The Stonewall Enigma | HistoryNet MENU

The Stonewall Enigma

By John Bowers
Spring 1990 • MHQ Magazine

In Stendahl’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma, the young hero, Fabrizio, is caught smack-dab in the middle of the Battle of Waterloo. Fabrizio is bright, romantic, fearless, and ready to experience the glories of war to the fullest. He expects to find what he has read in books. Yet when he looks around, through the dust and din, the plundering, the screams and carnage, the sutlers plyying their trade amid the slaughter, he can find no rational master plan for it all. It seems like pure chaos.

So it is with battles. So it appears to most men in combat. The duke of Wellington himself remarked that battles, indeed history itself, can never be recalled with total accuracy. He compared the past to a grand ball, where everyone in attendance sees small moments only. After a battle, though, when tolls have been taken, when ground has been won or lost, there is the victor and there is the vanquished.  If anyone should have an inkling of what is happening in a battle–or what is supposed to be happening–it is the com­manding general of each side. We say Napoleon lost Waterloo-not General Ney, nor anyone else.

We say that Stonewall Jackson won at Chancellorsville; Robert E. Lee lost at Gettysburg (for which he more than once took complete blame); Ulysses S. Grant won at Fort Donelson; and so on. It is the commanding general who finally, everlastingly, takes the blame or the credit for how a battle turns out.

Thomas Jonathan (“Stonewall”) Jackson was a general who won. He commanded the 1st Virginia Brigade and then the Army of the Valley, CSA, in the Civil War. He took a ragtag band of Virginia farmers, some of his former students at the Virginia Military Institute, a preacher or two, and some neighbors from Lexington and fought off a superiorly numbered North­ern army that intended to invade his home state.

He fought in the snow, on scorching summer days, in a blinding rain­ storm, up a mountain and down in valleys, through a cornfield and by split-rail fences. He knew how to win. He had an abundant amount of ambition (which he usually kept out of sight), and the hallmark of his character was his single­ mindedness in impressing his will upon and prevailing over whatever task and enemy faced him.

He was not a “parade general” like General George (“Little Mac”) McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Little Mac loved spit and polish, the plumes that bobbed in review, the snapping of bright flags. Jackson, who was at West Point with McClellan, went off to fight the Yan­kees wearing the frayed blue tunic of a VMI professor and the kepi of a student. He preferred the kepi pulled forward until it nearly covered his eyes and he had to tilt his head upward to see. Jackson never tried to look like a general.

Once, a captured Washington official, his leg broken, lay in agony on a stretcher near some Confederate troops. He noticed a strange figure by a campfire. A surgeon said proudly that this was Stonewall, Old Jack. The official asked to be carried nearer so he might have a look. It was a once-in-a­ lifetime chance. He saw an improbable figure in a grimy uniform, enormous mud-caked boots, and tiny, filthy cap. The man was hunkered down over the fire like a lowly private. The official looked in wonder, then disbelief, finally in disenchantment. He moaned, “O my God! Lay me down again!”

Word of his reaction spread, and Jackson’s troops picked up on the prisoner’s words. From that time on, during long forced marches, extra picket duty, and needless drilling, the cry went out: “O my God! Lay me down again!” But though Jackson might push them beyond their endurance, goad them to superhuman efforts, in the end he saved them from the worst of all fates for a soldier: He saved them from defeat; he saved their blood. They held him in absolute affection.

Jackson’s most important characteristic was his taciturnity. He did not believe in divulging secrets. At times this trait-and some others-reached a level of obsession. Rarely did he discuss his military credo, his general military thinking. Early in the war he told John Imboden, a comrade-in-arms:

There are two things never to be lost sight of by a military commander, always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in your pursuit as long as your men have strength to follow; for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number. The other rule is, never fight against heavy odds, if by any possible maneuvering you can hurl your own force on only a part, and that the weakest part, of your enemy and crush it. Such tactics will win every time, and a small army may thus destroy a large one in detail, and repeated victory will make it invincible.

This straightforward prescription, with its emphasis on action, was vin­tage Jackson. He never intellectualized the game of war, never thought in terms of a grand design. He simply acted in response to whatever immediately faced him.

Jackson came by his famous nickname, and his reputation for tenacity, at First Manassas. When the federal assault there reached its apogee on that hot, dusty afternoon of July 21, 1861, only Jackson and his 1st Virginia Brigade stood on Henry House Hill to bar a complete breakthrough by the Union soldiers. If Irvin McDowell’s Federals had broken through, the path to Richmond would have lain open and a rebel rout surely would have ensued. The rebellion, the whole new Confederacy, stood poised at this moment on the brink of near-annihilation. Rebel troops were falling back and were close to panic when General Barnard Bee called to his South Carolinian troops, “Look! There’s Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virgin­ians!”

