Gab About Generals

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – The Man and Myth

Stonewall_Jackson_by_Routzahn,_1862I would be remiss if I chose to talk about the battle of Chancellorsville without some spotlight shined on one of the most pivotal moments of Civil War history. Of course, I’m referring to the wounding of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Whatever your opinions of Stonewall may be, any historian cannot deny that his wounding and subsequent death sent ripples throughout the Army of Northern Virginia. The void his absence creates ultimately cripples Lee and a shuffle of commanders ensues that will shape the last three years of the war. To ignore the catalyst for these changes would be like ignoring the wounding of Joseph Johnston at Seven Pines which led to the instatement of Robert E. Lee as commander of the whole Confederate army in the eastern theater.

Jackson was born Thomas Jonathon Jackson in Clarksburg, Virginia on January 21, 1824. His father, Jonathon Jackson, was a disreputable attorney. When Jackson was two, he lost his father and elder sister, Elizabeth, to typhoid fever. His mother gave birth to a newborn, Laura Ann, the day after she became a widow. She did her best to provide for her family by moving into a smaller cabin and took up sewing. Julia Neale Jackson remarried in 1830 to another attorney, Captain Blake B. Woodson, who was not fond of his stepchildren. Julia’s health began to decline and Jackson and his younger sister were sent to live with their uncle, Cummins Jackson. Warren, his older brother, was sent to live with another family member and the family became further separated. His mother died in childbirth complications when Jackson was just seven years old.

Jackson’s Mill, childhood home of Thomas Jackson

For four years, Jackson and his sister stayed at Jackson’s Mill near present-day Weston, West Virginia (then still part of Virginia). Eventually, the family would be split again and Laura Ann would go to live with a member of their mother’s family while Jackson left his uncle for a brief time to live with an abusive aunt and uncle on his father’s side of the family. He returned to Jackson Mill, most of his family dead – his remaining brother died of tuberculosis in 1841 – and distant from other close relations.


At Jackson’s Mill, the boy worked on the farm with livestock. Cummins, his uncle, was strict and harsh, but this might have taught the young Jackson something of discipline as he grew older. Much of his education was self-taught, as he didn’t attend any formal school until admitted into West Point.

Part of the process of West Point acceptance is that they have to be sponsored or recommended by someone with the right reputation. A congressman had recommended one boy for a slot in 1842, but that didn’t work out. Jackson was offered up and after a brief interview with the congressman, he was given the opportunity to take the entrance exams. Out of the 109 potential students, Jackson ranked dead last. Many told him that he should just give up now and avoid the embarrassment of being expelled for low grades, but in a foreshadowing move of determination, he refused.

029273Jackson struggled for the next four years at West Point. Looking through the academy’s records, Jackson wasn’t involved in any organizations or clubs. Many of the demerits he earned were for untidiness (again, another foreshadowing to his military career). He was perpetually behind in the curriculum, though he devoted every waking hour to studying. He read his books by the light of the fire in his room, which would strain his eyes to the point he needed to wear spectacles through his adult life. When he graduated in 1846 – a momentous year for future Civil War generals – he had risen to placing 17th in his class of 59 students. It was said that if they had given him one more year, he would have excelled to 1st. He was well known by those at West Point, but not for his charm or congeniality. Jackson was described as being humorless and straight-forward, but shy and withdrawn. You couldn’t tell Jackson a joke because he probably wouldn’t get it. Still, they all knew he was there.

The Mexican-American War came and Jackson served for two years in the field. He served at the Siege of Veracruz and the battles of Contreras, Chapultepec, and Mexico City, eventually earning two brevet promotions, and the regular army rank of first lieutenant. It was in Mexico that Thomas Jackson first met Robert E. Lee – a friendship that would prove fruitful later.

stonewall-jackson-9351451-1-402After his stretch in an official military capacity, Jackson returned to Virginia and in 1851, he took up a professorship at the Virginia Military Institute. He – more or less – taught Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Instructor of Artillery. Aspects of his curriculum are still taught today at VMI. Jackson wasn’t a very good professor. In fact, it’s said by some that he was the worst in the institute’s history. He would memorize his lectures and lacked the instructional flexibility that could have made him better. If a student asked him a question about what he had just taught, he would quote the lesson verbatim one more time. If the student, not understanding, asked again, Jackson would put him under arrest for insubordination.

Jackson’s eccentricity would also make him unpopular. Students and faculty alike thought he was crazy. He never ate food that tasted good, thinking that if it tasted good, it had to be bad for him. So, he ate little, and whatever he ate tended to be bland such as butter-less bread or crackers. He was obsessed with his health and his habits showed it. He’d stand all day long as opposed to sitting for long periods of time, convinced that staying erect helped his “failing” organs to stay in place. He was very much into hydrotherapy and would indulge in mineral baths. Students would see him performing “aerobics” on his way to class and explained that constant movement was good for the body. He experimented with metallic drugs such as zinc and mercury – a common thing back then before they realized it wasn’t all that helpful. One professor said of Jackson, “He has no humor and no personality. I don’t believe he exists.”

