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Thomas Jackson: The Oddball Genius

General Stonewall Jackson
General Stonewall Jackson, 1863, a week before he was wounded at Chancellorsville (US Public Domain)

Next to Robert E Lee, Thomas Jonathan Jackson is the most well-known as well as the most-loved Confederate Civil War commander.  His tactics--along with Lee’s--are studied around the world in history classes and military colleges, all these years later.

Jackson’s first taste of the American Civil War occurred at its very first skirmish: Manassas, Virginia, July 21, 1861; known as the First Battle of Bull Run to the Unionists, and First Manassas to the Confederates. In the midst of the battle as the Union forces pressed, the Confederate lines began to crumble.  Brigadier General Jackson and his brigade filled the void and held firm in defending Henry House Hill, causing Brigadier General Barnard Elliott Bee to point and shout from across the field: “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” he said to his men. “Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” Jackson’s action that day helped to seal a Confederate victory. After that, Jackson was forever nicknamed “Stonewall” and his brigade “The Stonewall Brigade.”

Following the iconic battle, Jackson was promoted to major general and given command of Virginia’s  Shenandoah Valley. There, in a 48-day campaign that began in spring 1862, he marched his army 650 miles and won 10 crucial battles against three Union armies using hit-and-run tactics despite overwhelming odds (his 17,000 to the Union’s 60,000 strong). Jackson’s troops moved so swiftly that the press dubbed them Jackson’s “foot cavalry.”

Dazed, confused, and embarrassed, the Union withdrew from the valley in early June, much to Union President Abraham Lincoln’s disgust. At the time, Jackson was considered the most famous general in the world. Today, his lightning Valley campaign ranks as one of the most brilliant in military history.

Who was “Stonewall” Jackson? Apparently, Jackson and I have the same birthday. He was born January 21, 1824 in Clarksburg, Virginia. At West Point, he was an awkward, nervous country boy with homespun clothing, and was often made fun of. But he studied hard and graduated 17 in a class of 59 in 1846. He served in the Mexican War with distinction, and taught at Virginia Military Institute, before commanding his Stonewall Brigade at Manassas. He never smoked, drank, or played cards, and had some odd habits such as an addiction to sucking on peaches and lemons, keeping one arm raised while in battle to keep the blood circulating, and sleeping under wet sheets.

Almost six feet and weighing 175 pounds, he had cold, blue eyes, a rugged face, with a brown beard and hair. A marvel to behold, he wore the brim of his cap down to his nose. He was usually shabbily dressed, with a button or two often missing on his uniform. Besides the Stonewall distinction, he went by other nicknames: “Old Jack,” “Tom Fool Jackson,” and “Old Blue Light.” His men adored him because he provided them with victories. A Christian of Presbyterian faith, Jackson always gave credit to God for his battlefield successes.

After the Shenandoah victories, Jackson joined Robert E Lee during the Peninsula Campaign that was fought on the turf between the two capitals of Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia. However, Jackson moved sluggishly, leaving historians baffled to this very day. However, he quickly redeemed himself at the Second Manassas and at Sharpsburg, Maryland, following the first Confederate invasion of the North.

In October 1862, Jackson was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of Lee’s II Corps in the much-feared Army of Northern Virginia.  That winter, he played a prominent role at the Battle of Fredericksburg by holding the Confederate right line. For how he handled the battle and the subsequent loss, Union General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Army of the Potomac was relieved of his position. Then came Jackson’s masterpiece at Chancellorsville, ten miles west of Fredericksburg, in May 1863.

The Union was on the move that spring, with General Joe “Fighting Joe” Hooker now in command of 130,000 soldiers with the Army of the Potomac, outnumbering the underfed and poorly equipped Lee’s forces by more than two to one. Nevertheless, the fearless Robert E Lee made a bold move by splitting his already depleted Army of Northern Virginia in the face of the enemy which forced Hooker to set up a defensive position inside the wooded area known as the Wilderness. Lee then went to work on a clever plan with the help a local guide who knew the area like the back of his hand.

On the morning of May 2 around 7 AM, the guide began to lead Jackson’s II Corps of 28,000 men on what would be an incredible 16-mile march through the dense trees and around the right flank of Hooker’s army. At times the mighty force was within a mere two miles of the Union right flank. For the next several hours, Hooker, who was headquartered in a clearing inside the Wilderness, received frantic reports of Rebel troops moving in the woods, but he foolishly believed that Lee’s army was in the midst of retreating. As a result, he did nothing.

By 6 o’clock Jackson had six of his 15 brigades in position at the edge of the woods, only a few hundred yards from the Union right flank. With two hours of daylight remaining, Jackson attacked with his men screaming the bloodthirsty “Rebel Yell,” driving the shocked Union XI Corps back more than a mile, until darkness fell. Considering a night attack, aided by a full moon, Jackson and his staff then led a scouting expedition through the woods to assess the Union position.

But upon returning, Jackson was shot accidentally by his own pickets thinking he and his staff was the enemy. Several officers were killed, while Jackson took a bullet in the right hand and two in his left arm. Within hours, his arm was amputated. Hanging on as best he could in and out of consciousness, he died eight days later, Sunday, May 10, from complications due to pneumonia. That morning when told he would not live to see another day, he uttered, “It is the Lord’s Day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.” His final words were: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”

The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863
The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, by Kurz and Allison (US Public Domain)

Jackson’s passing was a terrible loss for the Confederacy. Robert E Lee said, sadly, “I have lost my right arm. I am bleeding at the heart.” Two months later, when Lee invaded the North for the second time, he faced another new Union Army of the Potomac commander--the third in less than six months--Major General George Meade, who had replaced Hooker in June. The two forces met in the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, where the North and South fought an epic three-day bloodbath in early July that decided the war. The first day was a clear-cut victory for the Confederacy, the second day a draw, and the third a smashing victory for the Union. After, Lee retreated, never to invade the North again. It was the turning point of the entire conflict, and was all downhill for the South after that.

The Confederacy may have won at Gettysburg had Jackson been there because what the South surely lacked on the field after Chancellorsville was secondary leadership, after Lee. Events often change in the midst of any battle, and adjustments have to be made, something that Jackson and Lee understood thoroughly. They were an excellent team: a dynamic duo. Lee was the quarterback: Jackson was the running back looking for the holes either up the middle or off-tackle. While on his own, Jackson could almost read Lee’s thoughts and tactical objectives and move accordingly before receiving any dispatches from Lee. Lee’s other commanders could not think for themselves the way Jackson could.

Furthermore, had the Confederacy won that second day at Gettysburg when the Union was fighting for their lives defending their left flank, the road to Washington would have been wide open. Lee’s army could have taken Washington and sued for peace. As a result, there never would have been the silly and disastrous third-day “Pickett’s Charge,” which was Lee’s catastrophe. Several officers in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia believed the same thing. As a result of the second-day draw at Gettysburg, one of the officers in particular said what many of them were thinking: “Jackson is not here.”

Stonewall Jackson’s presence at Gettysburg could’ve changed history, forcing the battle to be discussed differently today. But it didn’t happen.


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