Thomas Jackson: The Stonewall of Confederate Honour

Written by Kevin Kempton.

On 21 July 1861, Union Brigadier General Irvin McDowell fought against Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard at First Bull Run (or First Manassas). As the Confederate lines began to crumble under McDowell’s heavy Union assault, a brigade arrived, providing significant reinforcements on Henry House Hill. Confederate Brigadier General Barnard Elliott Bee Jr., exhorted his own troops to re-form, realising that the men in the brigade could become crucial to Confederate victory. After the order Bee was killed almost immediately, but the Confederate army survived the Union assault, resulting in one of the first major victories during the Civil War. After his death it was reported that Bee had shouted, ‘There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!’

The man who led this ‘stone wall’ was Thomas Jonathan Jackson, a Virginian who would later make his name as one of the most legendary military figures of the Civil War. Now known for the nickname ‘Stonewall’ because of the brigade he had led at First Bull Run, Jackson was also nicknamed ‘Old Jack’, ‘Old Blue Light’ and ‘Tom Fool’. Born in Clarksburg, Jackson was an ordinary Southerner who believed in Southern customs, seeing himself as a devout believer sent by God to destroy Unionist evils. After many successful military campaigns, Jackson was accidentally shot after the victory at Chancellorsville on 2 May 1863 and died from pneumonia on 10 May. Hearing of Jackson’s death that evening, Confederate General Robert Edward Lee reportedly told his chef, ‘William, I have lost my right arm’ and ‘I’m bleeding at the heart.’

What has attracted historiographical attention is how Jackson, an unusual individual, entered popular culture as a Virginian who fought to defend the Confederacy. Jackson suffered many physical ailments, but it is noteworthy that he was able to cope with his concerns and concentrate on the campaigns he wanted to win. A religious fanatic who saw himself as God’s instrument, Jackson sought to fight a holy war against the Unionist invaders, while preserving his Presbyterian ideology. Jackson’s command style has also influenced modern-day military ideology, with many historical researchers concentrating on his unusual tactical and leadership qualities. With this in mind, Jackson is an individual whose legacy has entered popular culture and distinguished him from other figures of the American Civil War.

Jackson’s sometimes unusual command strategies and personality characteristics contribute to his legacy as one of the most remarkable generals of the American Civil War. Although martial and stern in attitude, he was profoundly religious and a deacon in the Presbyterian Church in the United States and willing to implement his fanatical ideology. One of his many nicknames  was ‘Old Blue Light’, a term which referred to Jackson’s evangelical zeal burning with the intensity of the night-time blue display light. As part of the Presbyterian ideology, Jackson disliked fighting on Sunday, the day of the Sabbath, although that did not stop him from doing so. Thus also strongly invested in family values and principles, he appeared to love his wife, Mary Anna Morrison Jackson, deeply and sent her letters. Unremarkable in appearance, Jackson was not a striking figure, often wearing old, worn-out clothes, rather than fancy, aristocratic uniform with a sword, as was common for Lee. In part because of these traits and the physical ailments from which he suffered, Jackson is an unusual individual with a command style and personality that attracts historians.

A lifelong belief held by Jackson as part of the concern that he showed about the physical ailments which he faced, was that one of his arms was longer than the other. Therefore, Jackson would usually hold what he saw as the longer arm up to equalise his blood circulation:s a practice which concerned the people he knew. He was described as a ‘champion sleeper’ because he would occasionally fall asleep with food in his mouth, which was another physical ailment that concerned Jackson. The Society of Clinical Psychologists believed that Jackson had Asperger syndrome, although other possible explanations, such as a herniated diaphragm, exist. He sought relief through hydrotherapy while visiting establishments at Oswego at New York in 1850 and Round Hill at Massachusetts in 1860, although with little success. He also suffered a significant hearing loss in both of his ears as a result of his prior service in the Union Army as an artillery officer, where he  had experienced intensive gunfire. Noteworthy about these physical difficulties is the conflict of this preoccupation with his feeling that he had a duty to protect the future Confederacy.

Another recurring story illustrating Jackson’s physical ailments relates tohis apparent love of lemons, which he allegedly gnawed whole to alleviate symptoms of indigestion. The Lieutenant General Richard Taylor wrote in his war memoirs that, ‘Where Jackson got his lemons ‘no fellow could find out,’ but he was rarely without one.’ However Doctor James I. Robertson, Jr. argues that Jackson thought of a lemon as a ‘rare treat … enjoyed greatly whenever it could be obtained from the enemy’s camp’. In fact Jackson was fond of many fruits, particularly peaches, ‘but he enjoyed with relish lemons, oranges, watermelons, apples, grapes, berries, or whatever was available.’Jackson’s religion has often been discussed, as he was a fanatic who believed that he was God’s instrument sent to protect the Confederate homeland from the Unionist invaders. Jackson’s biographer, Robert Lewis Dabney, agreed with this view and illustrated it, suggesting that ‘It was the fear of God which made him so fearless of all else.’ Jackson, an ardent believer in Presbyterian ideology as well as strict moral codes, reportedly said himself, ‘My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed.’ With religion an important force in sustaining Confederate morale throughout the conflict, Jackson was committed to the maintenance of morality within the army. Jackson’s religion was a significant factor in his military conduct.

