Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson

Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, Confederate Officer

January 21, 1824–May 10, 1863


Confederate Officer




Old Blue Light, Old Jack, Stonewall, Tom Fool


“The moment a grain of black pepper touches my tongue, I lose all strength in my right leg.”

Barnard Bee, a brigadier general from South Carolina, gave his life to the Confederate cause in the first major engagement of the Civil War. But he secured a place for himself in the history books by christening a legend. Desperate to rally his hard-pressed men at the First Battle of Bull Run, he looked to a prominence behind him known as Henry House Hill, where a Virginia brigade under former science professor Thomas Jackson stood stoic and immovable before the Union onslaught that was crashing upon it. “Look, men,” Bee cried, “there is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally to the Virginians!”

Bee, who lay mortally wounded by the end of the day, had given America one of its most exalted nicknames—and one of its most ironic, as the world would learn soon enough. A preternaturally gifted exponent of surprise and maneuver, Jackson bore as much resemblance to a stone wall as a tornado does to the structures it decimates. And it wasn’t just his tactics that set him apart: The fact is, few figures in American history have been at once so lionized, so elusive, and—frankly—so damn strange.

A notorious hypochondriac, Jackson was convinced that one of his arms weighed more than the other. His solution: Raising the heavier limb above his head so the blood could drain from it.

He was born in the rugged northwest quarter of Virginia to parents who died by the time he was seven. If he had anything like a mentor, it was an uncle named Cummins Jackson, an industrious and rather unscrupulous businessman whose milling operation put the clan in good stead both financially and politically. At seventeen, young Thomas was deputized a constable to the Lewis County court, in which capacity he collected outstanding debts, enforced judicial decisions, and impressed the community with his honesty and hard work. Such service in the public interest was an ideal outlet for this straitlaced, earnest youth looking to better his prospects. West Point beckoned when an applicant from his state ended up bowing out of the program, securing Jackson an appointment if he passed the entrance exams.

He passed, but by the slimmest of margins. It was the inglorious beginning of a relationship with academics that occupied much of Jackson’s life. Raised on the wooded slopes of western Virginia and accustomed to hard physical labor, Jackson was no intellectual. But his aspirations of becoming one helped him develop one of his most outstanding qualities: intense, single-minded concentration. Determined to exploit his West Point opportunity for all it was worth, Jackson set goals for himself and pursued them with the discipline of a religious ascetic. It was obvious to him that he had a lot to learn, and he would learn it at any cost. When the course work became confusing, he simply waded through it for however many hours it took to acquire a rudimentary grasp of the subject. Then he would set about memorizing it all, sitting perfectly erect for hours in a straight-backed chair, staring blankly at the wall, lost to a universe of laboring brain cells.

With neither the time nor the patience for frivolity, Jackson struck his fellow plebes that first year at West Point as an awkward eccentric with about as much charisma as a railroad tie. He couldn’t have cared less, and he continued his daunting study regimen. Unduly modest, he sought academic help from whomever would give it and made the most of his time with fellow cadets by asking questions to expand the inventory of data he was amassing in his head. While nothing came naturally to him, seemingly nothing was beyond his grasp once he’d started sweating over it. In 1846, he graduated seventeenth in a class of fifty-nine.

He didn’t have long to wait to put all his hard-earned studying into practice. War with Mexico came as soon as he graduated, and Jackson—now an artillery officer—went south in search of glory. He found it the following year at the pivotal Battle of Chapultepec, where he efficiently manned his gun in the face of a veritable hailstorm of enemy fire, to which he seemed oddly oblivious. The performance played a leading role in the American victory that day and was soon the subject of countless campfire conversations. A hero was born.

For Jackson, the moment at Chapultepec was all-important. Not for the fame or admiration that came with it, but because it had validated the choices he’d made, the hard work he’d done. And he liked it: The mortal danger, the gravity of the moment, the honor and solemnity of following orders all made him feel more alive than he’d ever felt before. He had also survived against all the odds, galvanizing something that had been stirring in him since before his West Point days: religion. Awarded two brevet promotions for his service in the campaign, Jackson was truly content to look upon the army as his home.

