Thomas J. Jackson
A “Quirky” Personality
Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born to Julia Beckwith Jackson and Jonathan, an attorney, in Clarksburg, in what is now West Virginia, on January 21, 1824. Thomas’ early childhood was tragic: his father died of typhoid fever when he was two year of age and his mother, married now to Blake Woodson, passed away giving birth to his step-brother five years later. Financial troubles and a dislike for his step-children caused Mr. Woodson to split the three siblings up and send them off to various relatives.
Thomas moved between several of his relatives in the remaining years of childhood, working most of the time as formal education was not easy to find in the mountains of western Virginia. Jackson was largely self-taught, staying up nights to read by the light of burning pine knots.
As a child Thomas complained of a chronic stomach malady for which no cause could be found. Later, at West Point, Cadet Jackson would sit bolt upright in his chair to supposedly maintain the alignment of his internal organs, thereby insuring proper digestion. He was certain that pepper in his food would make his left leg itch and he would often raise his left arm straight up over his head to drain the blood back into his body because it was heavier than his right.
A Tenacious Student
In 1842 Jackson, at the age of 18, was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy. With his lack of formal education he did poorly on the entrance exams, placing him dead last in his class. With a dogged determination that would later prove the undoing of many Federal commanders who faced him on the battlefield, he made up for it by long hours of intense study while his classmates were asleep. By the time he graduated he had risen to 17th in a class of 59. It was said that if he’d had another year, he would have been first.
A Taste for Battle
Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed.
— Gen. Jackson
24 July 1861
speaking to Captain John D. Imboden
Upon commissioning as a brevet second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he was assigned to the First Artillery Regiment, then fighting in Mexico. Promoted to brevet first lieutenant for his gallantry in the Battle of Veracruz, he heard that a new unit was being formed from a captured enemy battery. Thinking that it would soon see combat, the daring young officer requested a transfer. He was right. The unit was soon embroiled in the fighting at Churubrusco. By the end of the Mexican War, Jackson had attained the rank of brevet major (and permanent first lieutenant), was publicly praised by General Winfield Scott, and had developed the battlefield persona that made him such a formidable adversary in the Civil War—the ability to react to a situation quickly, clear thinking under the heaviest enemy fire, and sheer, unadulterated courage.
The tedium of an army without a fight proved too much for the young warrior. Jackson resigned his commission in favor of a position at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) teaching artillery tactics and philosophy. A stern instructor, Jackson was never a favorite of the students, his combining religious instruction with class work earning him the nickname “Deacon Jackson.”
When not teaching in front of the cadets at VMI, Major Jackson could often be found teaching—in front of free and slave African-Americans at the Sunday school of the local Presbyterian church. And as much as his white students disliked him, his black students loved him. He owned six slaves in the late 1850s, three of whom requested that he be their master. His views on slavery, like apparently everything else, were rooted in his understanding of the Holy Bible. Although most likely disapproving of the “peculiar institution,” he thought that God had not condemned it and therefore no man had a moral right to do so either.
Jackson’s adult family life was to be as tragic as his childhood had been. In 1853 Thomas Jackson married Elinor Junkin, daughter of Reverend Dr. George Junkin, the President of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University). The union was short-lived, however. Ellie hemorrhaged and died within the hour of giving birth to their stillborn son. Jackson remarried in 1857 and lost his second child, a daughter, within a month of being born. In 1861 he was called to serve in the Confederacy, never to return home. A second daughter, Julia Laura, was born in 1862 shortly before he died.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861, Jackson offered his services to Virginia. He was ordered to bring the Corps of Cadets at VMI to Richmond and was subsequently assigned to defend Harper’s Ferry, the strategic entrance to the Shenandoah Valley. He was tasked to train and organize the volunteers from the Shenandoah Valley region into an effective fighting force. This was the nucleus of the famous “Stonewall Brigade.” Jackson, now a Colonel in the Virginia military, became known for relentlessly drilling his troops, believing discipline to be vital for success in battle. He was promoted to Brigadier General following his raids on the B&O Railroad. He and his unit were incorporated into the army of Confederate States of America when it formed.
There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. … Rally behind the Virginians!
