March 24, 2019

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Thomas Garland Jefferson and “Mother Crim”

Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute played a key role during the Battle of New Market, fought on May 15, 1864, helping Confederate Gen. John C. Breckinridge earn a victory that turned back the Federals in the Shenandoah Valley.  One of those cadets was Thomas Garland Jefferson, the 17-year-old great-grandnephew of Thomas Jefferson.

Lydie Clinedinst (Mother Crim)

On that same day, the people of New Market found their town engulfed by the battle and overwhelmed by the aftermath.   Among them was 24-year-old Lydie Clinedinst, who lived with her parents near the center of town.  When skirmishing began on the morning of May 15, their home was between the opposing battle lines in the center of New Market.  Lydie remembered that “The cannonading commenced on Saturday [May 14] evening…how it frightened my poor old mother and the little children. They were taken to the cellar for protection. On Sunday [May 15] about noon three Federal officers rode abreast down the street of New Market and ordered me to the cellar. I told them they had better go, as I heard the old Rebel yell, and I knew that our men were not far away.”

Soon an artillery duel developed between the Federals in town (including a 2-gun section on the Clinedinst property) and Confederates on Shirley’s Hill.  Artillery fire crashed into the town, sending residents scurrying.  Jessie Rupert, who lived across the street from Lydie, described how “The streets were at once deserted, and cannon balls and shells rolled and exploded in every direction…the air was filled with dust and smoke, and curses and shrieks.”

“I could see it all from the big window, and the hand-to-hand fight down in the old churchyard.” – Lydie Crim

As the Confederates surged through the town and pushed the Federals north, the fighting grew more intense to the west, where the main body of the VMI Cadets came onto the field.  Lydie was on her doorstep when “My little brother called me to come and look at the fine soldiers coming down Shirley’s hill. This was the first time I ever saw the Virginia Military cadets. They looked so nice and trim as they ran down the hill. I yelled: “The French have come! the French have come! We will win the day! we will gain the day!” Just then a terrible shell exploded right in front of the line as they came down the hill and knocked a gap in the ranks. They just ran together elbow to elbow in an instant and closed up so beautifully. I can see it now; I will never forget these brave boy soldiers as they ran down the hill to victory and death.”

Thomas Garland Jefferson

Among those VMI Cadets was Thomas Garland Jefferson, the 17-year-old great-grandnephew of founding father Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson made it down the slope of Shirley’s Hill unscathed and continued with the cadets as they advanced into the thick of the fighting  – even saving the life of a fellow cadet, James D. Darden, by making an improvised tourniquet from his canteen strap.  But in the orchard near the Bushong House, where the fire became so heavy that it “seemed impossible that any living creature could escape,” Jefferson was struck in the chest by a bullet and fell, seriously wounded.  When fellow cadets stopped to help he urged them forward, saying “You can do me no good.”  They reluctantly hurried on.

As the fighting moved north, and despite the pouring rain and crashing thunder, Lydie and other townsfolk dashed into the muddy fields to see if they could help the wounded.  By the time the battle ended and night fell, the townspeople had become orderlies and nurses for hundreds of men who were being treated in homes, outbuildings and barns.

“They commenced carrying the dead from the field as the cadets passed on down the road,” Lydie remembered. “They carried some of them by our door, and the red blood dripped and dripped on the pavement. I could not stay in after I saw this. I ran on down to the battle field to help with the wounded. I was the first woman to go there.”

After the battle, Jefferson’s friend, fellow cadet Moses Ezekiel (the first Jewish cadet at VMI), went in search of his comrade.  Finding the badly-wounded Jefferson lying on the floor of a hut, Ezekiel found a wagon and transported Jefferson to the Clinedinst home.  Jefferson, now in grave condition, was placed in Lydie’s mother’s bed.

Lydie recalled that “When we laid him down he looked up at me, and said: ‘Sister, what a good, soft bed.’  Mother had an old-time feather bed, and it must have felt soft to him after lying on the hard ground…He was about sixteen years of age, was blue-eyed, and had golden hair. I will never forget him and his sweet, boyish face. He was shot in the breast, and the bullet was cut out of his back. His sufferings were intense, but he bore up so well and never complained. Cadet Ezekiel nursed him very tenderly. His own mother could not have done more for him.”

Jefferson’s wound was mortal.  Lydie later wrote “The evening before he died, he called Cadet Ezekiel to read for him. He read the fourteenth chapter of St. John: ‘Let not your heart be troubled. Ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.’… He died about midnight in Moses Ezekiel’s arms. He was buried in the old churchyard where they fought so bravely.”

“I went to smooth his pillow and he said, ‘Sister, what beautiful hands.’ He called: ‘Duncan, come and light a candle; it is growing dark.’ The blindness of death came over him…” – Lydie Clinedinst (Mother Crim) recalling Jefferson’s last moments

Preserving the Memories

Lydie Clinedinst would forever be connected with the Institute and its cadets.  She married John Crim in 1867 and became extremely active in the efforts to commemorate the battle and the role of “her boys,” the VMI Cadets. In 1881, Lydie’s brother, John – a Confederate veteran – built a new house on the site of their childhood home, and later sold it to Lydie’s son.  (As she got older and needed more care, Lydie moved in with her son.)  Lydie and the house became a rallying point for VMI Cadets and other veterans and their families who returned to the battlefield in the post-war years.  Lydie herself became known as the “mother of the VMI Cadets” – “Mother Crim.”  During commemorative events Lydie, now Eliza Crim, was the matron of honor, honored for her service to those suffering cadets who had fallen in the battle.  When VMI awarded special “New Market Cross of Honor” medals to the cadets who fought in the battle, Lydie was also presented with a medal, the only woman to receive one.

New Market veterans and local citizens at the New Market Battle Monument in 1926. Eliza is just to the left of the monument. (Image courtesy VMI Archives.)

Eliza kept up a regular correspondence with veterans of the battle and their families.  Key personalities present during the fighting stayed with her and her family at their home, and the home gradually became a repository of artifacts and of letters that detailed the battle through the personal experiences of the participants.

Moses Ezekiel in an 1889 image he sent to Lydie, showing him at the entrance to his studio in Rome. (John D. Crim Collection)

Lydie also kept up a correspondence with Moses Ezekiel, reflecting the bond they shared from witnessing Jefferson’s final hours.  After the war, Ezekiel became a world-renowned sculptor.  (Two of his most famous works were Virginia Mourning Her Dead, created to honor the VMI cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market, and the Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.) During his travels and from his studio in Italy, Ezekiel kept in touch with Lydie, updating her on his career and sending photographs of himself, his studio, and his home.

Lydie died at home in 1931 at the age of 93, just a few feet from where she had cared for Thomas Garland Jefferson as he took his final breaths so many years before.  Over 1,000 mourners, including two congressmen, gathered in New Market for her funeral.  Six VMI cadets, including two grandsons of cadets who had fought at New Market, carried her flag-draped casket to the cemetery.  She was laid to rest under a tombstone that reads, “Mother of New Market Cadets”…a lasting tribute to “Mother Crim.”