General T. J. Jackson — Better Known as “Stonewall”
Matthew B. Wills
Matthew Wills is an erstwhile lawyer who has turned to historical writing. His latest book was a biography of a captain in the British Royal Navy, which led to an invitation for him to write for the Naval Review magazine. He grew up in Tennessee.
Thomas J. Jackson was born at Clarksburg, Virginia, on January 21, 1824. Early in his life, young Jackson experienced the greatest tragedies any child can face, the loss of both parents. While Jackson’s young years were unbearably lonely, he made the most of his opportunities. He was always diligent in performing the tasks with which he was entrusted. This trait undoubtedly was a factor in his appointment to West Point.
Following graduation from West Point, Jackson joined his regiment shortly before it was sent to Mexico, where the United States was at war. During this conflict, he first met Robert E. Lee. His record in that war is well summarized in the 1975 New Encyclopaedia Britannica as follows: “. . . it was here that Jackson first exhibited the qualities for which he later became famous: resourcefulness, the ability to keep his head, bravery in the face of enemy fire.”
After the Mexican War ended, Jackson found that the peacetime army failed to give him sufficient challenges. When the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia, offered him a position on its faculty, he accepted with alacrity. For 10 years he taught VMI cadets natural and experimental philosophy (now called physics) and artillery tactics.
During his first year, Jackson, who cadets called “Tom Fool,” “Hickory,” and “Old Jack,” was not overly popular. Many of his charges felt he was too strict and too eccentric. Furthermore, his accent was like that of an Allegheny mountain man. Their reservations about him would change for the better. Just before graduation, Cadet Leigh W. Reid composed poems about four of his professors. Three of them were decidedly derogatory. His poem about Major Jackson reads:
Like some rough brute that ranged the forest wild
So rude — uncouth, so purely Nature’s child
Is Hickory, and yet methinks I see
The stamp of genius on his brow and he
With his wild glance and keen but quiet eye
Can draw forth from the secret sources where they lie
Those thoughts of feelings of the human heart
Most virtuous, good and free from guilty art
There is something in his very mode of life
So accurate, steady, void of care or strife
That fills my heart with love of him who bears
His honors meekly and who wears
The laurels of a hero — This is fact
So here’s a heart & hand of mine for Jack.
After a few years at VMI, Jackson married Eleanor Junkin, the daughter of Rev. George Junkin, president of Washington College. Eleanor’s death in childbirth ended their very happy marriage. Jackson sought solace in his faith in God. Every Sunday, without fail, he worshipped at the Lexington Presbyterian church. For the rest of his life Jackson looked to God for guidance in every aspect of his life. Among his Christian endeavours was a Sunday school founded for slaves of all ages.
On the outbreak of the Civil War, Jackson did not hesitate to offer his services to the State of Virginia. April 21, 1861, remains a dramatic date in VMI history. On that day, major Thomas J. Jackson and his faculty colleague, Raleigh E. Colston, led the Corps of Cadets to war. Jackson and Colston were on horseback. The cadets marched in a column of two. One of them proudly carried the VMI flag.
Jackson was then 37 years of age. He was just short of 6 feet tall. He was of medium build. His hands were large. His feet were huge. His eyes were dark blue. He looked at everyone with a piercing gaze. On occasion, his glance could be fierce.
Jackson’s military campaigns have been thoroughly covered by historians. One of those was Bruce Catton, a Northern historian, who described the moment in the Battle of First Manassas where Jackson earned the nickname “Stonewall”:
“Then came a dramatic moment to live in legend, giving the American story one of its unforgettable names. Of the 6,000 Confederate soldiers on this broad hilltop, at least half had lost their organization and were out of the fight, only Jackson’s brigade and Wade Hampton’s South Carolinians remained in line. Waiting for the final onslaught General Bee was trying desperately to reorganize his men, all of his field officers were down, and he seemed to command no more than a fragment, and he rode to Jackson and said despairingly, ‘General they are beating us back.’ Wholly unperturbed, Jackson replied: ‘Sir, we will give them the bayonet.’ Bee rode off through the smoke to an unwieldy tangle of stragglers, stood erect in his stirrups and gestured with his sword at the solidity of Jackson’s brigade, ‘Look’ he shouted. ‘There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!’”
