General Thomas J. Jackson: “Stonewall”


Stonewall JacksonThomas Jonathan Jackson, the officer that came to be known as “Stonewall”, was born in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia in 1824. Orphaned by 7 years old, Jackson was raised by various relatives until he entered West Point in 1842.

Jackson had very little early schooling but he worked hard at the military academy. Jackson graduated 17th out of 59 students in the Class of 1846. It was said by his peers that if he had stayed there another year, he would have graduated first.

Jackson began his career as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment and was sent to fight in the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. He served at the Siege of Veracruz and the battles of Contreras, Chapultepec, and Mexico City, eventually earning two brevet promotions, and the regular army rank of first lieutenant. It was in Mexico that Thomas Jackson first met Robert E. Lee.

Jackson was praised by General Winfield Scott for earning more promotions than any other officer during the three-year war.

In 1851, Jackson began his career at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He became Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Instructor of Artillery. Parts of Jackson’s curriculum are still taught at VMI, regarded as timeless military essentials: discipline, mobility, assessing the enemy’s strength and intentions while attempting to conceal your own, and the efficiency of artillery combined with an infantry assault. Jackson was to use all of these during his two-year meteoric career.

Jackson was designated to lead a contingent of VMI cadets to Charles Town for the hanging of John Brown on December 2, 1859. He saw only “unflinching firmness” in Brown’s actions on that prophetic day.

When Virginia seceded, Jackson was promoted to colonel and ordered to become the drillmaster for new recruits to the Confederate army. On April 27, 1861, he was ordered to Harpers Ferry by the governor. There, he was to form the infantry brigade that later became famous as the “Stonewall” Brigade, consisting of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th, and 33rd Virginia Infantry regiments. All of these units were from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, where Jackson located his headquarters throughout the first two years of the war.

Jackson was promoted to brigadier general in June after a spectacular raid on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on May 24th. Jackson’s operations were aimed at disrupting a critical railroad used by the opposing Union Army as a major supply route and capturing the maximum number of locomotives and cars. In June, General Joseph Johnston ordered Jackson and his brigade to join the main Confederate Army confronting the Union forces around Manassas.

Jackson earned his famous nickname at the First Battle of Manassas in July. Brig. Gen. Barnard Elliott Bee, Jr., exhorted his own troops to re-form by shouting, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” Although there is some controversy about Bee’s rationale, he was killed shortly after and the name stuck.

After the battle, Jackson was promoted to major general and given command of the Valley District. It was here that “Stonewall” Jackson became famous. In a lightening campaign that lasted from March 23, 1862 until June 9th, Jackson’s 17,000 men marched 646 miles  in 48 days and won six out of seven battles as they successfully engaged three Union armies (52,000 men), preventing them from reinforcing the Union offensive against Richmond.

With the success of his Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson became the most celebrated soldier in the Confederacy (until his reputation was eventually eclipsed by Lee’s), and his victories lifted the morale of the public.

Jackson then joined the main Confederate army east of Richmond where he eventually became Robert E. Lee’s senior subordinate, commanding the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. His troops served well during the Seven Days Campaign but Jackson’s reputation fared rather poorly.

Victorious once again at the Second Battle of Manassas, Jackson would lead his veteran troops into Maryland. His corps commanded included four divisions of veteran troops with attached artillery for each division.

Jackson was assigned by Lee to capture Harpers Ferry so that there would be no threat to the Confederates’ supply lines back to Virginia. His troops surrounded the town and forced its surrender. The victorious Confederates captured mountains of weapons and supplies, besides almost 12,500 Union soldiers.

Moving on to Sharpsburg, Maryland, Jackson commanded the northern end of the Antietam battlefield, where his men bore the brunt of the early fighting. At the end of the day, Jackson’s subordinate, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, prevented a Union breakthrough at the southern end of the battlefield. Hill’s troops were the last to arrive, having stayed at Harpers Ferry to arrange the surrender and parole of the captured Union troops.

In December, Jackson’s Second Corps held off a strong Union assault against the right flank of the Confederate line at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in what became a decisive Confederate victory.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was Stonewall Jackson’s final and perhaps, his greatest tactical achievement. Jackson’s famous Flank Attack broke the Union lines and forced a rout of the Union Army.The Confederates marched silently until they were merely several hundred feet from the Union position, then released a bloodthirsty cry and full charge. Many of the Federals were captured without a shot fired, the rest were driven into a full rout. Jackson pursued relentlessly back toward the center of the Federal line until dusk.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own troops while leading a party that was scouting the forward lines. The North Carolina troops thought that the group were Union cavalry. Jackson was hit by three bullets, two in the left arm and one in the right hand. Several other men in his staff were killed, in addition to many horses. Darkness and confusion prevented Jackson from getting immediate care. He was dropped from his stretcher while being evacuated because of incoming artillery rounds.

Jackson’s left arm had to be amputated by the chief surgeon of Jackson’s Corps, Dr. Hunter H. McGuire. The General’s condition was not helped by the rough evacuation to a farm some 18 miles from the battlefield. Jackson eventually succumbed to pneumonia.

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.” Thomas J. Jackson died on May 10, 1863 at the age of 39.

His friend and commander, General Robert E. Lee on the night that he learned of Jackson’s death, told his cook, “William, I have lost my right arm” and “I’m bleeding at the heart.” 

The Confederacy never replaced Jackson’s superior command and tactical skills. Less than six weeks later, Lee was defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg.


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