Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson

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Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson

Born January 21, 1824
Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia)
Died May 10, 1863
Guiney Station, Virginia

Confederate general whose successful 1862
Shenandoah campaign and other military exploits
made him beloved throughout the South

Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson is one of the legendary military heroes of the American Civil War. The Virginia native first attracted national attention in 1862, when his brilliant Shenandoah Valley campaign demoralized much larger Union forces. As the most trusted lieutenant of General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry), Jackson then helped guide the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to its greatest battlefield victories. In May 1863, however, Stonewall Jackson's spectacular military career was cut short when he was accidentally shot and fatally wounded by his own troops. His death was a serious blow to the Confederacy. In fact, many Southerners insisted after the war that the conflict might have ended differently if Jackson had not been killed.

A solitary childhood

Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born in a small town called Clarksburg in what is now West Virginia (it was part of Virginia at the time of his birth). The son of poor farmers, he was orphaned at the age of seven. Jackson subsequently went to live on an estate called Jackson's Mill, owned by a wealthy uncle named Cummings Jackson. Young Thomas Jackson spent his next eleven years at Jackson's Mill, where he learned a great deal about its agricultural, sawmill, and racetrack operations. But although he was accepted by his relatives, Jackson apparently felt very lonely as a child. "In his [later] years," his second wife wrote, "he was not disposed [inclined] to talk much of his childhood and youth, for the reason that it was the saddest period of his life."

In 1842, Jackson enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. Jackson was eager to make his mark at the academy, which was the leading military and engineering school in the nation. During his first year, he struggled with homework and had difficulty making friends. As time passed, however, the cadet's determination to succeed helped him rise through the school's academic ranks. Using the saying "You may be whatever you resolve to be" for inspiration, he devoted nearly all of his energies to study. His years at West Point remained solitary ones, but by the time he graduated in 1846, this discipline and desire had lifted him into the upper ranks of his class.

Serves in Mexican War

Jackson graduated from West Point just as the Mexican War (1846–48) was beginning. This clash between America and its southern neighbor came about when the United States became interested in acquiring significant sections of Mexican territory in order to expand its own land holdings. When Mexico refused to give up these lands, the two countries ended up going to war in 1846. The conflict finally ended in 1848, when American military victories forced Mexico to cede (give up) its claims on Texas, California, New Mexico, and other lands in the West in exchange for $15 million. Everyone knew that the land was worth far more than $15 million, but the Mexican government had no choice but to accept the deal.

Eager to test himself in combat, Jackson joined the U.S. Army immediately after graduation. He was named a second lieutenant of artillery and sent to Mexico, where he distinguished himself as a brave and tough officer. By the time the war ended in 1848, Jackson had participated in several of the war's biggest battles, earned three awards for gallantry (heroic courage) in combat, and risen to the brevet (honorary) rank of major.

Jackson returned to the United States after the war concluded. He remained with the army for a few years, serving at posts in New York and Florida. In 1851, however, he resigned from the military to become an instructor in artillery and natural philosophy at the prestigious Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia.

Professor Jackson's struggles

Jackson spent the next ten years of his life at VMI, where he developed a reputation as one of the institute's least effective instructors. He was skilled at teaching artillery, but his natural philosophy classes called for him to teach physics, astronomy, and other subjects that he had never studied. Relying on memorized lectures and strict discipline to disguise his unfamiliarity with the subjects he taught, Jackson was strongly disliked by many cadets. In fact, he was challenged to duels (formal fights with deadly weapons between two people) by cadets on at least two occasions. "[Jackson] had not the qualifications needed for so important a chair," admitted the superintendent of VMI after his departure from the school. "He was no teacher, and he lacked the tact [sensitivity] required in getting along with his classes. Every officer and every cadet respected him for his many sterling [excellent] qualities. He was a brave man, a conscientious man, and a good man, but he was no professor."

Jackson's unusual habits, known as eccentricities, also led some cadets to make fun of their instructor behind his back. For example, Jackson usually ate food that he did not like because he thought that it was probably better for him. He also was a terrible hypochondriac (someone who falsely imagines disease or illness). For instance, he often kept one arm raised up in the air because he thought that the limbs on one side of his body were larger than the other. He believed that by raising his arm, he could drain extra blood out of it and into his other limbs.

Jackson's strange ways and stern teaching style sometimes made it difficult for him to fulfill his duties at VMI. Despite his classroom struggles, however, he enjoyed his years in Lexington. In 1853, he married Elinor Junkin, the daughter of a local minister. Their marriage lasted only fourteen months before she died while trying to give birth to their first child. The death of his wife and child deeply depressed Jackson. In 1857, however, he married another minister's daughter, Mary Anna Morrison. Their marriage was by all accounts a deeply loving one.

