The other Jimmy Stewart and a “Shenandoah”/”It’s a Wonderful Life” twist

Posted on November 5, 2014 by

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In many ways, the dust is starting to settle on the Sesqui of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. That’s not to say, however, that with the Battle of Cedar Creek, there’s nothing more worth noting. Just as an example, next week, I’ll be marking the anniversary of one engagement that won’t otherwise get attention.

There are also side stories that are still present.

One such story is about the actor Jimmy Stewart and the movie “Shenandoah”.

Sure, sure… there’s been a lot of discussion on this, but hear me out. I think there’s one aspect, no matter how trivial it may seem, that may be of interest… and it doesn’t show up as a blip on most of those discussions about the movie. Specifically, how many are aware of the fact that, while Jimmy Stewart played a leading part in the movie, his grandfather (for whom “Jimmy” was named) played a part in the real activities of the Shenandoah Valley, from 1864-1865?

James M. Stewart's pension index card

James M. Stewart’s pension index card

A twenty-four year old native of Indiana County, Pennsylvania (he was born in West Mahoning), the elder J.M. Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps, in January 1864. Fortunately for us, he left some notes about his service, and we’re able to gather a little understanding of his time in the Shenandoah Valley.

After arriving in the Valley (at one point in his recollections, Stewart referred to the river as the “Shanendowa”), in early May 1864 (he arrived in Martinsburg, from Cumberland, Maryland, on May 2), Stewart seemed to quickly learn the art of foraging. After several days of scouting, when near Woodstock, Virginia, in the middle of May, Stewart “went out and killed a hog and had supper of fresh pork had as much or done the while mess several days.”

Within a few days, Stewart also had a chance to get a taste of battle…

The first battle I was in was at New Market…

… about 5 o’clock when we took to the line of march for the battlefield arrived at the battlefield near New Market (16 miles distance) about one o’clock. The ball was opened immediately and a bricks fire kept up on both sides for about an hour and a half when they over powered us and we fell back about a mile and a half but kept up a brisk fire all the time on the retreat and would fall back till we would get a good position and then take a stand. The battle lasted about three hours. After the battle was over we retreated to Mount Jackson…

When things settled down a bit, Stewart again returned to that which was necessary to settle a young man’s hunger. At the end of May, he remarked…

Also done some forageing brought in a lot of wheat and flower bolted and unbolted. Chickens, sheep, 11 hogs, 25 hd. Of cattle. The next day Sabbath 29th took up our line of march, marched about 20 miles and encamped near New Market on the edge of the battle field. I unsaddled then went for a chicken, cleaned it, & cooked it & had it for supper.

Charlie Anderson (Jimmy Stewart) playing the role of a

Charlie Anderson (Jimmy Stewart) seeking the assistance of Union Col. Fairchild (George Kennedy), in the return of his son.

Stewart saw all of the big Valley battles that followed… from Piedmont and Lexington, to Berryville and Cedar Creek. It’s particularly interesting to see Stewart’s commentary about his association with George A. Custer… and (according to his obituary) his having known (because of his duties) both Grant and Lincoln.

Stewart survived his time in the Valley, and to the end at Appomattox, returning to civilian life in “the employ of his brother, A.M. Stewart.” He later bought out the interest of his brother and retired in 1921. Throughout his years, he never forgot about his service during the war. As his obituary stated:

His interest in the War of the Rebellion and the following years never was permitted to become dulled and he kept in constant touch with all things military, with his own organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, and with the organizations that were the outcome of the Spanish-American War and the World War. He was a good soldier.

When Stewart died, in March 1932, his namesake grandson… the actor we all know and love… was a student at Princeton University.

Considering Jimmy Stewart’s role in the movie “Shenandoah”, I can’t help but wonder if, during the shooting, old memories of his grandfather… and whatever he may have shared about his year in the Shenandoah Valley… popped into his head.

Also, from our perspective, I think we’re fortunate that Jimmy’s grandfather survived the Civil War, and, in 1871, became father to Alexander Maitland Stewart… Jimmy Stewart’s father. There’s the “It’s a Wonderful Life” twist for ya…

Though it’s a bit spliced (and not always chronological regarding the experiences), you can see James Maitland Stewart’s recollections of the Civil War at this link, courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

*Through his mother’s side, Jimmy Stewart was also the grandson of Union Gen. Samuel McCartney Jackson AND great-grandson of Union Lt. John McConnell Wilson.