Or so he thought. After returning to the United States from occupation duty in Mexico (during which he began a lifelong love affair with the Spanish language), Jackson endured various uneventful postings until, in 1850, he was transferred to Fort Meade in the wilds of Florida. There he encountered the one thing that could spoil his attachment to the army: an intolerable commanding officer. He was Captain William French, a fellow veteran of the Mexican War, and the two seemed to grate on each other’s nerves right from the beginning. Things got rough when French called Jackson’s ability into question during a series of scouting missions, then came to a boil over the construction of new fortifications; searing tension led to accusations and recriminations. If the two sparring officers believed themselves locked in an epic struggle of wills, the army seemed more irritated than anything else. The whole thing came to nothing.

By the time things at Fort Meade went really haywire, Jackson had received an offer to become a civilian teacher at Virginia Military Institute. Disillusioned with the swamps of Florida, he now accepted it. Any regrets he may have had about leaving the army would be offset by joining a regimented community designed on the West Point model. It was a highly regarded school with a deep sense of tradition and attachment to his native Virginia, and it afforded him an opportunity to make a good living by passing his experience and sense of duty on to the next generation.

All well and good. But Jackson had nothing to recommend him to the position beyond a heroic reputation and a respectable record at West Point, neither of which can be said to make a great teacher. So, not surprisingly, he wasn’t. Lanky and graceless, with unnaturally large feet and a high-pitched voice, he did not exactly inspire awe in his students. When he inspired anything, it was usually confusion. Jackson’s subject, called “Natural and Experimental Philosophy”—a heady brew of physics, optics, mathematics, and a few other intimidating “-ics”—was considered central to the VMI curriculum, if only because it separated the men from the boys. Jackson got by in the only fashion he knew: hours of rote memorization. As a result, his students were presented with a human tape recorder rather than a teacher—a man whose classroom style was limited to the regurgitation of data that had been stuffed into his head the evening before. Any deviation from the textbook, however minor, was simply impossible to grasp. Biographer James I.Robertson Jr. relates a story that says it all: “What are the three simple machines?” Jackson once asked a cadet in class. “The inclined plane, the lever, and the wheel,” replied the student. “You are wrong, sir,” Jackson said. “The lever, the wheel, and the inclined plane.”

The cadets usually had a blast at their teacher’s expense, making jokes about his ungainly walk, his humorless manner, and his awkward lectures. But it was a different story when they were on the firing range. As the artillery instructor, Jackson showed an impassioned, electric energy that was missing from his philosophy classes. There, amidst the thunder of the guns, was where he belonged.

In April 1861, VMI’s cadets found themselves following that stern, blue-eyed gunner to Richmond on a march to war. And while many of them still razzed him as their endearingly peculiar “Old Jack,” they would soon come to regard him with unqualified awe. Like many of his fellow Virginians, Jackson’s stance on the stresses that divided North and South was straightforward: Secession was wrong, but Federal tyranny was worse. Now, as the nation broke apart, he sided with the Old Dominion. But it was more than a civil war to him: It was a crusade. A Presbyterian whose religious devotion bordered on the fanatical, he prayed feverishly in the weeks following Abraham Lincoln’s election for some divine solution that would avert a call to arms. But once the fight began, Jackson sincerely believed that his beloved South was being oppressed by a mongrel Yankee culture whose soulless, hivelike modernization threatened the very foundations of God’s earthly realm. Such a fight required bold action on a whole new level, and not just for spiritual reasons. With its material abundance and massive population, the North must be stunned into capitulation through constant, relentless defeats. The Confederacy must go on the offensive, never surrender, and pummel the Federals with a series of merciless blows that occur too quickly in succession to allow them a moment’s peace.

