This essay is part of the chapter “Southerners” in Brion McClanahan’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes.
The Northern essayist and Republican partisan E.L. Godkin wrote following the death of “Stonewall” Jackson in 1863 that Jackson was “the most extraordinary phenomenon of this extraordinary war. Pure, honest, simple-minded, unselfish, and brave, his death is a loss to the whole of America, for, whatever be the result of this war, the United States will enjoy the honor of having bred and educated him.” Godkin claimed him because he recognized that Jackson was more than a representative of the South, he was an American hero, pure and simple.
Jackson was born in 1824 in Clarksburg, Virginia. While the Jacksons had a solid reputation in America, they came from humble beginnings. Both his great-grandfather and great-grandmother arrived in America as indentured servants having both been convicted of theft. They fell in love on the voyage over, and once they had satisfied their indentures, married and moved to the frontier where they acquired vast tracts of land. Both Jackson’s great-grandfather and grandfather served with distinction in the American War for Independence and has great-grandmother used the Jackson homestead as a refuge for dislocated American settlers during the war.
Jackson’s father died when he was a boy, something both Jackson and Lee shared in common, and his mother, left with a crushing debt, sold their farm and moved to a one-room rental. Jackson was only six and was left an orphan when his mother died five years later. After bouncing between relatives for a few years, Jackson eventually settled on his uncle’s frontier farm. He was largely self-educated and even taught one of his uncle’s slaves how to read and write.
Though he lacked a formal education and had difficulty with the entrance exams, Jackson was admitted to West Point in 1842. He was at the bottom of his class, but he studied with a dogged determination that became a well-known character trait, and by the time he graduated in 1846, he was seventeenth out of fifty-nine cadets. Jackson did not choose the military because he longed to be a soldier. What Jackson wanted most was to sharpen his character as a man. The military, in his mind, offered the best opportunity for success and respect. He is known for his military acumen, but his career and the famous decisions he made in battle were shaped by his character. Like Washington and Lee, the War did not define them, they defined the War.
Jackson was socially awkward as a young man and had several eccentricities throughout his life, often to the amusement of his contemporaries. Unlike Lee and many Virginians from the tidewater region, he did not have the social refinement typical of Southern gentlemen. But Jackson was the perfect example of what Thomas Jefferson and other members of the founding generation considered the “natural aristocracy.” In addition to honesty, integrity and determination—while a West Point cadet informed his cousin that, “I can do anything I will to do”—Jackson had talent, a keen mind, and the ability to make quick, correct decisions on the battlefield. He would have been successful in any endeavor he chose.
Like many generals on both sides in the War Between the States, Jackson received his first taste of combat in the Mexican War. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and saw action as part of the 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment. He was awarded more battlefield promotions than any other American officer during the war and garnered Winfield Scott’s highest regard when the conflict was over. Jackson exhibited the calmness in battle that later earned him the nickname “Stonewall” during the War Between the States. He had a cannon ball land between his legs, stood his ground under a hail of led at Chapultepec, and encouraged his men to fight because, in his words, “I am not hit!” His bravery was never questioned.
It was also during the Mexican War that Jackson reinforced his Christian beliefs. If there is any surviving legacy from Thomas Jackson, it is that of the ideal Christian soldier, or perhaps the model Christian man. His unflinching actions on the battlefield were guided by his resolute Christian faith. He flirted with Catholicism while in Mexico (and became somewhat fluent in Spanish), was baptized in the Episcopal Church, and finally settled on Presbyterianism upon his return to Virginia. A common description of Jackson is that he lived by the New Testament but fought by the Old. He was a warm, tender, dutiful and faithful husband. His second wife, Mary Anna, wrote he, “was a great advocate for marriage, appreciating the gentler sex so highly that whenever he met one of the “unappropriated blessings” under the type of truest womanhood, he would wish that one of his bachelor friends could be fortunate enough to win her” (his first wife died in childbirth).
Jackson spent tens years as an instructor of artillery at the Virginia Military Institute. He was not well liked by the students or the alumni and received the nickname “Tom Fool.” His uncle and mother had been teachers, but Jackson did not receive their gift of pedagogy. He memorized his lectures and answered questions by repeating what he had previously memorized. A second question from a student resulted in punishment. Yet, Jackson took his duty as a Christian man seriously with his students and the black population of Lexington, Virginia. He began every lecture with a prayer in the hope that his students would be encouraged by the word of God, and he led Sunday school classes for the black population, both free and slave, of Lexington.