While an instructor, Jackson met a woman by the name of Elinor “Ellie” Junkin. Having grown up receiving little to no love, Jackson was thoroughly confused by what he felt for Ellie. He had awoken a fellow professor in the middle of the night to tell him of the symptoms, to which the friend replied, “God damn it Jackson, you’re just in love”. Jackson nodded and calmly replied, “I will think on that”. They eventually married, but the marriage would only last about 16 months. Jackson lost his wife and his firstborn son on October 22, 1854.

e587cf6b52141140d3332cb2ff9588e9Three years later, however, he would marry again to Mary Anne Morrison in 1857. A year later, he would lose another child. This time, a daughter who died a month into life. Despite all this loss, it was during this time that Jackson began to bloom into his faith. To understand Jackson, his attitudes, and his decisions, any historian has to put their own religious views aside and see every move Jackson makes through the lens of his steadfast faith in God. It’s said by one of his biographers, James “Bud” Robertson, that Jackson worshipped two gods within him. The first was the jealous God of the Old Testament who backed the Israelites through their many land wars, and the second was the loving God of the New Testament that took care of the orphans and widows – like Jackson. It can be said that marriage influenced him to delve deeper into this faith and through the help of his wives, he was taught the finer points of culture, manners, and society.

e84bd6474acd13e0d7203e11f3b8f846When the war broke out in 1861, Jackson viewed the cause for Southern independence from a religious standpoint. He truly believed that God was on the side of the oppressed (i.e. the southern states) and with His help, they would have the victory they deserved. On April 27, 1861, Virginia Governor John Letcher ordered Colonel Jackson to take command at Harpers Ferry, where he would assemble and command the unit which later gained fame as the “Stonewall Brigade”, consisting of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th, and 33rd Virginia Infantry regiments. Many of the cadets he had instructed at VMI were part of his brigade. That afforded them little slack.

His eccentricities didn’t stop at VMI, however. In the army, he ate a lot of citrus, claiming that it was good for his health. He also tended to ride with one arm raised to “balance the blood”. He didn’t get along with everyone either. It’s said that he only had two requirements for friendship. Be an amazing general and an equally devout Christian. J.E.B Stuart, who would become a close confidant of Jackson, fit both of these categories, despite the fact that they were totally opposite in personalities. A.P. Hill would become something of an “arch nemesis” of Jackson, because while he was a great division commander, he lacked the sturdy faith that Jackson had. Hence, they clashed on numerous occasions within army command.

Jackson_(2)The first major battle of the war came on the banks of Bull Run outside of Manassas Junction. It was there, upon the ridge overlooking Henry House Hill, that he would earn his forever nickname, “Stonewall”. General Barnard Elliot Bee looked to Jackson who sat erect and stoic on his horse, Little Sorrell, and proclaimed to his South Carolinians who were being beaten back by the Federal army, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” Some controversy exists around the exact wording and intent behind the statement, whether to say that Jackson is standing rigid and determined in the face of the enemy, or frozen in fear. Either way, Jackson made headlines (so to speak) and became a national celebrity.

The iconic image of him in the early war years began to take shape and Jackson was a household name. He rode a horse that was too small for him, his jacket and uniform was never tidy or neat, he wore a faded and tattered cadet kepi pulled low over his sweeping forehead. But despite his unkempt appearance, his oddball habits and ideas, and his over-the-top faith, when Jackson pinned a man with his bright blue eyes, they knew he

366cd7032660169dd023e964aeba30d7meant business. He earned the respect of his soldiers for his ability to give them the victory time and time again. It was during the Valley Campaign of 1862 that his troops were awarded the teasing title of “Foot Cavalry”. Marching 627 miles in just a few months was nothing to sneeze at. And to other generals, he embodied everything a military commander should be. Determined, resolute, strategic, swift, compassionate yet firm in his command, and creative in his maneuvers. That was why Robert E. Lee knew he wanted Jackson by his side at every engagement against the Army of the Potomac.

Jackson would go on to earn more accolades, allies, and enemies until the spring of 1863 outside of Chancellorsville. He had just completed a daring roundabout march through the dense, second-growth forest of the Wilderness to arrive at Hooker’s unprotected right flank. On May 2nd, Jackson’s division charged headlong into General Howard’s XI Corps, sending them into a full retreat for almost three miles all the way back to Chancellorsville. A bit of resistance showed itself in the waning daylight of that evening, but once night settled, the fighting was fairly done for the day.

