Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Winona Republican-Herald in Dec. 1919. Some of the language used in the original article has been updated. James Stovall is one of the two main characters in a play written by Margaret Shaw Johnson, “Mister James and Mister Jeff,” that will take the stage this weekend at the Masonic Theatre.
James Wesley Stovall, aged 82, died this morning after a long illness from Bright’s disease. While he never married and had no kith or kin of his own to look after in his later life, he has nevertheless been given kind attention for several years past since the misfortune of blindness overtook him by Mrs. V. H. Shelton, who has been particularly good to him for the past six months when his advancing infirmities have kept him confined to his bed most of the time. Mr. Stovall was well known and highly respected in Winona.
At the dawn of the Civil War, two escaped slaves made their way to Winona. One found success…
Peter Stovall, a rich English plantation owner, was the father and master of James W. Stovall. His father had come to America from England. Mr. Stovall said that his father-master was a big-hearted man and treated his slaves considerately. He frequently saw slaves on a neighboring plantation lashed. The mother of Mr. Stovall was the house mistress of the father. He does not know the date of his birth but the year was 1837. He had one brother, John B. Stovall, who lived in Winona at one time.
When a small boy and until 16 years old, James was weak physically. He lived in the same home with his mother and father and was taught to look after his father’s wants. His mother taught him to shave his father and cut his hair; she taught him how to weave, and also how to cook. He was subject to serious attacks of illness and at one time he was fitted for a coffin and the shroud for his burial was made. He recovered, however, and wore the shroud in his daily duties. The sheep were sheared and the cotton put through the gin after which the cloth was spun and woven. All the clothing was made in the home, stockings and trousers etc.
At the age of 16, James was sent into the fields of cotton and corn to work with the other able-bodied slaves. He learned to swing an axe and delighted in working in the timber. He did not like the work in the fields and not until he was held to that kind of labor did he desire to join the army. He had been sent with other slaves under their young masters to work on the breastwork fortifications at Decatur and toiled diligently.
While engaged in the cotton field one day he became discouraged and the following Sunday he went to his mistress, who was in reality his half-sister, and secured permission to attend a church a short distance from the plantation. It was Aug. 3, 1862, and James did not return to his duties on the plantation but volunteered with the union forces, serving as cook.
On Sunday, May 19, following the final 1 p.m. matinee performance of “Mr. James and Mr. Jeff…
Before leaving the plantation, James had an experience which impressed him with the quality of the northern soldiers, whom the Confederates called the little Yankees. Some 25 mounted soldiers wearing the bluecoats with the red lining rode into Decatur at rapid speed, shouting loudly and swinging their sabers. Large forces of entrenched Confederates were stationed there, but at the sight of the bold Yankees they fled in terror.
As the cook in his company, Mr. Stovall witnessed the bloody battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Tenn. The Union army was defeated at the former place and fell back to Chattanooga. At Chickamauga, James was detailed to carry dinner to the soldiers on the firing line, the battle having started at noon. Soon the captain told him to get back under cover and while lying flat in a muddy ditch behind an earthen bank, he decided he had had enough of warfare. A cannon ball struck not far from him, In fact so near that mud splashed upon him.
Under cover in Chattanooga, he witnessed one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Along Mission Ridge, which towered above the city, there was a blaze of fire from the cannon and guns of the rebels, who were strongly entrenched. The little Yankees crept up the mountain side beneath the fire of the guns, and as the rebels turned to run, their own cannon were turned and fired upon them by the victorious Yankees.
Not being enlisted, Mr. Stovall left the Army there and came north to Chicago. He had not realized the purpose of the war, until he found himself free to work for whom he pleased and at compensation of $2.50 a week and board. He said he didn’t know what he would do with all the money at first.
Writing and producing “Mister James and Mister Jeff” has been a personal adventure for me. I…
He remained in Chicago thru both the fires, from 1864 until 1877 and served under two restaurant men, one for six months and one for six years. The balance of the time he spent In business for himself.
In 1877 he came to Winona where his brother had preceded him. He rented the building at 76 West Second Street and started a restaurant with three tables, charging 25 cents for meals. His competitors informed him that he would starve in a short time, but he succeeded and never charged to exceed 25 cents for a meal.
At the end of his first seven years in business he bought the adjoining property on which he erected a building. Later he saved and also purchased the building which he had been renting. He erected a $1,000 monument on his lot in Woodlawn cemetery and gave into the cemetery association $500 with which to flower his future grave.
Mr. Stovall could not read when he came to Winona and acquired what ability he had in figures and letters, through diligent and patient reading of the newspapers. That was his only education.
Mr. Stovall made donations to nearly all of the churches, the Christian associations and various organizations for civic betterment and the good of the better element in the city. He was interested in the church and its work.
Mr. Stovall attended every Republican inauguration since that of President Grant and even took his needle and thread when he went on such trips. He attended various world’s fairs and had a large collection of badges which he was given. One winter he spent at the Hot Springs, Ark.
Mr. Stovall’s brother, John, came to Winona before him, in 1866, with Gen. J. W. Sprague, who became manager of the Winona & St. Peter railroad. In 1875 his brother mysteriously disappeared, and no trace of him since has ever been revealed.
Private funeral services will be held Thursday at 2 p.m., from the home at 74 West Second Street, conducted by the Rev. G. E. Relbert, pastor of the German Presbyterian Church. Burial will be at Woodlawn.