Stonewall Jackson

By January 21, 2016June 22nd, 2021Review Posts


This essay is excerpted from the Preface to Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend (1997) by James I. Robertson, Jr.

Thomas Jonathan Jackson’s walnut bookcase at the Virginia Historical Society contains six shelves filled with the volumes he collected. Almost in the center of the case stand three works side by side. The one in I he middle is John Gibbon’s The Artillerist’s Manual; on its left is the Holy Bible; on the other side is Philip Bennet Power’s “I Will”: Being the Determination of the Man of God. These three books, positioned as they are, epitomize the life of General “Stone­wall” Jackson: a man of arms surrounded by tenets of faith.

In 1861-63, his fame flashed across his own Southern Confederacy, soared over the land of his enemies, and traveled even beyond the seas. Jackson more than anyone else personified the compelling and the virtuous in what subsequent generations would label the “Lost Cause.” Thousands of Southerners (and no small number of North­erners as well) would say for generations that, had Jackson lived, the Confederate quest for independence would have come much closer to realization.

Death removed him from the scene at the apogee of a military fame enjoyed by no other Civil War figure. His passing at a high point in Confederate success was the greatest personal loss suffered by the wartime South. Jackson became the first icon, the ultimate offering for the Southern cause. Death at the hour of his most spectacu­lar victory led to more poems of praise than did any other single event of the war. Jackson was the only dead man to be pictured on Confederate currency—and his likeness graced the most expensive note: a $500 bill.

His fame went beyond the borders of the wartime South. The Confederacy christened two naval vessels as the Stonewall. The first, a pilot boat, fell into Union hands in February 1863 and was converted into a tender for the remainder of the war. Although Federals employed the boat for a different mission, out of courtesy they retained the name Stonewall.

The exciting hopes of the South in 1861 and the smashing victories “Old Jack” achieved in 1862 lost much of their brilliance with his death in the war’s third spring. Yet his devotion to God, duty, and country remain treasured legacies of the American people, just as they are inspirations to people everywhere.

Lord Frederick Roberts, commander in chief of the British armies in the early twentieth century, remarked: “In my opinion Stonewall Jackson was one of the greatest natural military geniuses the world ever saw. I will go even further than that—as a campaigner in the field he never had a superior. In some respects I doubt whether he ever had an equal.” Fifty years later, General Douglas MacArthur charac­terized Jackson as “one of the most remarkable soldiers we have ever known. His mastery of two of the greatest elements for victory in war—surprise and envelop­ment—never has been surpassed. His magnetic personal leadership, which so domi­nated and inspired his men, constituted only one of his many attributes of great­ness.”

Dr. Moses D. Hoge, a pillar of Presbyterianism at the time of the Civil War, saw the Virginian in a quite different light. “To attempt to portray the life of Jackson,” Hoge said, “while leaving out the religious element, would be like undertaking to describe Switzerland without making mention of the Alps.” English clergyman S. Parkes Cadman gave a more detailed explanation of the impact religion made on Jackson’s character. “His alliance with eternal realities; his foretaste of the powers of the world to come; his deep and genuine piety, his adherence to the Bible, the Church, and the Lord’s day, his keeping of his own conscience before God and men, are the outstand­ing traits of a spiritual prince who was greater than anything he did, and whose deeds took rise in his being.”

Jackson’s faith permeated every action of his adult life. 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 subjects on Sunday. Jackson even refused to write letters on “the Lord’s day.” Of the eighty-eight letters excerpted in the biography by his nephew, none bears a Sunday date. Thirty-one were written on Saturday and twenty-seven on Monday. Letters penned on Friday and Saturday were not posted until at least the following Monday.

Divine love and personal self-discipline combined in Jackson to create absolute fearlessness. He could look forward to the next world because he was so constantly aware of its existence.

Military genius and religious devotion are not common traits among mankind. When one individual possesses both seemingly incompatible qualities, he stands alone on a high pedestal that is extraordinary to some, enigmatic to others.

Jackson may be difficult to understand because he was a fascinating mixture of contrasts: complexity and simplicity, harshness and softness, restlessness and repose, eccentricity and excellence, ambition and humility, wrathfulness and righteousness. His comments may have been perceptive, but they were sometimes unorthodox.

In battle, he often said “Good, good,” or “Very commendable,” whether he was praising Confederate gains or reacting to bad news. Once when asked why he had appointed a personally unpopular officer to an important post, Jackson answered, “As he has no friends, he will be impartial in his reports.” On another occasion, he and an aide were riding in the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson had been silent for a long period. The two men stopped to water their horses. The general was remounting when he turned to his companion and asked innocently, “Did you ever think, sir, what an opportunity a battlefield affords liars?”