Taken from “The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the Confederacy’s Greatest Icon” by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White

That, however, didn’t stop Jackson. Wishing to get a good idea of where the Yankees would be setting up their new line of defenses, Jackson rode out with several of his staff officers, including his brother-in-law, Joseph Morrison. Led by a young private of the 9th Virginia Infantry, they crossed the Confederate lines where Brigadier General James Lane’s North Carolinians were set up. Down the Mountain Road, they traveled by full moon light toward the skirmish line of the 33rd North Carolinians.


Once he was satisfied to find that the Federals were working on entrenchments to staunch the advance of the Rebels, Jackson knew he had to risk a nighttime attack. If he waited until morning, those fortifications would prove a bother and he might not have had a chance to reunite with Lee’s army on the other side of the battlefield.

He didn’t quite reach the skirmish line while traveling down this side-road that ran parallel to the Plank Road he had used to direct his earlier charge. But he didn’t retrace his steps back behind his lines, as what might have been the wiser move. As a result, the noise he and his officers made in the woods, along with their sudden appearance in front of the 18th North Carolinians, would prove fatal.

General Jackson’s “Chancellorsville” portrait, taken at a Spotsylvania County farm on April 26, 1863, seven days before he was wounded

Lane’s North Carolina troops were vigil that night. They had encountered not one, but two Pennsylvania regiments – one cavalry and one infantry – that had wandered between them and their skirmish line. They had both been dealt with prior to Jackson’s scouting ride, but the tension and adrenaline from these close calls left them jumpy and firing at nothing. One soldier would get spooked and fire, setting off a chain of individual rifle fire along the whole line like a fuse.

So when men on horses appeared out of the gloom, the 18th North Carolina troops decided to shoot first and ask questions later. When Joseph Morrison shouted that they were shooting at their own men, the scared troops didn’t let up. Major John Barry shouted, “It’s a lie! Pour it into them, boys!”

This incident of friendly-fire, as it was later coined in the 20th century, wasn’t uncommon. It happened rather frequently when regiments became tangled up during charges or at night when visibility was minimal. During the first year of the war, when both sides sometimes wore blue uniforms, Confederates would take shots at neighboring regiments. In the noise, in the dark, through the smoke, surrounded by deafening artillery fire, it was sometimes impossible to tell friend from foe. What happened along the Mountain Road wasn’t the first time an officer or private fell to friendly-fire, nor would it be the last.

1556819393029William Cunliffe fell dead. Joshua Johns was wounded. Three bullets found their way to Jackson. One hit his hand and broke two of his fingers. Another pierced his left forearm. The last and most damaging of the three, was taken in his left arm just below the shoulder. The bone was shattered and tendons torn beyond repair. Ammunition during the Civil War had evolved to deadly extremes.

Jackson’s raincoat he was wearing the night he was wounded, on display at VMI

The minie ball, designed for rifles, expands in the barrel to catch grooves that give a sharper spin to the bullet. It’s designed to improve accuracy and distance, but once it strikes bone, there’s nothing that can be recovered. It doesn’t just break the bone, it obliterates it. This was the culprit in almost every amputation made in field hospitals. Doctors didn’t have the technology to rebuild the skeleton and the easiest method was to simply remove the limb.


Even after the Carolinians realized they had fired upon one of their generals, the exchange didn’t stop. The shooting caught the attention of Federal artillerists and cannons poured onto the Confederate line for a spell. So even when Jackson was being put onto a stretcher and hauled further west to the nearest field hospital, shells were exploding around him. Twice he was dropped from the stretcher before being loaded onto a wagon that was not build for comfort. Soldiers in critical condition sometimes died before they could receive any medical attention due to the harsh and underdeveloped system of transport.

Jackson’s stretcher on display at Gettysburg museum

It took almost four hours before Jackson could be attended to by his physician, Dr. Hunter McGuire. His prognosis wasn’t good. The left arm had to come off. Jackson’s pulse was weak and he was given some whiskey to strengthen it before chloroform could be given for the surgery. This was one of the few exceptions to Jackson’s staunch tee-totaling attitude toward alcohol.


When Lee heard the news, he was devastated. His entire Second Corps needed a leader. A.P. Hill had been injured by a nasty bruise to both of his legs caused by an artillery shell during the Federal assault that night, and he was out of commission. The job of commanding the abandoned division would fall to J.E.B. Stuart, and I think Jackson would have approved of the momentary promotion.

Fairview’s plantation office, Jackson’s final days

Lee ordered that Jackson be moved somewhere safer to recover from his amputation. Once more, he endured a long and uncomfortable ride to the rear of the army and arrived at Thomas C. Chandler’s 740 acres plantation named Fairfield near Guinea Station, about 27 miles away. Upon his request, he was set up into the plantation office building instead of Mr. Chandler’s home.