Later in the war, after he had become very famous, Jackson insisted that the nickname really belonged to his brigade, rather than to himself; it was the firmness of the men in the ranks, he said, that saved the day on the Henry House Hill.
In the spring of 1862, Jackson was assigned the task of defending the lower Shenandoah Valley and diverting Union forces from McClellan’s campaign to capture Richmond. It was a difficult, almost impossible, assignment. The North had four armies seeking Jackson’s destruction. General Banks was advancing up the valley from his main supply base at Winchester. General Frémont was endeavouring to create an army in Franklin, from whence he could advance on a circuitous route over Bull Pasture Mountain to attack Jackson from the west.
Just to the east of The Blue Ridge, two other Northern armies under General Shields and General McDowell were in position to move through Manassas Gap and Rockfish Gap as needed.
In late May, Jackson first struck part of Frémont’s force and drove them. The other wing of Jackson’s small army grappled furiously with the advance guard of Shield’s force at Port Republic. Stonewall and his foot cavalry then disappeared behind Massanutten Mountain. On May 23, Jackson reappeared. He first overran the garrison at Front Royal, capturing 1,000 prisoners and valuable supplies. He then headed toward Winchester with the object of cutting Banks off from his supply base and destroying Bank’s entire force. Banks was able to reach Winchester ahead of Jackson, but then lost the ensuing battle. His disorganized army rapidly fled north of the Potomac.
Jackson wrote his wife the following day: “The people seemed nearly frantic with joy. . . . Our entrance into Winchester was one of the most stirring scenes of my life.” He did not mention that his army of no more than 17,000 poorly equipped soldiers still faced combined Union armies of 65,000. Beginning June 17, Jackson extricated his army from the valley by crossing The Blue Ridge at Rock Fish Gap. They would then reinforce Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia south of Richmond.
Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of R. E. Lee received a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, published in 1942. It contains insights into Jackson’s character that are little known. Jackson respected the loyalty and bravery of slaves who went to war with their masters. Freeman reveals an incident toward the end of the Valley campaign, best told in Freeman’s own words:
“It probably was this evening, June 5, by (General) Taylor’s fireside that Jackson showed a side of his nature seldom observed in the Army. As the two officers talked, Tom Struthers, the black manservant of Taylor, came up to the fire to bring his master some coffee. Tom never spoke unless addressed and consequently did not greet the guest by Taylor’s side. No sooner did Jackson see Tom then he got up, shook the Negro’s hand and without a word sat down again.
“Taylor, of course, asked why Jackson paid this special honor to Tom, whom he has seen many times previously. The General explained. On June 1, he said, when Taylor was fighting west of Strasburg he had come upon Tom in an exposed position and had told the Negro he should go to a place of safety. Tom had thanked him but had said that General Taylor had directed him to stay there and, if the General pleased, he would do so. Jackson did not intend that this act of fidelity should go unnoticed.”
The story of Jackson’s death following the Battle of Chancellorsville has been told often, but it bears repeating. On May 2nd, 1863, at the moment of victory, Jackson had ridden forward to organize the pursuit of the retreating Union Army. In the darkness, he was mistaken for the enemy and shot by a soldier from a North Carolina regiment. His wound was serious, but not mortal; however, after his left arm was amputated he developed pneumonia. His dying words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” He was 39 years of age.
Jackson would have been proud of the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. The Confederate forces were heavily outnumbered by Union troops led by General Franz Sigel, a German immigrant, but the Southern forces had the much better general, John C. Breckinridge, a former Vice President of the United States. His command included the Cadet Corps of VMI, some as young as 15. These cadets made the last charge at Sigel’s Center — “They fought brilliantly, captured prisoners and a cannon, and helped ensure the final victory. They lost 10 of their fellows that day.”