Strange utterances, and equally strange actions, gave rise to a host of exaggerations, fabrications, and outright untruths about Jackson. Yes, he had many strange manner­isms, but some were honest attempts to combat ailments both real and imagined. He believed in physical fitness and aerobics decades before either became an art. Many of his behavior patterns were unusual; a few seemed unprecedented. However, a staff officer wrote shortly after the war, “It has been the fashion to dwell on his pecu­liarities till one who does not know something of him is apt to get a view of him almost grotesque which does him an injustice.” A minister and close friend added: “In his ordinary course with men, there was nothing about him to attract special observation, or to call for remark of any kind. His manners, it is true, were not polished,’ but neither were they constrained. . . . He was just a simple gentleman.”

Throughout his adult years he followed a strict diet in an effort to overcome the sharp pangs of dyspepsia. That in turn gave rise to one of the most persistent of the Jackson myths, and one totally without foundation: his supposed infatuation with lemons. Novelist John Esten Cooke was one of the first writers to concoct the story of Jackson gnawing feverishly on lemons. General Richard Taylor adorned it shortly by asserting that Jackson “was rarely without one.” Taylor always had a tendency in his postwar writings to convert everyone into characters—especially his own superior, General Richard S. Ewell.

No member of Jackson’s staff, no friend, not even his wife ever mentioned Jackson having a particular penchant for lemons. His Virginia Military Institute colleague, Raleigh Colston, tried to put the story to rest by declaring that a lemon was “a rare treat” that Jackson “enjoyed greatly whenever it could be obtained from the enemy’s camp.” Yet that seemed only to give credence to the Jackson-and-lemons tale.

The truth of the matter is that the general loved all fruit. Peaches were his favorite; but he enjoyed with relish lemons, oranges, watermelons, apples, grapes, berries, or whatever was available. Still, the lemon myth refuses to die.

Such odd habits merely heightened the mystique that swirled around Jackson the soldier. A Confederate chaplain wrote in wonder: “His appearance at any part of the line always and instantly roused . . . wild cheers [that] rent the air as long as he was in sight. . . . This popularity was all the more remarkable when it is remembered that he was very stern, very silent, very reserved, and by no means an ideal leader in appearance.” A commissary in one of Jackson’s brigades presented a widely accepted interpretation of the general: “Nobody seemed to understand him. But so it has been and ever will be: when we ordinary mortals can’t comprehend a genius we get even with him by calling him crazy.”

In truth, however, Jackson’s many facets formed a natural and acceptable blend in his makeup. Only modern writers have created the double-imaged figure of inconsistencies. Those who knew Jackson agreed with John T. L. Preston, one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute. Jackson might have been “the object of pleasant jests for singularities and peculiarities,” Preston declared, “but the confidence of his integrity, force of character, and soundness of mind was universal.” Fifty years ago, the most noted historian of the Army of Northern Virginia admitted the modern difficulty of trying to capture the full depiction of Jackson. “The taste of our generation would tone down the pigments his contemporaries used. . . . He does not lend himself to portraiture. His features, his peculiarities and his subtler characteristics must be developed slowly, shade after shade, by verbal color printing.”

He was thirty-four when he bought his first—and only—home. For a year and a half he knew its sanctuary and its pleasures. Then came civil war. Love of his birthright, Virginia, was one reason Jackson sided with the Southern cause. Defense of hearth and home was another. A third was more philosophical.

Like many men of the South in 1860, Jackson was convinced that Northerners had violated principles of both the Founding Fathers and Christianity by attempting to create a new society that lacked order as well as cohesiveness. The North seemed to be striving to alter basic American structures. Such activity flew in the face of God’s preordained notion of what America should be. If the South did not resist, it would stand in failure of God’s will and possibly become subservient to Northern domina­tion. Thus, in the words of a recent writer, much of the Confederate ideology to which Jackson subscribed “transformed God himself into a nationalist and made war for political independence into a crusade.”

At the order of Virginia authorities, Jackson led the VMI cadets into service. When he departed Lexington that Sunday afternoon in April 1861, “the Major” had no way of knowing that he would never see his adopted hometown again.

Fame and an eternal nickname came to Jackson in the first major battle of the war. By the following spring, an irresolute Confederacy seemed tottering near the edge of defeat. Suddenly Jackson exploded into action in the Shenandoah Valley. Federal forces exuding high confidence one week were fleeing across the Potomac the next; Union confidence turned to concern; officials in Washington went into near panic and sounded the call for additional troops—all the result of an obscure, stern, and reticent Southern general who seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

A North Carolina drillmaster remarked at the time: “It seems Jackson is to be the Napoleon of this war. . . . He resembles Bonaparte in his plan of beating the enemy in detail, in his rapidity of movement and execution, in the attachment of his troops and above all in his good fortune which has never deserted him. He has put an entirely new face upon the appearance of this War.” By the end of spring 1862, Jackson was arguably the most famous field commander in the world. North and South alike viewed his aggressiveness with wonder. A leader of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in Washington conceded that Jackson “has evinced more genius & more real adequacy to military success than any body on either side.”

