Old Jack and Little Janie
by Michael Aubrecht
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One of the least known, yet most charming stories in the legendary life of Confederate General Thomas Jackson, is that of "Old Jack" and little Janie Corbin. In the winter of 1862-1863, Stonewall's troops made headquarters at Moss Neck Plantation, located on the banks of Virginia's Rappahannock River. Owned and operated by Richard and Roberta Corbin, the estate provided a perfect location for stationing a weathered army in desperate need of rest and replenishment.
At the start of the war, Richard departed to serve in the Confederate army, while Roberta stepped in to take over the day-to-day duties of running the plantation. A true southern belle, Mrs. Corbin welcomed General Jackson's troops with open arms and allowed them full use of her grounds and facilities. As hostesses, Mrs. Corbin and her daughters entertained the officers with piano recitals or hymnal sessions, and home cooked meals were also prepared for the senior staff. Jackson could often be found drinking lemonade on the front porch of the big house, and it was during these regular visits that he developed an endearing friendship with the Corbin's five-year old daughter, Janie.
Each day Janie would visit the general's office, interrupting his daily review of battle accounts with his staff. Most times, Thomas would take advantage of the opportunity to relinquish his paperwork duties, in favor of playing with his newest friend. On one occasion, Janie snatched Jackson's kepi hat and proceeded to march around the room, mocking his orders. Smiles immediately spread across the faces of Thomas and his aides, and they laughed uncontrollably at the "littlest general" whose entire head was engulfed by a mass of floppy gray fabric and a wide black brim.
Innocence like Janie's was rare in war times, and her wonderful gift of laughter lifted the morale of all that met her. Above all others though, it was her relationship with the general that quickly blossomed, and was nurtured by the fact that they temporarily filled a void in each other's life. With Richard's absence, Thomas became an "adopted" father of sorts, and Janie happily played the role of a daughter who Jackson had yet to meet.
Thomas' love for her was genuine, and Janie brought out a side of the general that none of his troops had seen. Some days they would race around the campsites, playing Hide-and-Seek. Other times, Jackson would pretend he was a pony, carrying her high on his shoulders while trotting about. One of his aides later stated that it was truly an amazing site to witness the fierce commander who preached of swift and total destruction, acting like a child himself.
In March, General Lee sent orders to Jackson's troops to initiate maneuvers for the upcoming spring campaign. After carefully striking their camp, with the utmost respect for the Moss Neck grounds, the Stonewall Brigade prepared to move out. Before leaving, Thomas and his staff went to the Corbin house to thank the entire family for their service to the country. The general also wanted to have a few moments alone, to give a proper goodbye to his dear little girl. Unfortunately upon their arrival, Janie's mother informed them that all of the children had come down with a fever.
Visibly concerned, Jackson immediately offered the services of his personal surgeon, but was reassured by Mrs. Corbin, who cited her own doctor's prediction for a rapid recovery. After a short visit to the child's bedside, Thomas pushed on, aware that another fight was on the horizon. One day later, word reached camp that Janie's condition had been hopeless, and that she died from scarlet fever.
The news hit Jackson hard, and he was unable to gather his senses. Instantly, he broke down and wept inconsolably for the loss of his friend. Although his tears may have caught some of his troops off guard, those who really knew their general understood the gentle spirit that was buried beneath the warrior. He would continue to mourn for some time, which prompted his aides to arrange a well-deserved surprise.
Thomas' spirits improved one month later, when his prayers were finally answered. Tears of sorrow quickly turned to tears of joy as his wife and five-month-old baby girl were able to spend nine delightful days with him in Fredericksburg, Virginia. During that time, his daughter was baptized into the Presbyterian Church, and both parents proudly gloated over their bundle of joy.
Unfortunately, the Jackson family's earthly relationship lasted but another month, and this time it was Thomas himself who was taken away. After being severely wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville he succumbed to pneumonia.
Perhaps "Old Jack" was welcomed at the Heavenly Gates by a little girl named Janie, who was waiting to play another game of Hide and Seek with the "gentle general." I can almost hear them now, laughing and running amidst the clouds, comforting one another until the day they were reunited with their own families.
(Excerpts taken from Onward Christian Soldier by Michael Aubrecht, Publish America, 2004)
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