The Jackson legend: Standing like a stone wall … or?

Gregg Clemmer
DC Civil War Heritage Examiner
July 26, 2011 –

Could it be that Gen. Thomas J. Jackson’s battlefield nickname, Stonewall–by far the civil war’s most famous nom de guerre, bequeathed in the heat of battle by fellow Confederate Gen. Barnard Bee just before his mortal wounding–originated out of anger and disparagement during the battle of First Manassas … instead of admiration and valor? Consider the memoirs of South Carolinian John Cheves Haskell, who served on Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s staff during the battle:

A very remarkable incident about Jackson is the way that he got his name Stonewall. Almost universally it is believed that Bee, in exhorting his brigade at Manassas, called to them admiringly to look at Jackson’s men standing like a stone wall. Major

[Thomas G.] Rhett, who was General [Joseph E.] Johnston’s Chief of Staff and a classmate of Bee and Jackson at West Point, was with Bee from soon after he was shot till he died. He told me often, as did General W. H. C. Whiting, that the fact was that Bee said that his and Bartow’s brigades were being hard pressed, that Jackson refused to move to their relief, and that he (Bee) in a passionate expression of anger denounced Jackson for standing like a stone wall and allowing them to be sacrificed.

Well, this is certainly going to stir some of your mustards out there. And Haskell seems pretty adamant …

This was confirmed to me repeatedly during the war and after by James Hill, Bee’s brother-in-law and aide-de-camp, who was with him when he fell. Hill said Bee was angry and excited when the fight was going on, and bitterly denounced Jackson for refusing to move. That this is the true story of Bee’s connection, I have no doubt, as I heard it confirmed by more than one who was present at Bee’s deathbed.

Yet Haskell qualifies everything by concluding,

I am equally confident that Jackson acted from no unworthy motive. He was not only a great man, but one of the sternest Puritan nature, who would come as near as any man could to doing what he thought best, absolutely, regardless of whom it helped or hurt.  And he did what he thought best from a military point of view … I give the story now only to show how remarkably things can be distorted afterwards.

Whatever the case, this “stone wall incident” would travel fast. Diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut was thrilled to greet her husband on July 24 when he return to Richmond.

He gave me an account of the battle as he saw it (walking up and down my room, occasionally seating himself on a window sill, but too restless to remain still many moments.)…He took orders to Colonel Jackson—whose regiment stood so stock-still under fire they were called a stone wall.

The very next day the Charleston Mercury published a version of Bee’s iconic words … a stirring story for a jubilant South that soon “went viral” by 19th century standards when the Richmond Daily Dispatch republished them on July 29 and the Lexington Gazette followed suite on August 15.

Unnoticed now is that these contemporary “stone wall” accolades seemed to have been directed more to Jackson’s men than to himself. Only in the months that followed did soldiers begin to affix Stonewall to Jackson personally. And then it was as praise, from South Carolina Brig. Gen. Ellison Capers, a close friend of Bee’s, to Dr. Hunter McGuire who would tend the mortally wounded Jackson at Chancellorsville two years later.

Less there be any doubt, re Haskell’s telling, the Charleston Mercury would hardly have published the account—alongside the news of this stunning victory—if the “stone wall” incident had been anything less than laudatory. Indeed, three major works on Jackson’s career (Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants, Volume 1, pp. 733-4;  Lenoir Chambers, Stonewall Jackson, Volume 1, pp. 471-2; and James I. Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, pp. 834-6) explore and conclude positively on the origins of the stonewall legend.

But were Bee’s words unique? Dr. Freeman notes that Robert Morton Hughes, an early biographer of Gen. Johnston, documented that on the evening of July 21, Johnston, who almost certainly had not yet heard of Bee’s utterance, mentioned the resilience of one of Jackson’s regiments, the Fourth Virginia:

Preston’s regiment stood there like a stone wall.

And have we heard this before? Consider Gen. Alex Bertheir’s contemporary account of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo on June 15, 1800, describing his two battalions of Old Grenadiers and two squadrons of Consular Guards who would repulse repeated attacks of Elsnitz’s Austrians:

Isolated at more than six hundred yards from the right of our line, they appear as a block of granite in the middle of an immense plain.

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