Jackson also enjoyed a respected position in the Lexington community. Known for his honesty and devotion to duty, he particularly impressed fellow townspeople with his deep religious faith. "Jackson's faith permeated every action of his adult life," confirmed James I. Robertson Jr. in Stonewall Jackson. "He began each task by offering a blessing, and he completed every duty by returning thanks to God. To say merely that he kept the Sabbath holy would be an understatement. In the prewar years, he would not read a newspaper or discuss secular [non-religious] subjects on Sunday." Jackson's strong religious beliefs eventually led him to organize and teach a Sunday School class for slaves and free blacks, openly defying a state law that prohibited blacks from gathering together in public.

Jackson joins the Confederacy

Jackson's years at VMI ended in 1861, when long-simmering disputes between America's Northern and Southern states finally boiled over into war. For years, the two regions had been arguing over slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish it. But the economy of the South had been built on slavery, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice. In early 1861, these differences over slavery and other issues convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States. They announced their intention to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. In April 1861, the two sides finally went to war over their differences.

Jackson had hoped that his home state of Virginia would choose not to secede. "I am strong for the Union at present, and if things become no worse, I hope to continue so," he stated during the first wave of secession. In April 1861, however, Virginia's state legislature voted to join the Confederacy. When Jackson heard the news, he decided that his loyalty to his home state was greater than his loyalty to the United States.

Upon joining the Confederate Army in April, Jackson was made a colonel of infantry. Within a matter of weeks, however, he was promoted to brigadier general as part of the army of General Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891; see entry). In July 1861, Johnston's army joined with a Confederate force led by General Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893; see entry) to defeat Union forces at Manassas Junction, Virginia, in the first major battle of the Civil War. It was during this clash—known as the First Battle of Bull Run or the First Battle of Manassas—that Jackson acquired the most famous nickname in American military history.

On July 21, Union troops nearly broke through Confederate defenses at a place called Henry House Hill. But Jackson and his brigade (military unit consisting of two or more regiments) rushed to stop the advance. As they held their position against several waves of Union attacks, Confederate general Barnard E. Bee (1824–1861) encouraged his men by pointing to Jackson's brave example. "Look, men! There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!" Jackson's courageous stand at Henry House Hill thus earned him the nickname "Stonewall" and his brigade the title of the "Stonewall Brigade." For the remainder of the war, Jackson's brigade was the only Confederate brigade to have its nickname become its official designation.

Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign

In October 1861, the Confederate War Department promoted Stonewall Jackson to major general and gave him command of the entire Shenandoah Valley. This forested region of western Virginia was regarded as strategically important to both sides, because it could be used by either Union or Confederate forces as a natural invasion route. The following March, Jackson entered the Shenandoah Valley with an army of about eight thousand men (reinforcements eventually increased the size of his army to about fifteen thousand men). Jackson's orders were to prevent Union forces from seizing control of the region and keep Union troops operating in the valley so busy that they could not provide assistance to Northern armies that were invading eastern Virginia.

Jackson's mission was an enormously difficult one. After all, he faced Union forces that totaled almost eighty thousand troops. Over the next three months, however, Stonewall conducted a dazzling campaign that thoroughly baffled and frustrated the enemy. On several occasions, Jackson's Confederate troops won big victories over Union armies of much greater size. At other times, Stonewall and his troops seemed to melt into the woodlands of the Shenandoah region, repeatedly escaping Union traps.

By May, Jackson's maneuvers had thrown the North's military leaders into such complete confusion that they became worried about a Jackson-led attack on Washington, D.C. This perceived threat to the U.S. capital convinced President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) to keep an additional forty thousand troops around Washington rather than let them join the Union offensive in eastern Virginia. Lincoln also ordered additional Union troops into the Shenandoah Valley to neutralize Jackson. But Jackson continued to strike against his enemies, avoiding all Union efforts to stop him. Eventually, even his Union opponents expressed admiration for his brilliant tactics and fearlessness. "[Jackson's] chief characteristics as a military leader were his quick perceptions of the weak points of the enemy, his ever readiness, the astounding rapidity of his movements, his sudden and unexpected onslaughts [intense attacks], and the persistency with which he followed them up," said one Union officer. "His ruling maxim [saying] was that war meant fighting, and fighting meant killing, and right loyally did he live up to it."

Jackson and his army remained in the Shenandoah Valley until mid-June. The legendary general then slipped away to eastern Virginia, where Union armies were trying to reach the Confederate capital of Richmond. Upon arriving in the region, he helped General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia stop the Union invasion and force the Yankee (Union) Army to return to the North.

Lee's greatest lieutenant

Stonewall Jackson's spectacular Shenandoah Valley campaign made him famous across the country. In Southern communities, tales of his bold deeds instantly made him the first great Confederate military hero. Even more importantly, however, Jackson's performance in the valley made his troops extremely devoted to him. "There was a charm about General Jackson which inspired all private soldiers under his command with a sublime [perfect], unquestioned confidence in his leadership," said one rebel officer. "An indescribable something amounting almost to fascination on the part of his soldiers that induced [caused] them to do uncomplainingly whatever he would order." The only troops that Jackson did not get along with were his officers. He often refused to discuss military strategy with them, and punished them severely for even minor violations.