Jackson always believed in aggressive action: prompt, fierce, and decisive. Strike the foe before he can deliver a blow. If repulsed, fall back and be ready instantly to strike again if the opportunity arises. Seek ever to change a defeat into victory. If successful in the attack, pursue the enemy relentlessly and, by decisive assaults, destroy the force in front. This will end the war.

Such strategy worked brilliantly for Jackson. A widely circulated story throughout the Confederacy was of the devil sending Jackson a petition to stop sending him so many Yankees because he was running out of room!”

Years after the war, a Manassas resident who as a lad saw Jackson several times summed up the general succinctly: “Wasn’t much to look at, but you ought to have seen how his men would look at him. Just like he was God himself.” Soldiers idolized him. A brigadier general (whom Jackson did not particularly like) explained in part why. “It was their common baptism of fire in the battles . . . and his absolute fearlessness, if not unconsciousness, of danger, which endeared him to his men; and gave rise to the saying, when a shout was heard on the march, or in camp, ‘Pshaw! It is only Jackson or a rabbit!'”

He marched relentlessly, fought hard, and counseled with no one. He prayed often, in the solitude of his tent and in the chaos of battle. In preparation for combat, one of his brigadiers noted, Jackson “did not reach his conclusions hastily, but after mature deliberation and prayerful consideration; and when once definitely reached, he was like a meteor in executing.” A Federal officer who termed Jackson “the sledgehammer of the war” was captured in battle. He was not prepared for the stern and un­prepossessing appearance of the Confederate commander. “The first time I saw his face, my heart sank within me.”

Margaret Junkin Preston, his sister-in-law and confidante, put Jackson’s thinking in perfect context. “To serve his country, to do God’s will, to make as short work as possible of the fearful struggle, to be ready for death if at any moment it should come to him—these were the uppermost ideals of his mind, and he would put aside, with an impatient expression, the words of confidence and praise that would be lavished upon him. ‘Give God the glory’ would be his curt reply.”

The Civil War was a contest in which both sides fought gallantly for the absolutes of freedom and independence. Yet Jackson constantly had a higher goal in mind. This servant of the Lord prayed intensely, led his forces with the hope that they might become “an army of the living God,” and even found time in an hour of victory to send an overdue contribution to his home church. Such attitudes may have struck a few observers as unusual, but they were part of the magnetism that made good men want to serve under him.

By November 1862, a matron in the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley was writing: “No one would have thought one year ago that his fame would be spread the wide world over as one of the greatest of Captains. He may well be fearless, as he is ready to meet his God; his lamp is burning, and he waits for the bridegroom.”

The lamp flickered at Chancellorsville and went dark a week later. One reason Jackson’s death struck the South so hard was the widespread belief that he had a charmed life and was immune from serious injury. In the eyes of Confederate soldiers, the general was indispensable. A Georgian acknowledged: “His fights were our fights, his victories were our victories. My individuality, with that of thousands of others, was represented in the power wielded by that great military chieftain.” News of his death stunned the Army of Northern Virginia. “A greater sense of loss and deeper grief never followed the death of mortal man,” a member of the Richmond Howitzers lamented. “Under him we had never suffered defeat. I don’t believe we ever thought of it. We knew that he would provide for our needs to the full of his opportunities. We were the machine he needed to thresh 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.”

Jackson’s passing marked a line of demarcation in the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia. In the ten months that Lee and Jackson were together, delegation of authority had been so lenient—orders permitting a wide latitude in execution so regular—as to create one of history’s greatest military partnerships. Thereafter, starting at Gettysburg, the system failed Lee. He had no executive officer of first-rate ability. He tried to do it all himself. It did not work.

Beyond Gettysburg, and without Jackson, lay something else about the Confederacy’s premier army. Declining strength would naturally play a role; nevertheless, because there was no Jackson, Lee never again attempted the spectacular dividing of his army in the face of numerical superiority or the sweeping flank marches that he undertook when Jackson silently awaited his call. Jackson represented Lee’s mobility, the prime ingredient the Southern army had to have for survival. Without it, the Civil War in the East became a slugging match that the Confederacy could not hope to win.

Judge George L. Christian expressed those thoughts in one of the countless eulogies to Jackson:

A hero came among us, as we slept;
At first he lowly knelt, then rose and wept,
Then gathering up a thousand spears,
He swept across the field of Mars,
Then bowed farewell, and walked among the stars
In the land where we were dreaming.

Today he is an American hero. More than ever, Jackson embodies the famous observation made at his death by one of his former cadets: “He is not Virginia’s alone: God gave him to the world.”

Another VMI student waited until 1886 to express his admiration. With the perspective of thirty years’ reflection, Captain Thomas M. Boyd wrote of his commander: “His fame is as lasting as the solid stones of his native hills . . . and yet there is for him a purer, nobler record—his quiet Christian walk in life, his right words, his faithful, manly bearing, his victory over self, his known devotion to the word of truth. He was indeed a soldier of the cross.”

James I. Robertson, Jr.

James I. Robertson, Jr. is Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Tech.

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