He served alongside Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the famed Stonewall Brigade during the Civil War. He was portrayed in Ron Maxwell’s movie “Gods and Generals.” He was one of a select few who tended to Jackson as the general lay dying. Yet Jackson’s most respected biographer, James I. Robertson Jr., said of this man: “Of the people intimately associated with the general, less is known of this figure than any other person.”
No photograph of him is known to exist. The exact location of his final resting place, sadly, remains unmarked and unknown. Who was this mysterious figure? His name was Jim Lewis. He was a slave, and his story is connected to yet another mystery in Lexington, Va.
During the years of slavery and Reconstruction, a segregated cemetery for blacks was established within the town limits of Lexington. This cemetery encompassed an area bordered roughly by what today are North Lewis Street, Washington Street and Marble Lane. By 1880, the cemetery was filling rapidly and falling into neglect.
Many of the dead were identified originally by simple wooden markers — long since rotted — and some not at all. Though records are somewhat sketchy, research seems to indicate that prospective white developers were as much an impetus for what happened next as were blacks concerned about the condition of the graves of their ancestors and loved ones.
Over several years, petitions from the community had been presented to the town council asking that the town move the “colored dead from the present burial ground” to a new site.
Seeing an opportunity for himself as well as a way to address the issue of a new cemetery for blacks, local judge William McLaughlin made an offer to the town council to exchange six acres of property he owned just outside the town limits for a portion — approximately three acres — of the existing black burial ground.
Apparently some blacks opposed the plan and made it known that they wished to express their views on the subject. A motion to table the judge’s offer and hear out the petitioners lost by one vote.
Capt. G.W. Pettigrew, a member of the council who ran a confectionery that sold shotguns as well as sweets, resigned in protest after the vote.
The remaining council members instructed a committee to meet with the town attorney and proceed with the exchange. Eventually, the black petitioners were heard, but to no avail. Evidently, the land exchange offered by the powerful Judge McLaughlin was a done deal.
McLaughlin already had shown disregard for the concerns of Lexington’s blacks by being party to a legal threat against Stonewall Jackson in 1858 over Jackson’s “colored Sabbath school,” which McLaughlin considered an “unlawful assembly” when it was still illegal in Virginia to teach blacks to read.
Ironically, McLaughlin would later give a dedication speech at Jackson’s life-sized bronze statue, unveiled over the Confederate general’s grave in 1891. The statue had been funded, in part, by some of Jackson’s former black students.
As the year progressed, the town engineer enclosed the new cemetery, prepared an entrance and laid out the grounds for lots. In October 1880, the town council ordered that further burial of the dead in the old cemetery be “discontinued.”
A month later, the council accepted the McLaughlin deed in exchange for a portion of the original black cemetery, with the town of Lexington apparently retaining the remainder of the property.
The saga of the original cemetery ostensibly came to a close in the summer of 1881 with the appointment of a “Board of Trustees of competent colored people” supervised by the mayor and town council. The board administered the new cemetery (named Evergreen) sold lots and kept a separate account for operations.
The new trustees included William Washington, William Drummond, Edmund W. White, James Humble, James “Deacon” Jackson, William S. Harvey and Randall Talbott. Both Humble and Jackson were free blacks before the war, and Humble had served in the Confederate army.
James Jackson was a leading businessman and the town’s most prominent barber, boasting that he had been Robert E. Lee’s barber. Local oral tradition and family history suggest James Jackson and his son attended Stonewall Jackson’s Sunday school class for slaves and free blacks. Records further indicate that he regularly petitioned council for permission to establish a bath in his barber shop.
Jackson built a home on Main Street (across the street from where wartime Virginia Gov. John Letcher lived after the war) and was bold enough, considering the times, to complain to the town fathers when water ran off from Letcher’s yard into his new home. The problem was fixed within the week.
In 1882, a local contractor was paid a substantial sum for his services in the cemetery. Whether any of this money was paid for moving corpses is questionable.
Then, in June 1883, the street was widened in front of the judge’s new property, and a portion was cut off the old cemetery property. It was noted that any bodies found were to be moved to the “new cemetery for colored people.”
Were all of the bodies moved?
Fast forward to 1946. The town of Lexington was hard-pressed for cash, and local officials were looking for ways to raise money. Governing costs were rising, and revenues were at a standstill. On Sept. 19, the town council held a joint meeting with the trustees of Evergreen Cemetery to consider the sale of what remained of the original cemetery property.
The old cemetery was “long since abandoned” and a “vacant lot.” The town attorney said the property was a “liability” and was serving “no useful purpose” and had to be kept “cleaned up.” Moreover, all the bodies had long ago been removed, or so the council was assured.
On Sept. 25, 1946, the following public notice appeared in the Lexington Gazette: “Sale of Valuable Property By The Town of Lexington, Virginia.” The legal description of one of the properties to be auctioned off included parts of the original black cemetery and included the following covenant:
“Should the remains of any person be found buried on said land, the Town of Lexington, at its own expense, will have the same re-interred by a local mortician in Evergreen Cemetery.”
Clearly, this statement is indicative that there were strong suspicions that not all of the bodies had been removed. This is where the story becomes controversial. According to some locals, sufficient care was not taken to make sure remains discovered were reinterred.
One longtime Lexington black resident related the following: “My family always said that a few shovels full of earth were taken from each grave to the new cemetery. It is doubtful that any skeletal remains were moved. Additionally, at least one stone was not moved.”
There also are local stories of dogs seen running through the streets carrying human bones after excavation began. One other longtime Lexington resident told me that some bones had, in fact, been discovered during construction of a dwelling many years ago and he thought these bones had been reinterred at Evergreen.
My own investigation revealed that the one headstone previously mentioned was still there in the back yard of one of the homes. After my trip, the stone was removed by the city of Lexington to a secure site for safekeeping while officials do some research to see if there are any records that match the names on the stone.
The landowner also told me she and her son had discovered a “tomb” on the property. That has yet to be verified. Another landowner showed me a piece of another marble headstone and told me she had found what she believed to be human bones on her property.
All of this raises a number of questions. Were the remains of Jim Lewis, Stonewall Jackson’s cook and servant during the war, ever reinterred? Why was the one headstone left? Did greed, both public and private, override proper respect and dignity for the dead, in addition to the historic significance of the original black cemetery?
Are there still human remains lying unknown in this area of Lexington?
In December 1875, an anonymous Confederate veteran wrote to the local paper dismayed over the fact that Jim Lewis “lies in a neglected grave in the Colored Cemetery at Lexington without a stone.” Also, according to a recent editorial by local newspaper editor Doug Harwood, when Stonewall Jackson’s statue was being erected in 1891, “an Englishman offered to pay for a monument to mark the grave of one of his slaves [Jim Lewis]. The town ignored his offer.”
As this article goes to print, there is a pending application for a Virginia historical highway marker noting the location of the original black cemetery.
Though the marker will not remedy the desecration of this cemetery, it could, in a small way, acknowledge its one-time existence and historic significance. And though Jim Lewis still has no stone marking his final resting place, at least his final resting place will have a marker.
Special thanks to professor Taylor Sanders of Washington and Lee University for his extensive research regarding the history of the original cemetery, to Dorsey Surveying of Lexington for additional research, and to Jerry Roane for assistance in locating the headstone. Mr. Roane has family connections to both the original cemetery and Evergreen.
Richard G. Williams Jr. is a Civil War historian, author and frequent contributor to this page. He may be contacted at email@example.com. His Web site is at www.SouthRiverBooks.com.