Jackson even suggested that no prisoners be taken, a notion that struck virtually everyone who heard it as quite dangerous and perhaps insane. But outrageous audacity would come to define Jackson and his greatness. After delivering VMI’s finest to Richmond and offering his services to the Rebel army, he was sent north to organize the defense of Harpers Ferry, then rushed to Manassas Junction and immortality at the Battle of Bull Run, where Barnard Bee made his famous pronouncement. Thereafter known throughout the Confederate army as “Stonewall” Jackson, the former VMI professor was given the command that turned him into a phenomenon. Toward the end of 1861, Jackson was sent to the Shenandoah Valley, where, the following spring, he was ordered to stir up enough trouble to keep the Union troops stationed there from reinforcing McClellan’s drive on Richmond. During the ensuing two and a half months, Jackson force-marched his “foot cavalry,” as his men became known, down and up the valley in a furious, lightning-fast campaign. They trudged hundreds of miles on substandard rations and won several major battles. Collectively, Union forces in the valley always outnumbered Jackson’s total command, but time and again he was able to deliver a greater force onto the battlefield. He did it through stealth, speed, familiarity with the terrain (he’d grown up just beyond the mountains to the west), and sheer trickery—a virtual recluse who kept his elaborate plans even from his closest subordinates, he once transferred a bunch of his troops out of the valley by train, then brought them back again, just to confuse Federal spies. Ultimately, Jackson had turned what was intended to be a diversion into one of the most outstanding examples of generalship in the history of arms. His Shenandoah achievement is still studied today as a model of how to defeat a numerically superior opponent through maneuver and deception.

Jackson was summoned east again to help Robert E. Lee drive the Federals away from Richmond in the effort that came to be known as the Seven Days’ Battles. Marred by misleading intelligence, Union resourcefulness, lousy maps, and the fact that Lee was working with an incomplete and untried staff structure, the Confederate offensive had trouble right from the start. Jackson didn’t help matters, performing with none of the dash or ingenuity that had defined his valley triumph. In fact, the chaos of the Seven Days pointed to Jackson’s greatest weakness: his inability to compensate for an unforgiving, hard-driving style of command. Stonewall, to put it simply, was exhausted. During one evening mess, the general’s head was seen falling forward in slumber, a biscuit clenched between his teeth.

No matter. McClellan’s Federals were pushed off the Peninsula anyway, and Jackson was soon on to more remarkable feats, all of which he piously claimed to be the work of Providence. His vaunted troops won a close battle at Cedar Mountain, performed a daring end run around the Union right before the Second Battle of Bull Run (another incredible feat of his foot cavalry, some of whom marched approximately fifty-four miles in two days), endured the appalling slaughter of Antietam, and turned back a potent Federal assault at Fredericksburg. He had weaknesses, to be sure. It was said that Stonewall put more officers under arrest than all other Rebel generals combined, a testament to his unyielding need for absolute discipline. And his refusal to share his plans with prominent subordinates led to a needless amount of confusion—in an effort to keep things from the enemy, he often succeeded in keeping them from his own men. But Jackson had become the toast of spectators across the globe. Northerners read of his exploits with a mixture of alarm and grudging admiration. To Robert E. Lee, he was indispensable—the bold, visionary lieutenant who could be relied upon to deliver the coup de grâce in every battle that mattered.

And it was in that capacity that Jackson made his final—and most amazing—performance. In May 1863, Lee faced somewhere around 70,000 Union troops under Joseph Hooker with only 40,000–50,000 of his own near Chancellorsville, Virginia. Ever the gambler, Lee divided his smaller force, betting on Jackson’s ability to pull off another miracle. It was a good bet. Jackson and his corps of 26,000 Rebels were dispatched on a tortuous twelve-mile march through a densely wooded thicket called the Wilderness to emerge on Hooker’s far right flank. Moving such a large body of men and artillery such a considerable distance along narrow, vine-choked footpaths on an oppressively hot day was no easy feat, and it took Jackson nearly all of May 2 to pull it off. Late that afternoon, he sent his men howling out of the trees to slam into the enemy’s exposed flank. Having achieved complete surprise, they rolled up the Union Eleventh Corps like a carpet, eventually advancing three miles before darkness brought the rout to a halt. Furious Rebel attacks the following day further shrank Hooker’s perimeter. He pulled the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock by May 6. Chancellorsville was an astounding Confederate victory.