— Brig. Gen. Barnard Elliott Bee, Jr.
exhorting his troops to re-form
In July of 1861, Federal General McDowell advanced to take Richmond and bring a quick end to the Confederacy. Jackson’s troops were a part of the Confederate force hastily assembled to block him. The armies met at Manassas. Called upon to reinforce the Confederate line at Henry House Hill, his disciplined troops stood immoveable against the Union’s determined assault, taking more casualties that day than any other Confederate unit. Adjacent units rallied and the outnumbered Confederates counterattacked, routing the larger Federal army.
A Warrior is Unleashed
Following First Manassas, Jackson, now known by the nickname “Stonewall”, was promoted to major general and given command of the Shenandoah Valley, with headquarters in Winchester, Virginia. With the arrival of spring in 1865, the armies were once again on the move. Executing a classic campaign of surprise and maneuver, Stonewall Jackson’s army of 17,000 Confederates successively defeated Generals Milroy, Schenck, Banks, Fremont, and Shields with a combined strength of 60,000 men in string victories called the Valley Campaign. The speed at which Stonewall moved his troops from one engagement to the next earned them the nickname “foot cavalry”. His aggressiveness suggested to the Federal high command that he had a much larger force than was actually the case. This prevented them from sending those 60,000 northern troops to join General McClellan’s attack on Richmond in his Peninsula Campaign.
Having kicked the Federals out of the Shenandoah, Stonewall Jackson was called to join Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in defense of Richmond.Arriving after a long march and train ride, the exhausted general and his men did not perform well in Lee’s counterattack, the Seven Days’ Battle. Though lacking his demonstrated tactical brilliance, the mere appearance of Stonewall’s troops and their effectiveness when employed contributed to General McClellan’s decision to retreat back across the Potomac River.
Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit so long as your men have strength to follow.
— Gen. Jackson
In August of 1862, Lee joined Jackson near Manassas to engage Federal forces under Major General John Pope. Stonewall’s sweeping encirclement of Pope’s rear enabled him to capture and destroy the Union Army’s main supply depot. He then retreated and took a defensive position. In the battle that ensued, Second Manassas, Pope launched repeated assaults against Stonewall’s men. Thus engaged, Pope was flanked by Longstreet and forced to retreat.
As Lee launched his Maryland Campaign in September, 1865, Stonewall’s foot calvalry were once more called upon. They surrounded, bombarded, and captured Harper’s Ferry and then quickly marched north to join the Army of Northern Virginia near Sharpsburg, Maryland. There, at the Battle of Antietam, Jackson’s forces bore the brunt of McClellan’s assault on the north end of the battle. Then, at the end of the day, A. P. Hill, Jackson’s subordinate, arrived from Harper’s Ferry and prevented a Union breakthrough to the south. They repulsed the Federal attack, but the bloody battle convinced Lee to call off the offensive and return to Virginia. Jackson was promoted to lieutenant general, given command of Second Corps and ordered to Fredericksburg. While there, General Jackson received the happy news of the birth of his daughter, Julia Laura Jackson, on November 23.
With the onset of winter imminent, General Burnside attempted a rash attack against the Confederates at Fredericksburg and was utterly defeated by Stonewall’s flanking attack.
In the following April, the Federals, now commanded by General Hooker, set out on the offensive once again, this time in an attempt to outflank the Confederates along the Rappahannock River. Although outnumbered by more than two-to-one, Lee divided his forces. Holding only 10,000 men to directly face Hooker, he sent Stonewall Jackson on a daring end run. In the one of the most decisive victories of the war, Stonewall’s Second Corps completely outflanked the surprised Federals at Chancellorsville and Hooker was forced to withdraw.
Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.
— Gen. Jackson
May 10, 1863
his last words
A Bitter Pill
However, not everything would prove to be sweet at Chancellorsville. As Stonewall returned from reconnoitering in front of Confederate lines, his party was mistaken for Federal cavalry and the order was given to fire. Several of the party were killed outright. Stonewall took three bullets, two to the left arm and one to the right. His left arm was smashed and had to be amputated. Left to recuperate at Guinea Station, Virginia, pneumonia set in, and he died under a week later.