Stephen Ward Sears, a famous historian working on the war, suggests ‘Jackson was fanatical in his Presbyterian faith, and it energized his military thought and character.’ However, according to Sears, this can be simplistic since ‘this fanatical religiosity had drawbacks. It warped Jackson’s judgment of men, leading to poor appointments.’ Robertson, in direct contradiction to the argument that is conveyed by Sears, has suggested that Jackson was, ‘a Christian soldier in every sense of the word.’ It is clear that Jackson, according to Robertson, ‘thought of the war as a religious crusade’ and, ‘viewed himself as an Old Testament warrior – like David or Joshua’. Although this religious fanaticism had drawbacks in the sense of creating only Presbyterian soldiers, Jackson was able to prove his military prowess on the battlefield.

Jackson had encouraged the Confederate States Army revival that occurred in 1863, although it was probably more of a grass-roots movement than a top-down revival. Strongly believing in Puritan Sabbatarianism, Jackson refused to fight on Sundays, and he would order his men, who were mostly Presbyterians, to follow their morality. Working on Jackson’s belief in observing the Sabbath, Robertson notes that, ‘no place existed in his Sunday schedule for labor, newspapers, or secular conversation.’ Throughout the conflict, Confederate churches had convinced the Southern population that God was on their side, and not on the side of the ‘heaviest battalions’. By following the example of the churches in the trust given by God, Jackson was influential in sustaining Confederate morale until the going got tough.

In command, Jackson was extremely secretive about his plans and meticulous about military discipline, illustrating his unusual and sometimes unsuccessful strategies. This secretive nature did not attract his subordinates, who were not aware of his intentions until the last minute, and who complained of being left out of key decisions. However, it is noteworthy that despite his subordinates being unaware of his decisions, Jackson was crucial to Confederate victories, including First Manassas. Except for a below-par performance during the Seven Days of 1862, Jackson displayed military prowess, especially in the Valley Campaign in spring 1862. Jackson’s unusual command style, although unsuccessful in attracting his subordinates, was effective in fighting Union armies who were seen to be the ‘heaviest battalions’.

One exceptional individual was Lee, who trusted Jackson with undetailed orders that conveyed the overall objectives, what modern doctrine calls the ‘end state’. Jackson had a talent for understanding Lee’s sometimes unstated goals, so the pair trusted each other in taking whatever actions were necessary. Few of Lee’s subsequent corps commanders could repeat this pattern, which resulted in a series of missed opportunities for the Confederacy after Jackson’s death. At Gettysburg it led to lost opportunities, with Jeb Stuart famously forgetting to inform Lee of Union Army movements, under Joseph Hooker and George Meade. With the Union Army trying to regroup, Lee had sent Lieutenant General Richard Stoddert Ewell orders that Cemetery and Culp’s Hills had to be taken ‘if practicable.’ Without Jackson’s intuitive grasp of Lee’s battle orders or the same instinct to take advantage of sudden tactical opportunities, Ewell chose not to attempt this assault. With the exception of James Longstreet, Jackson was the only corps commander under Lee who had the command style necessary to produce major victories.

Although his religious fanaticism produced a majority of Presbyterians in his army, Jackson energised the Confederate cause, inspiring Southerners to fight to the end. Events including the revival of 1863 illustrate how Jackson was able to encourage a grass-roots dimension to the Confederate cause, producing a sense of will among Southerners. Jackson’s religious fanaticism, especially in observing the Sunday Sabbath, was crucial in sustaining Confederate morale until the going got tough in 1865.

Finally, in command, Jackson’s style of secrecy in planning military operations and imposing discipline helped to produce major Confederate victories including First Bull Run. Although the nature of Jackson’s planning did not attract his subordinates, he was, overall, the only corps commander under Lee who could produce necessary results. Individuals including Lee realised Jackson’s strategy in planning deliberately undetailed orders, which conveys the difference separating the young Southerner to others. The fact that Jackson’s command style was unique in comparison to other commanders including Ewell contributes to the historiographical debate on the Civil War. Even with his death after Chancellorsville, many Southerners today still believe in Jackson’s final words: ‘Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.’

Image: Beau Considine


Eicher, J.H. and Eicher, D.J., Civil War High Commands (Stanford, 2001).

Farmer, A., The American Civil War 1861-65 (London, 2002).

Freeman, D.S., Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (New York, 1946).

Henderson, G.F.R., Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War (New York, 1995).

McPherson, J.M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York, 1988).

Pfanz, H.W., Gettysburg – The First Day (Chapel Hill, 2001).

Robertson, J.I., Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York, 1997).

Sears, S.W., Gettysburg (Boston, 2003).

Taylor, R., Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War (Nashville, 2001).

Wert, J.D., General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography (New York, 1993).

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