His condition worsened and four physicians were brought in from Richmond to find out what was wrong. It was unanimous amongst them that Jackson had contracted pneumonia. His difficulty breathing and sore chest were indicators. Modern doctors have studied the accounts and symptoms and have an alternate diagnosis. One idea is that he might have had a pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in his lungs. Another, which was a typical problem in Civil War medicine, was sepsis, or a poisoning of the blood. With Jackson’s rough handling through the smoke, on the wagons, and being dropped, it’s completely possible that he suffered from an infection that could have brought on his symptoms.

08551vEither way, it was not looking good for “Old Blue Light”. His wife and newborn, Julia Laura, were brought to him for the final days. All they could do was make him comfortable. Doctors could often estimate when exactly a patient with pneumonia would pass. They all concurred that he would finally slip away on May 10th, a Sunday. Jackson had once remarked that he would have preferred to die on a Sunday, since it was the Lord’s Day. His faith had sustained him through the rough eight days he had left between his wounding and his death. He was a big believer in “God’s will be done” and he believed it was God’s will for him to lose his arm and to die the way he did.

Dr. McGuire wrote an account of Jackson’s final hours and last words:
“A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, ‘Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks—’ then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, ‘Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.’”

Jackson at VMI

It became one of his most famous and mysterious lines, his final words as he passed away at 3pm. The nation mourned his loss. Railroads and businesses in Richmond closed in preparation for the arrival of their fallen leader. His body was embalmed and put on display at the Governor’s Mansion for public viewing in a coffin with a glass window on the lid. Heaps of flowers were brought to lay at his casket and it’s believed that gave rise to the tradition we practice today of sending flowers to a funeral.

After he left Richmond, his coffin was draped with the first flag created with the second Confederate flag design. A funeral service was held in Lynchburg along the canal, and then he was taken to VMI where he had spent the bulk of his adult life. Cadets bore his casket to his old classroom to be on display before he was laid to rest in an unadorned grave next to his first wife. In 1891, his body was reinterred elsewhere in Lexington and the cemetery was renamed in his honor.

Jackson’s death, along with the victory at Chancellorsville, marked a turning point in the war. The army was never quite the same without Jackson’s boldness and strategic creativity. He had risked the impossible multiple times, believing that as long as God was on their side, it could be done. Such a mentality played into the move to split an outnumbered army in the Wilderness that May. It was that faith that helped him hold out against wave after wave of Federal advances up the railroad cut outside Manassas Junction the previous summer.

Lee had plenty of commanders to lean on, but none of them had been like Jackson. He would go on to push the war into Pennsylvania, thinking that his men could handle anything. He had been proven wrong.

f5b8d0438341d189953ab6b59189671dJackson has become the focus of countless books, artwork, movies, documentaries, and even battlefield conservation efforts. Monuments attesting to Jackson’s presence on a battlefield were a big thing when the parks and historic sites were founded. He became immortalized by the veterans of the war who fought alongside him and has been deemed something of a figurehead in the Lost Cause dogma of modern historians and Civil War enthusiasts. Two big names that will forever be engrained upon public memory regarding the war are Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Traveler Tidbits

There are many locations to visit if one was seeking to honor the memory of Stonewall Jackson. Two, however, are the most frequented for Civil War pilgrimages. The first is the site of his actual wounding. While the monument that sits along the recycled rubber path behind the Chancellorsville Visitor Center is not the exact spot where Jackson was shot, it pays homage to the event. Visitors can look down the Mountain Road and try to imagine what it might have been like for officers and soldiers alike on that fateful night.

bb4The second is the burial place of his amputated arm. Yes, his arm and his body were buried across the state from one another. Jackson’s chaplain, Reverend Beverly Lacy, took the mangled left arm to his brother’s home, Ellwood, which sat near the edge of the Wilderness further south of the wounding location. While Ellwood is still preserved today, along with the marker for Jackson’s arm, the site rather tells the story of the battle at the Wilderness just a year after Jackson’s wounding when Lee and Grant would clash for the first time in 1864. Ironically, General James Longstreet would suffer a similar fate to Jackson just a handful of miles away from Chancellorsville. He, too, was shot down by his men while on a reconnaissance mission with his staff. He would leave the Wilderness with both of his arms and his life, but the similarities are striking. While visiting Ellwood, ask the staff to give you directions to Jackson’s arm, and don’t miss the opportunity to learn about the Wilderness battle as well.

Resources/Further Reading

James I. Robertson, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend (1997).

Gwynne, S. C. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. New York: Scribner, 2014

“That Furious Struggle: Chancellorsville and the High Tide of the Confederacy, May 1-4, 1863” by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White

“The Civil War: A Narrative – Fredericksburg to Meridian” by Shelby Foote

“The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the Confederacy’s Greatest Icon” by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s