After joining Lee in June 1862, Jackson remained with the Army of Northern Virginia. Recognizing Jackson's bravery and tactical knowledge, Lee decided that he wanted to keep him in Virginia, where much of the war's heaviest fighting was taking place. Over the next several months, Jackson and his troops emerged as Lee's deadliest weapon. In battle after battle—including the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 1862), the Battle of Sharpsburg (also known as the Battle of Antietam; September 1862), and the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862)—Jackson and his troops delivered devastating blows against their Union enemies. These blows lifted Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to many of their greatest victories.

These triumphs increased Stonewall's legendary reputation in the South. But he refused to take any credit for these victories, even after his October 1862 promotion to lieutenant general gave him command of half of Lee's army. Instead, the deeply religious Jackson claimed that his successes were the will of God. Jackson saw the war "as a trial ordained [ordered] by God to test the faith of man," explained historian James I. Robertson Jr. "[According to Jackson], the Civil War was a religious crusade [holy mission] to regain the Almighty's favor. Christian faith and the Confederate cause were, for Jackson, one and the same."

Battle of Chancellorsville

The greatest victory of the Lee-Jackson partnership came in early May 1863, when their sixty thousand–troop army whipped a Union force of 130,000 men at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. This dramatic rebel (Confederate) triumph against overwhelming odds was Lee's finest moment. He used his strong defensive position effectively, and devised clever troop movements that thoroughly confused his Union counterparts. The key to Lee's victory, however, was his decision to send Jackson on a deadly attack against the enemy's exposed flanks on May 2. This brutal assault struck a crushing blow against the Union Army, which retreated to the North a few days later.

Nonetheless, Stonewall's successful attack ended in tragedy for the South. As evening fell over the battlefield, a group of Confederate soldiers accidentally shot Jackson, who had been returning to camp after scouting out the enemy's position. At first, it appeared that he might recover from his three bullet wounds, even though doctors had to amputate his left arm. But Jackson developed pneumonia, which doctors could not treat at that time. His condition quickly worsened and he died on May 10, 1863.

A Confederate legend

When Stonewall Jackson died, the entire South went into mourning. "The affections of every household in the [Confederate] nation were twined about this great and unselfish warrior," stated the Richmond Daily Dispatch. "He has fallen, and a nation weeps." Historian James I. Robertson called Jackson's death "the greatest personal loss [the Confederacy] would ever know. . . . The effect on the civilian population could only be called paralyzing."

Stonewall's death stunned his fellow rebel soldiers as well. "A greater sense of loss and deeper grief never followed the death of mortal man," wrote one veteran of the Stonewall Brigade. "Under him we had never suffered defeat. . . . We were the machine he needed to thresh [process] his grain, and the machine must be in order. We knew he would not needlessly risk our lives, and we knew that when needful to accomplish an object, our lives were as nothing, success was all that counted. We had a confidence in him that knew no bounds, and he knew and appreciated it. He was a soldier, and a great one, to our cause; his loss was irreparable."

Where to Learn More

Alexander, Bevin. Lost Victories: The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson. New York: Holt, 1992.

Bennett, Barbara J. Stonewall Jackson: Lee's Greatest Lieutenant. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Farwell, Bryon. Stonewall: A Biography of General Thomas J. Jackson. New York: Norton, 1992.

Pflueger, Lynda. Stonewall Jackson: Confederate General. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.

Robertson, James I., Jr. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend. New York: Macmillan, 1997.

Royster, Charles. The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman,Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Southern California Stonewall Jackson Society. Stonewall Jackson Home-page. [Online] (accessed on October 10, 1999).

Stonewall Jackson House. [Online] (accessed on October 10, 1999).

The Strange Tale of Stonewall's Arm

When Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, one of the bullets that struck him shattered the bone in his left arm below the shoulder. Doctors amputated the arm in an effort to save him, then rushed Jackson off to a safe spot so that he could recover. Their efforts failed, however, when pneumonia claimed the soldier's life a few days later. Jackson's body was then taken to Richmond, where more than twenty thousand mourners paid their respects to him before his burial in a Lexington cemetery.

Stonewall's amputated arm, meanwhile, remained at Chancellorsville. An aide bundled up the arm and carried it to a nearby graveyard, where it was buried on May 3. A short time later, a stone with an inscription that read "Arm of Stonewall Jackson May 3 1863" was placed on the burial spot. The arm lay undisturbed until 1921, when Marine Corps general Smedley D. Butler (1881–1940) expressed dis-belief that Jackson's arm was really buried there. He dug up the spot, only to find the arm nestled in a box. Stunned and regretful of his actions, Butler reburied the arm and erected a bronze plaque honoring the spot. The plaque was eventually stolen, but the original stone marker continues to stand watch over the final resting place of Stonewall's arm.