“God has fixed the time of my death. I do not concern myself about that…” – Thomas Jackson
“War means fighting. The business of a soldier is to fight… This will involve great destruction of life and property” – Thomas Jackson
His mother and father named him Thomas Jonathan Jackson, but both died while he was still a child. His sister Laura Ann called him Tom (or Dearest Tom). When he taught at Virginia Military Institute, the cadets called him Tom Fool, and, because of his religious fervor, some called him Old Blue Light. Later, at age 37, he was affectionately called “Old Jack” by the men who served under him in the Civil War.
Then, after July 21, 1861, he became known as “Stonewall” and that name stuck. Some question, however, whether the General who originally referred to Jackson as “a stone wall” intended the remark as a compliment or an insult. But, more on that later.
Thomas was born in 1824 and became an orphan at seven. He was separated from his sister, with whom he was very close, and was sent to live with first one relative then another; but never in a home with a loving and supportive father and mother. At age eleven, he ran away from the home where he had been placed and walked through the night back to where he had last lived with his mother; and a half-uncle took him in, but he was never close to the family. He worked as a farm hand and was permitted to receive a reasonable early education and he remained on that farm until he left for military school. As a boy, he was considered “slow” to learn, awkward in movements, shy to the extreme, and had few friends. When he was finally united with his sister in his early teens, they developed a loving bond that literally helped sustain Thomas in his darkest hours for the next twenty years. But, unfortunately, even that bond was broken.
Never a very good student, he was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy only after the first selectee dropped out. As a first-year cadet he struggled with academics, but adapted well to the harsh discipline; which, perhaps, was less severe than he had known as a displaced child. He was near the bottom of his class of sixty at the end of his first year, but, showed improvement each following year and finally graduated in seventeenth place in 1846. One instructor remarked on Jackson’s steady progress and said, “If he had one more year he would have been near first.” Jackson never quite mastered one task, at least to the satisfaction of his instructors. A critical skill for young Army officers was horsemanship, and cadets were expected to excel and conform to a classic posture in the saddle. Jackson was a good rider but, as a boy, had learned to lean forward in the saddle and he always drooped one shoulder while riding; so West Point instructors downgraded him. He could, at times, instructors noted, also be careless with his appearance; a habit that continued even as a Confederate General, when his uniforms were often described as rumpled or well worn. On the other hand, he did well enough in artillery and engineering to raise his over-all standing in his class. And, while he was not a popular cadet and made few close friends, he was respected for his hard work. Almost immediately upon graduation, Thomas left to fight in the War with Mexico, where he distinguished himself in several battles; and was personally singled out for recognition by General Winfield Scott, the commander of U.S. forces.
In those days, most Academy graduates had primarily sought an advanced education, not necessarily a military career, and only stayed in U.S. Army for a few years. Jackson was no exception, and he left the Army in 1851, but, he did not stray far-afield as he joined the staff at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He was still without social graces, spoke little when in groups, and, by most accounts, was not a good teacher. Former students later recalled that he would stand nearly motionless and deliver his lectures in a monotone and expected his students to learn from textbooks, supplemented by his lectures; and he rarely provided any personal attention. He was seen as unemotional, not very empathetic, and the only subject which could cause him to join a group discussion was religion; a topic he thought important enough for reflection. He did finally marry at age 29, but his first wife died within a year in childbirth, along with an infant.
Thomas was devastated; however, his religious faith, along with support from his sister, sustained him during this period. Jackson always had a connection to religion, but now, he went all in. He joined the local Presbyterian Church and gradually changed from a “believer” to a “near zealot” as described by one observer. Another contemporary said, “Never have I seen a human being as thoroughly governed by duty. He lived only to please God. His daily life was a daily offering up of himself.”
He married again in 1857 to Mary Anna Morrison, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and she shared Thomas’s devotion to his faith. She also shared his unorthodox views on slavery. While he thought human-bondage was in accordance with God’s will, he believed mistreatment of slaves was immoral. To the consternation of neighbors, he and his wife taught slave children to read and write, in violation of Virginia law. They also held Sunday school classes for children and adult slaves, as they believed they had a duty to bring their Christian message to the slaves.
Jackson hoped that Civil War could be avoided, and although VMI was a hotbed of secessionist discussion, Jackson urged caution. He had seen the devastation that war brought to communities in Mexico and believed that, if Civil War came, the state of Virginia would become a main battlefield. He had another reason to be concerned if Virginia determined to secede; he and his beloved sister, Laura Ann, began to experience strains in their relationship as she was opposed to secession and to the formation of the Confederate States of America as a separate nation.
After the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, Jackson did not immediately leave VMI to serve in the Confederate Army; but rather, he waited to see if Virginia, which had not yet left the Union, would vote to secede. Jackson believed secession was unnecessary and un-wise, but he vowed to follow the decision of his home state. When Virginia voted to secede and Jackson joined the Confederacy, his relationship with his sister became bitter. Laura Ann and her family were so opposed to the secessionist politics in Virginia, that they worked over the next two years to have the Union recognize West Virginia as a separate state; ripped away from the old Commonwealth of Virginia to which Thomas was so loyal.
Unfortunately, he and Laura never reconciled.