But by that time, the man who had orchestrated it was fighting for his life. At around 9:00 on the evening of May 2, Jackson and his staff were reconnoitering the lines when, in the confusion of the night, they were mistaken for Union soldiers by a unit of North Carolina infantry and cut down in a fusillade of musketry. Two balls tore into Jackson’s left arm and a third lodged in his right hand. He was rushed to a rear area field hospital amidst the terrific violence of a nighttime artillery duel, and his left arm was later amputated. In the wake of his surgery, pneumonia settled in and took him on May 10.

In addition to the Second Corps, Jackson left behind a small family (Mary Anna Morrison, his second wife, and the mother of his only surviving child, Julia; his first wife, Elinor Junkin, died in 1854), a tough, dwarfish steed named Little Sorrel, a deeply bereaved Confederacy, and an outsized reputation that has only grown in the ensuing century and a half. It is telling indeed that Robert E. Lee never again attempted the daring flanking maneuvers that his favorite general performed effortlessly at such conspicuous Southern victories as Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville. “He has lost his left arm,” Lee famously remarked upon hearing of Jackson’s amputation, “but I have lost my right arm.”


Thomas Jackson may not have made it through his first year at West Point had it not been for a whiz kid named W. H. Chase Whiting, one of the academy’s best students at the time. When Jackson beseeched Whiting to be, in effect, his tutor, Whiting accepted and steered the hapless plebe through examinations (barely). But there’s another figure without whom Jackson would never have graduated and become a legend—or, indeed, have even gotten into West Point at all. When Congressman Samuel Hays appealed to his fellow northwest Virginians to give him two West Point applicants, Jackson was one of several who answered the call. But he was bumped by Gibson Butcher, who eased out Jackson in the preliminary interviews. Though Jackson was crestfallen, he would get another chance—when Gibson Butcher came wandering back to Virginia from West Point, a victim of the academy’s harsh standards. He had realized that the Point was not for him and had experienced a change of heart. Had it not been for Butcher’s laziness, the South might never have gotten its most celebrated tactician.


At some point in 1862, Stonewall Jackson stopped reading newspapers. He had become the subject of countless front-page stories, and it bothered him. To Jackson, God was the prime enabler of the Confederate army’s success, and he was merely His instrument. This may seem like so much false modesty, but to Jackson it was very serious. In fact, few—if any—general officers of either side during the Civil War were as profoundly religious as Stonewall Jackson. Baptized on April 29, 1849, at age twenty-five, Jackson the seeker became Jackson the evangelist, commencing a life given over almost completely to the veneration of God. The officers on his staff were selected as much for their piety as for their ability. Jackson prayed intermittently throughout each day, whether there was a battle or not. He gave ten percent of his pay to the Presbyterian Church. To him, spreading the faith was mandatory. He pleaded with his only remaining sibling, Laura, to become a more heartfelt Christian, and during his years as a VMI professor, he taught a Sunday school class for slaves. Jackson was so serious about not conducting secular business on Sunday that he refused even to read mail on that day or, until leading troops in battle during the Civil War, to discuss secular issues. Such committed faith could be a dangerous business: As Jackson himself once remarked about the walks he was fond of taking in the woods to pray, “I was … annoyed that I was compelled to keep my eyes open to avoid running against the trees and stumps.”

In His Dreams

Here’s a supreme irony for you: Thomas Jackson had a notorious habit of falling asleep in church.


Stonewall Jackson is one of the most famous hypochondriacs in American history. Seemingly everything was wrong with him at one point or another, often all at once: rheumatism, neuralgia, dyspepsia (the bane of his existence), consumption, and ear infections. His vision was bad and got progressively worse (though he staunchly refused to wear spectacles), and his eyes often caused him pain. A believer in self-diagnosis, he read widely on human anatomy, but reached some dubious conclusions. He was convinced, for example, that one of his arms was heavier than the other, requiring him to raise the offending limb for long moments at a stretch to let the blood and humors run down into his body and even things out (!). Jackson always sat up straight as a board—because he thought slouching compressed vital organs, disrupting their ability to function. Of course, he admitted in correspondence to his sister that his afflictions were probably “decreed by Heaven’s Sovereign” as punishment for his sins.