One of those cadets, Moses Ezekiel, became an acclaimed sculptor. He created the eight-foot bronze statue of Jackson that for decades held a place of honor across from the Jackson Arch, the entrance into the VMI Cadet barracks.
In 2020 this statue and all of Jackson’s other statues in Virginia became the subject of bitter controversy. Virginia’s Democrat governor, Ralph Northam, ordered the removal of the statues of Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet on Monument Avenue in Richmond to appease radical groups including Black Lives Matter and Antifa.
At the beginning of 2020, VMI had extraordinary leadership. Superintendent, General J. H. B. Peay III, Class of 1962, was starting his 17th year as superintendent. Before his appointment as superintendent, he had a highly distinguished Army career. In 1991 he had commanded the 101st Airborne in Desert Storm. On March 26, 1993 he was promoted to a four-star general. His awards included the Silver Star, the Bronze Star medal with three oak leaf clusters and the Purple Heart. He loved VMI and a large part of the VMI family reciprocated his feelings. General Peay was beholden to no one, including Governor Northam; however, the governor decided to use his position to force General Peay to resign. Northam informed the general that he had lost confidence in him and held him responsible for alleged racism at VMI. It is virtually certain that Governor Northam had previously demanded that Jackson’s statue be removed from its location on the main VMI campus. General Peay resigned as superintendent on October 26, 2020. It is probable he did so to protect VMI’s name.
Even though the governor lacked the power to remove Jackson’s statue or to eradicate his name from Jackson Memorial Hall or from The Jackson Arch, VMI’s Board of Visitors felt compelled to act swiftly to deescalate the crisis. They decided to relocate Jackson’s statue to the grounds of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War at the site of The Battle of New Market. The museum and the entire battlefield are part of VMI. Their decision may not have pleased all of VMI’s alumni; however, there is reason to believe that Jackson’s statue is now safe from destruction and that his place in history will continue to be honored by VMI.
General of the Army George C. Marshall was among VMI’s greatest graduates. His three-volume biography by Forrest C. Pogue is unsurpassed. Over a period of more than eight months in 1956 and 1957, Pogue had 25 sessions with Marshall. Forty hours of these sessions were taped. Pogue understood better than any other scholar Marshall’s views on Lee and Jackson. Pogue wrote as follows:
“The Lee Chapel, a few hundred yards from the limits of VMI, held his remains and was at least as much a shrine for the cadets as the university students (Washington and Lee students). For Marshall, both Jackson and Lee were inspiring figures — both great and austere generals, the one an infantry commander of fanatic drive, the other a soldier-statesman whose brilliance in war was capped by his demonstration in peace of how a general could live honourably and constructively in defeat.”
In 1987 the Department of History at the United States military academy at West Point, New York, published a book entitled The Civil War. Its text had been available to cadets 10 years earlier. Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had been authentic heroes for generations of Southerners. The four co-authors in the Department of History treated Lee and Jackson not as heroes, but as authentically great commanders who won major battles against Union armies that were much larger and far better equipped.
Their introduction of General Lee reads:
“Perhaps the most significant outcome of the battle (of Fair Oaks) occurred as a result of the two wounds that Joseph E. Johnston suffered near the end of the day. He was sufficiently immobilized to cause Jefferson Davis to appoint a new commander for the army: his own military adviser, Robert E. Lee. The quiet unpretentious Virginian took command of Johnston’s forces on June 1, the first step in the beginning of a career that was to become a legend in the history of the Civil War.”
The West Point historians’ introduction of General Jackson also informs the reader of his famous Valley Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. It reads:
“When Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson was promoted to Major General after the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and assigned to command the Valley District in November 1861, he took over a small body of militia that would form the nucleus of what would become the most effective secondary efforts in the history of the war. The activity of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson in his famous Valley campaign had a profound effect on the major struggle between McClellan and Johnston’s armies on the peninsula, and also serves as an instructive model of the superb use of manoeuvre and economy of force.”