Jackson’s first assignment in the Confederate Army was as a drill instructor, directed to instill some degree of discipline in new recruits, who were often uneducated farm boys. Jackson embraced this duty because he knew it was important to build cohesiveness within the troops in preparation for the chaos of battle. After a month, he was given command of a unit and dispatched to an area where many expected the first, and some thought possibly the last, battle of the new Civil War would occur.
The opposing armies were gathering close to Manassas Junction, Virginia, near Bull Run Creek; and Jackson would soon lead troops into battle for the first time since the Mexican War, fifteen years earlier.
His understanding of “God’s will” convinced Jackson that the Civil War was visited upon the Country as a curse by God for the nation’s many failures to follow scriptures; and, in his mind, devotion would decide the victor. That belief also gave Jackson a total lack of fear in battle. What some saw as courage, or even recklessness, Jackson saw as a belief that his death would be timed by God, not by another human being. He once said, “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed.”
But, religious fervor aside, during the earlier war with Mexico, Jackson had proven to possess an uncanny ability to make the right tactical moves in almost every battle situation. Other officers noted that Jackson could quickly ascertain a rapidly changing battle situation and create opportunity for victory; or, what military experts refer to as “battleground sense” or “battlefield awareness.”
Then, suddenly on July 21, 1861, he became known as Stonewall!
The circumstances of the nickname are still debated by some. Only a few months after the war started, Jackson found himself in Northern Virginia, at Manassas Junction, between the Union Capital at Washington DC and the Confederate Capital at Richmond. Union attacks were beginning to push back Confederate positions; but Jackson’s men held their ground and were in a position to reinforce the troops of General Bernard Bee, whose men were beginning to break ranks. Bee rode through his disorganized soldiers reportedly shouting; “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here and we will conquer.” Based on an observation by a General, who did not personally hear the remarks, a few historians claim it was intended as an insult, because Jackson did not move quickly enough to provide needed support to Bee’s troops. But to most Civil War experts, and certainly all Confederate aficionados, General Bee meant that Jackson was holding his own and intended to use Jackson’s men as inspiration for a rallying cry. The debate about General Bee’s intent will go on, since the General was killed moments later. But, Jackson’s new nickname stuck, believed by most to be a compliment to his steadfastness, and General Jackson became “Stonewall” forever after. The new name was also adopted by the forces under his command, which became known as the “Stonewall Brigade.”
After that July battle, which Confederates named Manassas but the Union called Bull Run, Stonewall Jackson’s victories became the stuff of legends. While occasionally he made mistakes which caused setbacks in some battle situations, victories at places like Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys, Port Republic, Fredericksburg, and then a stunning victory at Chancellorsville, are all well known to those who study the Civil War.
He was not a “background” General but was always present at the battlefield which earned him the respect of his troops. He was a harsh disciplinarian, but was consistent and fair, so morale in his units remained high, despite heavy casualties. Although, one soldier who served under him reportedly said (sarcastically) of his discipline; “I think the General has shot more of us than the Yankees.”
On May 2, 1863, Stonewall Jackson, in a brilliant tactical decision, led his men in a multi-pronged assault on a larger Union force at Chancellorsville, Virginia. It was a clear victory as Confederate troops pushed back to, and even through, the Union lines. As darkness approached, General Jackson and his aides were returning to his camp after reviewing Union emplacements, when Confederate pickets mistook the riders for enemy scouts and opened fire. Jackson was hit by first one, then a second volley; and he suffered wounds to his left arm and right hand.
Upon hearing that Jackson had been wounded, General Robert E. Lee sent a message to his most dependable General; “Could I have directed events, I would have chosen for the good of the Country to be disabled in your stead.”
His wounds were serious and his arm had to be amputated. He was taken to a nearby plantation for what he expected would be a brief recovery before rejoining his men, but, after several days, he contracted pneumonia and his overall condition gradually worsened. On Sunday, May 10, 1863, eight days after being wounded, his doctor told Jackson there was nothing more to do and he would likely die that day. Jackson’s reply was; “It is the Lord’s day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on a Sunday. Well, it is a Sunday, and I would like to meet the Lord on a Sunday.”
When Jackson died, General Lee said, “I have lost my right arm” and “I am bleeding at the heart.” But, his sister, Laura, an ardent supporter of the Union, would say, “I would rather know that he is dead than to have him a leader in the rebel army.” It seems that these two disparate sentiments capture perfectly the deep divisions in the country at the time.
A minister in Richmond said; “To attempt to portray the life of Jackson while leaving out the religious element, would be like undertaking to portray Switzerland without making mention of the Alps.” And, one of his biographers, Robert L. Dabney said, “It was the fear of God which made him so fearless of all else.”
Abraham Lincoln believed that many of the Southern Generals, who had once served in the U.S. Army, were good men who had made a misguided decision when they joined the Confederate forces. After reading an obituary of Jackson in the Washington Chronicle, Lincoln, in an extraordinary gesture, wrote to the newspaper’s publisher; “I wish to lose no time in thanking you for the article on Stonewall Jackson. He was a true Christian gentleman and soldier.”
Although from an unlikely source, it was a fitting tribute!