Known to most people as “Stonewall” Jackson, Thomas J. Jackson remains very much an enigma, despite considerable historiography. That is because like Robert E. Lee, for whom Jackson was such an able lieutenant, much of Jackson’s life and career remains hidden behind the veil of the Lost Cause mythology. If Lee was the Lost Cause’s suffering saint, Jackson was its adored martyr, cut down by a hail of bullets at the zenith of his military career. Those who adhered to these myths, as well as the many who still do, proclaimed that, had Jackson survived Chancellorsville, had he been in command of his corps on the Confederate left that first day at Gettysburg, all would have been different, all would have changed for the Southern cause. The Yankees would have been driven from Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, the Army of the Potomac broken, and the Southern war for independence won. But, that did not happen and, in fact, Jackson was a far more fallible and far more interesting man than his Lost Cause admirers claim.
It must be said at the outset that Stonewall Jackson was, in many ways, the ideal partner, the ideal lieutenant for Robert E. Lee. Lee, always audacious and aggressive, needed an operational commander who could carry out his plans with boldness and without hesitation—Jackson was that man. Jackson was an aggressive fighter, a man who trained his troops to march fast and fight hard. The Confederate brigade that he formed and trained, and that would forever bear his name as the Stonewall Brigade, moved faster over greater distances and struck the enemy with more force than any in all the Confederate armies of the Civil War. Jackson was a harsh taskmaster and unforgiving of any error. As a result, his brigade and division commanders would constantly feud with him and, more often than not, face arrest and formal charges. And, just as often, it would be Lee’s job to step in, sooth ruffled feathers, and maintain some semblance of command cohesion.
On a more personal level, Jackson was an overachiever and a man in constant battle with himself. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by an uncle who instilled the value of hard work in young Thomas. The uncle also garnered Jackson an appointment to West Point for which he was academically unprepared. Jackson was certainly no intellectual and he passed the entrance exam by the smallest of margins. Once a cadet, however, Jackson managed to rise from the bottom of his class as a plebe to the top third simply by outworking everyone else. After graduation, he served ably in Mexico, where he was cited for bravery under fire. But, as the years passed, Jackson seemed to feel increasingly in a battle against his inner self.
In 1849, he became a devout Christian, reading the Bible every day, and developing his own rules for behavior from what he read. He drove himself intensely to eliminate all sin from his being, and, in doing so, he turned his back on almost all forms of earthly pleasure or joy. This internal struggle made him seem even more aloof, more distant, and eccentric than he already was. As a result, he was close to only his wife and a few friends, and was utterly unable to form healthy relationships with anyone else. Further, his eccentricities became almost legendary. For example, he would not eat any food he enjoyed to rid himself of dyspepsia and would ride with one finger raised in the air to improve his blood flow. Little wonder then that A.P. Hill once referred to Jackson as “that crazy old Presbyterian fool.”
In addition, for a man supposedly devoted to Christ, he was unusually brutal in battle. When asked what should be done with the Yankees after the destruction of Fredericksburg, he howled, “Kill them, kill them all!” On another occasion, he would say that “duty has no place for sentiment.”And then there was the time his men refused to fire upon a Union officer who was displaying particularly gallantry. When Jackson asked why they were not firing on him, they responded that the enemy officer was too brave to shoot. Jackson replied angrily, “That is exactly why I want him dead.”
Militarily, popular mythology would describe Jackson as a brilliant tactician and strategist. However, he truly was neither. As with his religion, Jackson refined warfare down into a set of simple rules, which he followed as passionately as he did his biblical precepts. As stated earlier, he trained his men hard and pushed them hard in battle, sometimes too hard. He believed military success could be found in simply out-marching, outmaneuvering, and outhitting the enemy, and that is what he tried to do. As an independent commander fighting in the Shenandoah Campaign of 1862, he was able to employ this simple but effective approach so well, that it appeared absolutely brilliant. During a period of six weeks, his men fought five battles, innumerable skirmishes, and were victorious in all of them. They fought three separate Union armies, moved faster than any of them, and thoroughly embarrassed the opposing commanders. At times, Jackson was aggressive to the point of being impetuous and foolhardy. But, in each case, he was saved by the incompetence of his opponent. After all, he wasn’t fighting a Grant, a Sherman, or even a Sheridan. Rather, he was battling against the likes of Nathanial Banks and Robert Milroy, none of whom could truly be called a soldier.
However, I do not want to take too much away from Jackson’s abilities as a commander, for, while he may not have been a talented tactician or gifted strategist, he truly shown brightest under Lee functioning in the role historian Joseph Glatthaar refers to as an “operational commander.” An operational commander is one that executes the plan of the overall commander, and Jackson was at his best when executing Lee’s orders. He threw himself and his command into battle with fury, bringing Lee’s audacious, bold operational plans to reality. At Second Manassas, at Antietam, and, finally, at Chancellorsville, he brilliantly executed Lee’s vision, especially at Chancellorsville.
In that battle, Lee had skillfully divided his forces in the face of Joe Hooker’s turning movement and battled the Federal advance on two fronts. On the night of May 1, 1863, he found himself facing Hooker’s main army in the Wilderness region near the Chancellor House, while part of his Army of Northern Virginia opposed a Federal flanking attack at Fredericksburg. Once the battle engaged the next day, he would be in a very tenuous position that only a bold move might resolve. Together with Jackson, Lee devised a plan that was both bold and dangerous, for it involved him dividing his army in the face of the enemy one more time. The plan called for Jackson to move his entire corps to the left, through the dense forest down narrow pathways, until they were opposite the far right of Hooker’s army. From there, they would assault the exposed Federal flank and, hopefully, crush Hooker’s line and then completely collapse it.
Jackson and his men departed at 4:00 a.m. the next morning and, by late evening on May 2, they arrived opposite the Union XI Corps, whom they found peacefully cooking dinner. Federal pickets had reported Jackson’s presence, but the reports were dismissed as ridiculous. After all, they said, not even Lee would divide his army in such a manner and not even the wily Jackson could move his corps through the dense forest. They would pay dearly for underestimating both Lee and Jackson. Jackson’s “foot cavalry” came screaming out of the forest to smash XI Corps, crushing the Union right, and causing the entire Army of the Potomac to retreat in near panic.
Ironically and tragically, Jackson would not survive this great triumph. As he moved forward to observe the results of the action, his was struck by three shots, all fired by his own men in the growing darkness of evening. One hit his right hand, another his left wrist, and the third shattered his left arm, just above the elbow. His surgeon amputated the damaged arm that night and he was moved to the nearby Chandler plantation, Fairfield, to recover. His wife soon joined him but, by the time she arrived, Jackson was suffering from pneumonia, for which there was no effective treatment at the time. He died of complications from the disease on May 10, 1863. His physician, Dr. Hunter McGuire, later wrote an account of Jackson’s death which, whether accurate or not, has become part of the Jackson mythology:
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."
However, shortly before Jackson’s death, his commander, Robert E. Lee, would offer what, perhaps, was the most fitting eulogy for his loyal lieutenant. As Jackson lay dying, Lee sent him a message through his chaplain, saying, "Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right."