Jackson owned no more than six slaves as an adult. Four were given as a wedding gift, and two requested that he purchase them so they could work for a man of Jackson’s kind temperament. He honored their request. One of his slaves was a young girl with a learning disability given to his wife as a gift. Like Lee, Jackson never made any statements in support of slavery. He was typical of many Southerners in his belief that slavery was ordained by God, that slaves had been given that burden by the hand of God, and that as a Christian man he was required to be a kind master. His pastor described his relationship to the black population of Lexington as thus: “In their religious instruction he succeeded wonderfully. His discipline was systematic and firm, but very kind. … His servants reverenced and loved him, as they would have done a brother or father. … He was emphatically the black man’s friend.” Jackson either freed his slaves or hired them out during the War Between the States.
Jackson was not a secessionist. He remained relatively neutral in the events leading to the “Secession Winter” of 1860 and 1861, but like Lee, once Virginia determined to leave the Union, he supported the cause with a vigor virtually unmatched by anyone south of the Mason-Dixon. He preferred waging an aggressive, punishing war on the North, of taking the bayonet to the enemy in the enemy’s territory, but though his strategic assessment of the military situation in 1861 was probably correct and may have won the South the War, he was overruled by the more conservative members of the military brain-trust, most importantly President Jefferson Davis. The War, they argued, had to be a just, defensive cause to preserve the South. Lee shared Jackson’s advocacy of an offensive war, but differed in the scope of such a conflict. The two men, however, would serve as the perfect one-two punch during the early years of the War Between the States. Jackson was the ideal complement to Lee’s selectively aggressive style.
“Stonewall” Jackson earned his famous nickname during the first major engagement of the War, the First Battle of Manassas. His early efforts during the War involved organizing and training several companies of Virginia volunteers in the Shenandoah Valley. “Stonewall’s Brigade” as they would be called was perhaps the best trained and disciplined group of men in the Southern army. They were also affectionately referred to as the “foot cavalry” for their ability, at their commander’s firm insistence, to ignore pain, suffering, and sickness in their long, quick marches against the enemy. These men saved the day at Manassas in July 1861 by standing firm against a punishing Union assault on Henry House Hill. General Bernard Bee of South Carolina said after seeing Jackson and his men holding the line in the face of the onrushing Union army, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” There is some debate as to whether Bee, soon killed in combat, was leveling praise or scorn on Jackson. Either way, the nickname stuck.
This was typical Jackson. The lead was flying, the situation tense, and Jackson steadily and bravely stared down the enemy. Because of Jackson and his men, what looked to be an early Union victory turned into a Confederate rout, and a legend was born. Jackson was once asked how he could stand so calm in the face of battle. He responded that his belief in God, his firm Christianity, made him as safe on the battlefield as in his bed. His death was not his choosing and he was as prepared for it in peace as he was in war.
Jackson’s fame only grew. With fewer men (often outnumbered 4 to 1), he punished and tied up the Union army in the Shenandoah Valley, a campaign that is still studied in West Point today. His penchant for relentless attack struck fear into the hearts of the Union command. At one point, a large detachment of Union men evacuated a town on the mere suspicion that Jackson was going to attack. He was, but his men were probably too sick and tired to fight. Such is the benefit of a disorienting, hard hitting approach to battle. No one knew where Jackson was, and no one could expect what he would do next. His unconventional approach to warfare was pure military genius. Jackson understood human nature better than most, particularly during what Karl von Clausewitz called the “fog of war.” Most men did not share his calmness in the face of fire and would shrink when the action was too hot. Jackson always turned up the heat.
His most brilliant strategic plan would ultimately be his last. Jackson orchestrated the Confederate attack at Chancellorsville in 1863. He persuaded Lee to split his army, sending Jackson’s corps to assault the Union right flank while Lee held them off at Fredericksburg. It was a risky maneuver, for they were outnumbered two-to-one, but with expert reconnaissance, Jackson formed a surprise attack that pushed the Union right flank back against the Rappahannock River in classic double envelopment. His quick strike led to fluid lines as the Union troops were running from the Confederate assault. Jackson, in the twilight, was scouting his forward position when the 18th North Carolina Infantry confused him and his staff for a Union detachment. They fired, striking Jackson three times. His left arm was amputated, but it was pneumonia that took Jackson’s life one week later.
He was mindful of his situation until the end, saying he always wanted to die on a Sunday. God granted him his wish. His last words, “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees,” were a fitting end to Jackson’s life. He had found peace in war. The Confederate cause, however, would never be the same. Lee struggled to replace Jackson’s aggressive tactics and claimed later in life that had Jackson had been alive during the Battle of Gettysburg, the outcome would have been different, and the South would have won her independence. Fate intervened. The historian James Robertson called Jackson “a man of arms surrounded by faith,” and said Jackson’s biography was “the life story of an extraordinary man who became a general.” He was more than a master military mind. Jackson, as one of his former students said, was “a soldier of the cross.”