On a recent episode of the Flagrant podcast [1], comedian Shane Gillis went on a short rant about Stonewall Jackson. Gillis is a known history buff that frequently brings up history in his stand up comedy and talk show appearances. Even though this particular conversation covered various topics, the most interesting part was his take on Stonewall Jackson’s mental health:

“Stonewall Jackson. He was an autistic man. Clearly. A hundred percent. Yeah. Why? I don’t know…there’s a book… about Jackson called Rebel Yell. And it’s clearly, he’s just an autistic guy.”

Gillis elaborated on why Stonewall was apparently autistic:

“Like, he got, he hurt his hand or something and he just always held it up because he was like, ‘I don’t want the blood to go down back to where the cut was’… He thought God would decide when he died. So he would, he was not afraid of, he would just stand there. That’s how he got his name Stonewall… ‘Look at him. Look at him.’ He was just standing there like a Stonewall. He was just getting shot at. He was, there was one that when he was in school, one of his commanding officers was like, like at attention when he walked by him. And then he came by the next day and he was still standing there. He was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ And [Jackson] was like, ‘I’m not gonna disobey your orders.’ He’s like, ‘All right dude, you’re psycho.’“

Gillis made some interesting points here. Jackson was an intensely religious man whose belief taught him to feel as safe in battle as in bed. He was known to fixate on religion at times, an attribute commonly found in individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, which tends to cause intense focus on certain subjects. Stonewall was also known as a hypochondriac, believing that standing for long periods of time contributed to good help by keeping his internal organs in place. In a memoir from Dabney Maury, it was stated that Jackson was “awkward and uncultured”, believed one side of his body was heavier than the other, and would raise his heavier arm up so that the blood would run back into his body and lighten it. [2] Jackson also allegedly once refused pepper to avoid weakening his left leg and was even claimed to have wrapped himself in wet sheets before attending Sunday services. Some modern physicians have hypothesized that Jackson’s feelings of discord in his body could have been the result of a chronic gastrointestinal issue that started sometime after his service in the Mexican War. [3]

So was Stonewall Jackson autistic, or possibly suffering from some sort of physical ailment? A 1989 study found that the two predominant signs of Asperger’s syndrome include frequent solitary activity and social relationship problems. [4] There is much evidence that Jackson fits these criteria. One example can be found through Stonewall’s nephew, Henry Kyd Douglas, who wrote the book I Rode With Stonewall and stated:

“…the General always kept himself very much apart…he did not encourage social calls…I never knew him to temper justice with mercy…I can recall no case when he remitted or modified a punishment that he believed to be just and according to the law. He was governed by his judgment alone, by his strict construction of his sense of duty, by the demands of the public service. There was no place for sentiment or pity. In the execution of the law he was inexorable, justice and mercy seemed out of place.”

It also seems that the majority of Stonewall’s adult life was riddled with situations of social awkwardness and an apparent lack of empathy. After his service in the Mexican War, Jackson lived in Virginia and became a professor of artillery tactics at Virginia Military Institute. While here, Jackson became known for unusual behavior like repetitively reciting lessons from the book, repeating the explanation to students that did not understand, and punishing them for insubordination if they continued to ask for help.

Henry Douglas noted that Jackson rarely laughed, was reserved or awkward in company, and talked very little – even when it came to his military plans. On one occasion, a soldier wanted to visit his sick wife before she died and Jackson responded “Man, do you love your wife more than your country?” and turned away. Douglas also described Jackson as the “worst-dressed, worst mounted, most faded and dingy-looking general” and “the most awkward man in the army”. Ken Burns’ documentary on The Civil War also features Shelby Foote noting that during the Battle of Antietam, there was a moment where Jackson was eating a peach while surveying a battlefield covered in corpses and said “God has been very kind to us this day.”

At the end of the day, it is difficult to classify someone in history as having had a mental illness that wasn’t yet diagnosable in their time. If Jackson were indeed living with something like Asperger’s syndrome, it’s important to remember that individuals with this condition can be extremely high functioning and are often brilliant. In other words, it does not diminish Jackson’s deserved heroic reputation among Southerners.

S.C. Gwynne, author of Rebel Yell, pointed this out when he said the following in a Facebook post on February 26, 2015:

“I have received a good deal of mail on an interesting subject: whether Stonewall Jackson had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that was not standardized as a diagnosis until the 1990s. This is not the first time someone has noticed this. Several articles in journals of psychology and a 2007 book suggested that Jackson—along with many other famous names from history, including Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and W.A. Mozart–would almost certainly be diagnosed today as having Asperger’s. I am no psychologist, but the checklist of symptoms is fairly obvious: an obsession with doing exactly the right thing and following the rules; inability to get along with peers; difficulty making friends; intense preoccupation with a narrow subject as well as an advanced ability to focus intensely on a single line of thought; high IQ; shyness and reserve; formal, idiosyncratic speech; limited empathy for peers; an inability to grasp figurative concepts and a tendency to take what others say literally; and physical clumsiness. I thought I had found one exception to this. As I describe in my book, Jackson had something of a dual personality: he was shy and reserved in public but could be ebullient, loving and passionate with his wife and sister-in-law. (At different times.) But it turns out that AS people often have one very close friend to whom they open up (often their spouse)…One of the best descriptions I read was this: the AS person is the one in a car on the highway traveling exactly the speed limit in the right-hand lane, and refusing to slow down to let merging cars come in from the right. Following the absolute letter of the law and annoying everyone around him. Sounds like my man.” [5]



[1] FLAGRANT Podcast – “Shane Gillis on Wrestling Joe Rogan, Stylebender Loss, & Why Napoleon is The GOAT” – https://youtu.be/_-KASW3lX5w?si=d9frdBcVXhQvDRJ

[2] Dabney Maury, “Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars”. Page 71, Obtained from Documenting the American South website – https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/maury/maury.html

[3] Chronic Gastrointestinal Symptoms of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson following Mexican-American War Exposure: A Medical Hypothesis, Timothy R. Koch, MD, Joseph B. Kirsner, MD, PhD. Military Medicine, Volume 172, Issue 1, January 2007, Pages 6–8, Obtained from Military Medicine Website – https://academic.oup.com/milmed/article/172/1/6/4578902

[4] Szatmari (1989) Asperger’s Syndrome: A review of Clinical Features. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 34, 544-560

[5] S.C. Gwynne Facebook Post – https://www.facebook.com/100969313323449/posts/i-have-received-a-good-deal-of-mail-on-an-interesting-subject-whether-stonewall-/796297173790656/

Michael Martin

Michael Martin is a teacher and independent historian currently residing in Eastern North Carolina. He's the author of Southern Grit: Sensing the Siege of Petersburg from Shotwell Publishing and you can find more of his work on his YouTube channel, Truth Decay.

One Comment

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    There’s only a problem with over-diagnosis. Over-diagnosis is a symptom of too much emphasis on the medical industry.

    When is the last time you heard a drug company tell its customers to go exercise, get some exposure to the sun and quit eating sugar?

    The editors of NEJM and Lancet both stated fraud was rampant in medical research…AS IN…most of it is fraudulent.

    Maybe Stonewall was vaxxinated as a child. Stonewall would tell you clean water and hygiene will keep an army in fighting shape. He would have loved chlorinated water and window screen…or perhaps he would have told you chlorinated water stunted the growth of plants and window screen prevented sickle cell from protecting against malaria. Or maybe he would have said, “if Europeans had developed sickle cell, there would have been no reason to bring Africans to the New World.”

    All kinds of possibilities.

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