Jackson and his men stood-then charged with an eerie, high-pitched shrieking and whooping that later came to be known as the Rebel Yell. The hapless Federals under McDowell began moving back, finally breaking into a run. Jackson wanted to chase them all the way to Washington, 30 miles down the pike. At this early moment in the war, he wanted to descend on the now defenseless U.S. capital and capture it. Make a bold move, do the com­pletely unexpected, risk all when he knew he had the enemy at his mercy, when its ranks were demoralized and fatigued and beaten.

That was typical Jackson. Press your advantage for all it was worth! He thought he could end the war-surely come by a peace settlement, which was the aim of this new Confederacy. But everyone else, from Jefferson Davis on down, said the battle was over, that everyone needed to rest and regroup for tomorrow. A golden opportunity for the Confederacy thus slipped away.

Remember, though, that Jackson was defending his own soil. He was thinking up ways and means to block the invader. History shows that the one being invaded can be a fierce foe, inspired to come up with unorthodox and imaginative tactics. Jackson was defending Virginia against a horde of “for­eigners” from New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts. He did invade Maryland later, and while there took part in what has been called “America’s bloodiest day,” the Battle of Sharpsburg at Antietam Creek. When it was over, he took his battered and weary troops back across the Potomac onto the home soil of Virginia.

Jackson was not a natural leader. He was not a Napoleon who could digest reams of intelligence and carry in his head a political program for settlement after the furor of battle ended. In fact, Jackson probably had what we now call a learning disability. At West Point he could learn only by rote-by memorizing his lessons word for word. He was not intuitive and could never afford to cut corners. He had to try ten times harder than the next cadet just to keep up. But he had in spades what far more gifted students lacked–the discipline to impress his will and to succeed. He lay by the fire at West Point, long after taps, studying by the flickering light while his fellow cadets slept. He was near the bottom of his class his first year, and near the top his last (not far behind George McClellan, who placed second in Jackson’s class of 1846).

At VMI Professor Jackson taught artillery tactics and natural philosophy in much the same way as he had studied-by rote. He would memorize wide swatches of text and then lecture his fidgety students with it. If a student broke in with a question, Jackson stopped, rewound his recitation to the preceding paragraph, then continued, word for word. He seemed incapable of answering questions off the cuff or indulging in personal anecdotes to enliven his speeches.                                ·

Jackson suffered from a variety of physical complaints. His main source of discomfort was his digestive tract, possibly as a result of a spastic colon. His suffering was genuine, but from all accounts of those close to him, he was also a hypochondriac. When he had time and leisure he tended to suffer a great deal more than when he was under extreme pressure and danger–to wit, in war. In peacetime he sought out doctor after doctor, cure after cure.

Many of Jackson’s famed eccentricities stemmed from his unorthodox schemes to ward off these maladies. He would raise an arm suddenly in the midst of conversation and keep it raised as if he were a schoolboy trying to be called on in class. He once explained this habit to a friend: “One of my legs is bigger than the other-and so is this arm. I raise my arm so the blood will run back in my body and lighten its load. It’s a cure I’ve discovered. Everything has a cure.”

He sat bolt upright in chairs, not allowing his spine to touch the back. Only that way, he believed, would his internal organs rest properly one on top of another and his digestion be accomplished. He thought he was losing his hearing; that his eyesight was failing. He used a chloroform liniment and swallowed a concoction containing ammonia. He sought out health spas, “taking the waters” at popular resorts, North and South.

When war came in 1861, his ailments and complaints suddenly van­ished. He caught what little sleep he needed outdoors on the ground, his saddle for a headrest. He once rode 50 miles, without stopping, to have an hour’s secret meeting with Lee, then 50 miles back to his troops, going over 24 hours without sleep. It was not unusual for him to place such demands on his 165-pound body then, and he made equally stringent de­mands on his men.

Jackson had the stomach, metaphorically speaking, for taking extremely harsh measures to enforce his brand of discipline. He brought court-martial charges against General Richard B. Garnett and relieved him of command because Garnett had ordered his greatly outnumbered brigade to retreat at the Battle of Kernstown. No matter that Garnett’s troops probably would have been slaughtered if they had stayed in place; no matter that, by retreat­ing, Garnett could cover other Confederate troops and allow their escape from ambush. They had retreated, Jackson hadn’t authorized it, and no one on earth could placate Stonewall’s anger. It shone with a fine blue light.

Garnett was a noble and brave officer, scion of landed Tidewater gentry. Still smarting from the humiliation of Jackson’s charges even after Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville, Garnett volunteered to join a doomed charge at Gettysburg and met his death.

The question is, how could Jackson–a valetudinarian in peacetime, a poor excuse for a professor at VMI–have proved to be one of the most daring, brilliant, and tenacious of generals on the battlefield? In searching for the key to personality it is necessary to consider the beginning. Jackson was not of landed Southern gentry; he was not accustomed to tall, cool drinks on a veranda. Tom Jackson was born in what is now Clarksburg, West Virginia, and grew up on what was then the western frontier. The last buffalo in his region was killed the year of his birth, 1824.

