-Dixon split. This war is the elevation of all military members to “heroes” and the reduction of teachers to lazy good-for-nothings. It is the fact that Wall Street won, even after the 2008 revelation of its deep wrongdoings. It is the glorification of guns and the scorn of peace. It is the celebration of jaded irony and the disparagement of kind sincerity. When we look back on this era, what will we say has died? What will count as a lost life? How will we express nostalgia?
I am not at home with the United States Civil War.