Jackson was a corps commander under Lee in four major victories for the Army of Northern Virginia: The Seven Days Campaign, June 25 through July 1, 1862; 2nd Manassas, August 29-30, 1862; Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862; and Chancellorsville, May 1-4, 1863. Their relationship was extremely close. Lee implicitly trusted Jackson’s judgment. Most historians agree that Chancellorsville represented Lee’s and Jackson’s greatest victory. In that battle, Lee divided his army twice in the face of a larger Union army under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker. Before Jackson’s unexpected attack from behind Hooker’s right flank, the Union general had already lost the initiative to Lee. The West Point historians give their readers a foretaste of the battle to come with their accurate description of Jackson:
“When Jackson awoke on April 30, he watched the Federal troops on Stafford Heights and to his immediate front. He was all soldier now, an aggressive, fierce, belligerent corps commander, eager to fight.”
These West Point historians give generous credit to Lee for this victory, writing:
“Lee’s battlefield brilliance was never more in evidence than during the Chancellorsville campaign. He was truly at his best.”
What was written in this volume of The West Point Military History Series about Lee and Jackson was for the benefit of cadets of the United States Military Academy, but because of its fairness and objectivity, this Civil War history could well have been written for the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.
As previously mentioned, the greatest World War II general, George C. Marshall, was inspired by Jackson. There is little doubt that generations of VMI graduates have been inspired by Jackson. It is impossible to quantify the number of West Point graduates who have been inspired by Jackson, but it is clear that its history department considered him a great commander.
Freeman’s two-volume work, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, remains a classic. It will never be replaced, but it has been complemented by another Virginia historian. James I. Robertson, Jr., was an alumnus and a distinguished Professor of History of Virginia Tech. Freeman and Robertson seemed destined to write the finest biographies of Lee and Jackson.
Robertson was a native of Danville, Virginia. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Randolph-Macon College in 1955 and his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Emory University in 1956 and 1959. Robertson taught at the University of Iowa, George Washington University, and the University of Montana before commencing a 44-year career in the history department of Virginia Tech. At Virginia Tech, he taught the only full-year course in Civil War history in the nation. In all, more than 22,000 students took his Civil War classes.
Robertson, wrote or edited more than 40 books. His works included three about General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: Jackson and Lee Legends in Gray (1995); Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (1997); Standing Like a Stone Wall: The Life of General Thomas J. Jackson (2001). His 1997 biography of Jackson was the basis for the 2003 feature film “Gods and Generals,” for which Robertson served as historical adviser. Among academic historians, he was considered the preeminent scholar on Jackson.
Robertson died in Richmond, Virginia on November 2, 2019. He left a legacy as a great teacher at Virginia Tech and as a great Civil War historian. Perhaps his finest book was Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend.
One of Robertson’s many memorable passages can be found in his introduction to Jackson and Lee: Legends in Gray.
“In the Pantheon of American soldiers, none stand taller than Generals Robert Edward Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. They now seem larger than life. When considering Lee and Jackson, eyes seem to lift. So does the mind. The very words those men used — “gentleman,” “duty,” “valor,” “honor” — have a quaint sound in these times because they have become unfamiliar terms. People who say that Lee and Jackson did not really exist make that statement because no one like them exists now.”
Robertson’s words are profound. College students of today, many of whom know little of their own country’s history, would do well to ponder them.
The politicians in Virginia can remove Jackson and Lee’s statues and mobs like Black Lives Matter and Antifa can spray-paint obscenities on them. Neither the politicians nor the mobs can erase history. Lee and Jackson will always be remembered as great commanders. They will inspire countless future cadets at VMI. They may well inspire future military leaders who have read Douglas Southall Freeman and James I. Roberson Jr. *