Why was it called Jackson’s “Prayer Oak”?

Posted on June 4, 2011 by


I was asked a question by a reader yesterday, and thought I’d give a little more background about the Jackson Prayer Oak/Tree.

The Prayer Oak in better days. Courtesy of the MSNBC blog site.

Why is it called Jackson’s “Prayer Oak”?

In the wake of victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic, Stonewall Jackson moved his army into Brown’s Gap for a few days. A few days later, the army was moved to more sprawling ground, between Weyer’s Cave (the actual cave near Grottoes, not the town as we know it today) and Mt. Meridian. Jackson’s chief of staff, Rev. Robert Louis Dabney, described it as a “smiling paradise in a range of woodland groves… surrounded with the verdure of early summer and the luxuriant wheatfields whitening to the harvest.” (Of course, today, unlike the 19th century, you’d be hard-pressed to find wheatfields in the Valley… most having been replaced by corn… or remaining open lands).

A Jackson prayer meeting... though not portraying the one held near Weyer's Cave.

Within a day or two of arriving at the site, Jackson ordered that Saturday, June 14, be recognized as a day of thanksgiving… although he also ordered general courts-martial to convene, as necessary… so it wasn’t a complete and total break from war. Jackson’s mapmaker, New York-born Jedediah Hotchkiss, described the day as “very warm”, but by 3 p.m., the men began to assemble for religious services. When the services were concluded by sundown, preaching commenced and was carried on well into the evening. The next morning, divine services were conducted by Rev. Dabney, followed by the holy sacrament being administered later that evening. Pvt. Joseph F. Kauffman, of the 10th Virginia Infantry, noted that “Gen. Jackson partook with the multitude.”

So, was the tree actually the one under which all of this took place? My guess is, no, but, I do believe that it is the last one remaining from the grove in which these things occurred. Likewise, according to local tradition, the name “Jackson Prayer Oak” may also get its name from Jackson’s having stopped to pray underneath this tree, after taking his breakfast on the front porch of the house just across (about 300 yards distant) from the tree.

On a personal note, it’s a very good chance that a good many of my kin (distant uncles and cousins) were present in the vicinity of this tree at that time, as a number were in the 10th and 33rd Virginia infantries. Ironically, two years later, to the month, another distant uncle of mine likely rode within yards (my guess is a few… to within a few hundred yards) of this site, as part of David Hunter’s forces moving on Piedmont and Staunton. He was a Virginia-born Southerner also, but happened to be wearing blue, as a member of Henry Cole’s Maryland Cavalry.

So, as it was a witness to family members on both sides… though they may have paid little or no attention to this particular tree… I’m particularly sorry to see it fall.

The oak as of June 3, 2011. Another photo courtesy of the MSNBC blog site.