Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson

1824 - 1863

Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born on January 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). His father, a lawyer, died when young Thomas was six and the death left the family impoverished. His mother later remarried but her new husband didn’t like her children, and young Thomas was sent to live with relatives.

By pure luck, Thomas was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The cadet that he replaced stayed only one day before he decided that military life was not for him. Young Thomas was so shy and modest in his ways that his classmates didn’t even notice him for the first six months. What they saw first was that the new plebe was a very strange person indeed.

Even at this young age, Jackson was already a dedicated hypochondriac. He believed that he was suffering from an unusual arrangement of his organs that forever prescribed the way he must sit or stand. For instance, he never bent over because he believed he would be inadvertently compressing something vital. He always assumed a stiff upright posture when sitting. This, of course, set very well with the military bearing of the Academy, but few realized Jackson assumed to posture because he didn’t want to accidentally bend his innards.

Jackson had a repertoire of eccentricities that would be a psychiatrist's delight -- if there were any psychiatrists in those days. He imagined his body to be off balance and he would stand for hours with his right arm over his head to regain his harmony. He was not the best student, but he had plenty of what the academy desired most -- discipline. Upper classman Ulysses Grant at first took him for a military fanatic, as did many other cadets. But eventually, in spite of Jackson’s strange behavior, Grant came to respect the man. “He lived by his maxims,” Grant said later.

Among some of his contradictions in life, Jackson owned slaves, but conducted a Sunday school for slaves, as he was concerned for their souls.   Even though it was against the law for slaves to be educated at that time, Jackson taught slaves to read so they could study the Bible, thus risking arrest for himself and the slaves.  During the war, Jackson occasionally sent money back home to support the black Sunday school class he had established.

Jackson graduated the Academy in 1846 standing 17th in a class of 59. At the time the Mexican War was just beginning. He served in that conflict for two years, in the artillery, then was assigned to the Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. But the peacetime army was not to Jackson’s liking and he resigned his commission in 1851 to accept a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. Thought strange by cadets, he earned “Tom Fool Jackson” and “Old Blue Light” as nicknames.

Jackson’s summer vacations from teaching were often spent vacationing in the North and in Europe where his interests were aroused in art and culture rather than military or political aspects. This somewhat calm, domestic period in his life came to a close on April 21, 1861 when he was ordered to go to Richmond as part of the cadet corps. Since military aspirations had faded from his life, he was virtually unknown in this sphere.

Upon the outbreak of the War for Southern Independence he was commissioned a colonel in the Virginia forces and dispatched to Harpers Ferry where he was active in organizing the raw recruits until relieved by Joe Johnston. Leaving Harpers Ferry, his brigade moved with Johnston to join Beauregard at Manassas. In the fight at 1st Manasses they were so distinguished that both the brigade and its commander were dubbed “Stonewall” by General Barnard Bee. The 1st Brigade was the only Confederate brigade to have its nickname become its official designation.

That fall Jackson was given command of the Shenandoah Valley with a promotion to major general. Jackson led Union troops on a merry chase. His hard hitting victories at Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic went far in giving the Union Army an inferiority complex. He would probably have raised a lot more dust in the valley had it not been that Robert E. Lee ordered him to the Peninsula in Eastern Virginia where 100,000 Union troops under General George McClelland were poised to attack.

A religious man, Jackson always regretted having fought on a Sunday. In May Jackson defeated Fremont’s advance at McDowell and later that month launched a brilliant campaign that kept several Union commanders in the area off balance. Detached from Lee, Jackson swung off to the north to face John Pope’s army and after a slipshod battle at Cedar Mountain, slipped behind Pope and captured his Manassas junction supply base. He then hid along an incomplete branch of railroad and awaited Lee and Longstreet. Attacked before they arrived, he held on until Longstreet could launch a devastating attack which brought a second Manassas victory.

By now, Jackson was a formidable physical presence -- taller than the average soldier. He was quiet, full-bearded with piercing green-gray eyes and a long face. In the invasion of Maryland, Jackson was detached to capture Harpers Ferry and was afterwards distinguished at Sharpsburg with Lee. He was disappointed with the victory at Fredericksburg because it could not be followed up.  In his greatest day he led his corps around the Union right flank at Chancellorsville and routed the 11th Corps. Reconnoitering that night, he was returning to his own lines when he was mortally wounded by some of his own men. He lost his left arm, but it was thought that Jackson would recover. However he died of complications eight days later.

Lee wrote of him with deep feeling: “He has lost his left arm; but I have lost my right arm.” A superb commander, he had several faults. Personnel problems haunted him, as in the feuds with Loring and with Garnett after Kernstown. His choices for promotion were often not first rate. He did not give his subordinates enough latitude, which denied them the training for higher positions under Lee’s loose command style.

There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the South when Jackson died. Lee never did get over the shock and one can only wonder, when Gettysburg was fought two months later, if the outcome of the war might have been much different with Jackson on the field. Some scholars say no. Some say the South would have won in Pennsylvania.

Jackson was a Southern hero, and in spite of his eccentricities, he was loved and respected by his soldiers. His religiosity was constant in all facets of his life. Next to Robert E. Lee himself, Thomas J. Jackson is the most revered of all Confederate commanders. Stonewall Jackson is buried in Lexington, Virginia.

See also: Stonewall Jackson, Champion of Black Literacy