Stonewall Jackson: Biography Of A Confederate General

Confederate General Stonewall Jackson behaved so oddly that some doubted his sanity. Yet, as you will see in this biography, Jackson was one of the most respected of Southern commanders.

Civil War historian Shelby Foote tells this story about Stonewall Jackson. One day, during the Valley Campaign, a courier bearing orders from Jackson didn't get through. When Jackson was informed that the man had been killed in the line of duty, the general hesitated a moment as if at a loss for words. Then a solemn look came over his long, bearded face. "Very commendable," he said gravely. "Very commendable."

Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was one of the strangest generals in the service of the Confederate States of America. He was a religious zealot, yet was bloodthirsty for battle. In spite of his religious convictions, most of his battles were fought on Sunday. He was highly disciplined, yet could ignore a direct order if he disagreed -- and get away with it. He was Robert E. Lee's most trusted lieutenant, yet he felt himself obliged to none other than himself and God.

Over the years, the persona of Stonewall Jackson has attained almost mythical proportions. In life, he was almost impossible to know. In death, Jackson is even more of an enigma because the legend of the man is riddled with contradictions. Take, for example, the way in which Jackson got his famous nickname.

During First Manassas, when Jackson (who was busily sucking on a lemon at the time) and his Virginians were standing pat under the Union onslaught, General Bernard Bee shouted, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall." Whether he actually said this due to Jackson's determination in battle or because, as Shelby Foote suggests, Jackson stubbornly refused to move forward, will be forever lost to history. Shortly thereafter, Bee was dispatched by a Yankee bullet so no one had a chance to ask him what he really meant by the remark.

Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born on January 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). His father, a lawyer, died when young Thomas was six and the death left the family impoverished. His mother later remarried but her new husband didn't like her children, and young Thomas was sent to live with relatives.

By pure luck, Thomas was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The cadet that he replaced stayed only one day before he decided that military life was not for him. Young Thomas was so shy and modest in his ways that his classmates didn't even notice him for the first six months. What they saw first was that the new plebe was a very strange person indeed.



Even at this young age, Jackson was already a dedicated hypochondriac. He believed that he was suffering from a unusual arrangement of his organs that forever prescribed the way he must sit or stand. For instance, he never bent over because he believed he would be inadvertently compressing something vital. He always assumed a stiff upright posture when sitting. This, of course, set very well with the military bearing of the Academy, but few realized Jackson assumed to posture because he didn't want to accidentally bend his innards.

Jackson had a repertoire of eccentricities that would be a psychiatrist's delight -- if there were any psychiatrists in those days. He imagined his body to be off balance and he would stand for hours with his right arm over his head to regain his harmony. He was not the best student, but he had plenty of what the academy desired most -- discipline. Upper classman Ulysses Grant at first took him for a military fanatic, as did many other cadets. But eventually, in spite of Jackson's strange behavior, Grant came to respect the man. "He lived by his maxims," Grant said later.

Jackson graduated the Academy in 1846 standing 17th in a class of 59. At the time the Mexican War was just beginning. He served in that conflict for two years, in the artillery, then was assigned to the Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. But the peacetime army was not to Jackson's liking and he resigned his commission in 1851 to accept a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.

In 1859, fiery abolitionist John Brown and his men raided Harper' Ferry. The uprising was put down the next day when Colonel Robert E. Lee and U.S. troops stormed the engine house which Brown and his men were using as a fort. Brown was tried and convicted of treason, and sentenced to hang. A contingent of VMI cadets were ordered to Charlestown to stand guard during the execution. Jackson accompanied the cadets.

The outbreak of the Civil War saw Jackson still teaching at VMI. He was ordered to Richmond, along with the entire corps of cadets, to drill new army recruits. Less than a week later, Colonel Jackson took command of troops at Harper's Ferry and was soon promoted to brigadier general.

After First Manassas, Jackson was promoted to major general and placed in charge of the Shenandoah Valley, where he led Union troops on a merry chase. His hard hitting victories at Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic and went far in giving the Union Army an inferiority complex. He would probably have raised a lot more dust in the valley had it not been that Robert E. Lee ordered him to the Peninsula in Eastern Virginia where 100,000 Union troops under General George McClellan were poised to attack.

Jackson reluctantly left the valley. In comparison, Jackson's showing during the Seven Days Battles was dismal. In spite of this, McClelland's Army of the Potomac was sent scurrying back to its transports.

By now, Jackson was a formidable physical presence -- taller than the average soldier. He was quiet, full-bearded with piercing green-gray eyes and a long face. He performed well in subsequent battles like Fredericksburg and Antietam. Then at Chancellorsville, on May 2, 1863, Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops. He lost his left arm, but it was thought that Jackson would recover. However he died of complications eight days later.

There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the South when Jackson died. Lee never did get over the shock and one can only wonder, when Gettysburg was fought two months later, if the outcome of the war might have been much different with Jackson on the field. Some scholars say no. Some say the South would have won in Pennsylvania. But, again, that's just one more paradox surrounding the South's oddest general.

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