Not surprisingly, Jackson’s remedies were often just as eccentric as his “ailments”—such as inhaling the smoke of burning mullein, an herbal remedy for respiratory ailments. His favorite nostrum was hydropathy, or “taking the waters” at one of the popular spas of the time. He also espoused calisthenics, which, though based on sound thinking, typically involved some very strange antics: Friends and associates grew accustomed to seeing him hopping in place or furiously pumping his arms to get his heart going.


Though Stonewall Jackson insisted on getting the same rations as his men, it couldn’t have been that much of a sacrifice. Mindful of the illnesses that seemed to dog him, he fixated on diet as an obvious solution to any physical issue. As a result, his menu was nothing if not bland: unseasoned meat, lots of tea and water, and stale bread (he was known to leave bread out in the open and time its aging so as to acquire the precise degree of staleness). Tobacco and liquor were out of the question, though he did request whiskey on the evening of his amputation at Chancellorsville (one can hardly blame him). He loved fruit, lemons most famously, sections of which he was often seen sucking. Food was too important to leave to chance: Jackson typically showed up at social occasions with his own food in hand.


The 1864 series of the Confederate $500 bill featured Stonewall Jackson’s likeness. He was the only Confederate to die during the war that was featured on Confederate currency.


“The Old Dominion must be sadly deficient in military men, if this is the best she can do,” wrote one Southern news correspondent in 1861 upon setting eyes on Thomas Jackson. “He is nothing like a commanding officer.” This observation was made in the weeks before Jackson rose to prominence as the legendary “Stonewall.” But his appearance would always be, to put it mildly, underwhelming. To begin with, his feet were simply gigantic, the feature that always and instantly set him apart in a crowd. And while his boots were custom-made, the rest of his clothing was egregiously ordinary. He began the war in his plain blue VMI uniform and kept the kepi long after the rest of the outfit began falling apart. The faded, crumpled cap became his hallmark, its visor pulled down so low over his eyes that he was forced to tip his head up just to see forward. Even his horsemanship was goofy: When riding Little Sorrel at a gallop, he leaned so far forward that observers often worried he would pitch over the animal’s head at any moment. His men learned to spot his approach on horseback at long distances from the maladroit profile of the rider.


During the Seven Days’ Battles, Stonewall Jackson once captured a handful of confused Federals. Upon learning the identity of their esteemed captor, one of the soldiers was heard to exclaim, “Gentlemen, we had the honor of being captured by Stonewall Jackson!” It was an honor indeed. The fact is, Jackson had virtually as many fans in the North as he did in the South. In February 1863, a Confederate pilot boat was captured by Union forces and assigned by the United States Navy for service out of Key West. Her name? The Stonewall. Her captors never renamed her out of respect for the vessel’s namesake. She even captured a blockade-runner in January 1864.

“I Sing of Arms and the Man …”

Stonewall Jackson’s amputated left arm is probably the most famous limb of the Civil War. A day after the removal of Jackson’s arm, his friend Beverley Tucker Lacy—the chaplain whom Jackson had chosen to oversee the spiritual matters of the Second Corps—buried it in the family plot of his brother’s estate, Ellwood, not quite a mile from the field hospital. Almost exactly one year later, during the Battle of the Wilderness, Federal troops dug up the arm and reburied it. In 1903, James Power Smith, one of Jackson’s wartime staff officers, placed a small monument over the spot to mark it for posterity. The actual remains of the limb, however, have never been seen by anybody since those violent days in the Wilderness in 1864—except, allegedly, by Smedley Butler, a major general in the United States Marine Corps who is believed to have exhumed it during Civil War reenactment maneuvers in 1921 and to have reburied it in a metal box, though there is some debate as to whether or not this really happened. Whether the arm is precisely beneath the marker that stands in the burial plot now is open to question, though there’s little doubt that it resides somewhere in the cemetery. Interestingly, Jackson himself would probably have dismissed all the fuss over his arm as so much impious idolatry.

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