Remember the minister’s daughter in the 1840s, writing to her friend back home about how disappointed she was in the quiet little country village that was her new home? Well, when her father had had enough, she and her sisters must have been delighted to pack their bags for their old home in Pennsylvania. Four years later, they were on their way to Lexington, Virginia, where their father was to become the new president of Washington College. There, Ellie Junkin would later marry a philosophy professor at Virginia Military Institute named Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who would be known as “Stonewall.” Her eldest sister, Margaret Junkin Preston, became the “Poetess of the South.”
Growing up, Margaret read Latin and Greek, learned the Hebrew alphabet and studied art. While living in Lexington, Margaret began writing stories and poems that were published in newspapers and magazines. In 1856, she anonymously published her first novel, Silverwood: A Book of Memories. The next year, she married Major John T.L. Preston, a widower with seven children who was one of the founders of VMI and who was also a Latin professor there.
Almost a decade later, Margaret resumed writing, publishing Beechenbrook: A Rhyme of the War in 1865. The book is Margaret’s best-selling, poetic account of a Southern wife whose husband dies while fighting for the Confederacy. She continued publishing poetry and travel accounts during the Reconstruction, and was named VMI’s Poet Laureate. Margaret also wrote a magazine article about her reminiscences of her former brother-in-law; she and Jackson had become close friends when Ellie died in childbirth a year after her marriage.
To learn more about the “Poetess of the South,” read Mary Price Coulling’s Margaret Junkin Preston: A Biography (1993) and Margaret Junkin Preston, Poet of the Confederacy: A Literary Life, by Stacey Jean Klein (2007).