It was Calvinistic country, hardscrabble, and Jackson’s life was made even harder by his being orphaned: His father, a lawyer and a veteran of the War of 1812, died when Tom was two; his mother died when he was seven. The boy was shunted among a collection of relatives and then put under the wing of a bachelor uncle, Cummins Jackson, on Cummins’s frontier farm, which featured a gristmill and was known as Jackson’s Mill.

Cummins Jackson was well over six feet tall, strong as an ox, and had robust appetites. Legend has it that he could pick up a whiskey barrel by himself and let the amber liquid squirt into his mouth. He was known locally as a man who struck sharp deals but was fiercely loyal to friend and family. Throughout his life Tom Jackson showed a tolerance, if not a weakness, for wild, flamboyant characters. He had a softness of heart for Jeb Stuart, and his quartermaster in the Valley Army, John Harman, was a man who swore a blue streak and couldn’t be tamed.

The frontier that nurtured Jackson was cruel toward failure and the weak. Only the strong survived. Jackson showed a survivor’s instinct through­ out his life; but perhaps because he’d been orphaned and displaced, he also showed surprising kindness at times toward those who needed aid. He would quick-march his men 30 miles and then stand guard over them while they slept. He thought nothing of shooting deserters or bringing down brave enemy soldiers who were trying to escape. Yet at West Point he went out of his way to care for cadets who were sick or homesick, and on the streets of Lexington he doffed his hat to passing blacks–a courtesy unheard of in the antebellum South. Deeply sympathetic to the troubles of slaves, he bought the freedom of two and started a “colored” Sunday school in his Lexington Presbyterian Church.

Jackson married twice, both times to women whose fathers were Chris­tian ministers and college presidents. His first wife, Elinor, was the daughter of the Reverend George Junkin, president of Washington College in Lexing­ ton (later Washington and Lee); Jackson had done his shy, stiff courting while he himself was a professor at nearby VMI and, marching to his own drum­mer, as ever, took Elinor’s sister along on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls. When Elinor died delivering a stillborn daughter a year later, Jackson became inconsolable, almost suicidal. Only a solitary trip to Europe finally lifted his depression. He kept on close terms with the Junkins for the rest of his life even though several–including Dr. Junkin–fled to the North and joined the Union side.

Jackson’s second wife, Mary Anna (known as Anna), was the daughter of the Reverend Robert Hall Morrison, first president of Davidson College. Jackson settled comfortably again into well-regulated domesticity with an overlay of religion. He demanded punctual morning prayers in his home, and in Lexington he was also in the habit of taking a quick cold bath every morning followed by a three- or four-mile walk.

Yet from Anna Morrison Jackson’s memoirs and other accounts, we know that Jackson was not the dour Presbyterian some might think. Anna, who is shown as a bright-eyed, dark-haired woman in the few pictures we have of her, could be mischievous with her husband. There was a teasing, banter­ing, fun-loving side to their marriage. He affectionately called her his esposa, a word he had picked up in the Mexican War. She never remarried after he died in 1863, living on in Charlotte, North Carolina, until her death in 1915, and receiving almost daily visits from Confederate veterans who called to pay their respects.

Jackson was as much an enigma in his private life as on the battlefield. His private persona bore no perceptible relation to his reputation in war as a stern, unmerciful foe. Next to Lexington, New York was his favorite city, and before the war he enjoyed dropping in on publishers there  and selecting books. He read Melville. On his trip to Europe, he covered a lot of ground and brought back many souvenirs. In his Lexington home, preserved today much as it was when he lived in it, there is a doll he purchased in Germany. At a museum in Chancellorsville, there is a well-thumbed map that he used as he sought out Renaissance art in Florence. In civilian life Jackson was receptive to new ideas, particularly those having to do with science. He owned one of the first iron stoves in Lexington.

Jackson was simple and complex by turns, and so were the battles he faced in the Civil War; he brought his genius to bear on all of them. In the winter following Manassas, he fought the Romney campaign in the western Virginia mountains in bone-chilling weather. Horses slid off the side of icy treacherous roads. Wagons stuck. His men suffered frostbite. Still he pressed on. Supporting generals nearly mutinied, and among troops who were serving for the first time under Jackson the cry went up that the man must be mad. How could human beings march in such weather, in such conditions, and, above all, not knowing where they were going or for what purpose?

True to form, Jackson did not divulge his plans: If his troops didn’t know what he was up to, surely the enemy never would. He pressed on, sucking lemons, putting his shoulder behind caissons and wagons to free them from mud and snow. He took the strategic hamlet of Romney before the might of the federal army could get in place there. Federals could have used Romney as the springboard into Winchester and the whole of the important Shenandoah Valley. Jackson cut them off and served notice by his presence that they had to be mightily concerned with this fidgety and unpredictable commander. They could never overlook him in their strategy–and thus he kept thousands of Federals occupied when they could have been used much farther east, in McClellan’s push on Richmond.

The Valley campaign began on March 23, 1862, with the Battle of Kernstown, into which Jackson threw some 2,700 Confederates against per­ haps 11,000 Federals. Technically he lost (barely)–one of the few fights he ever lost–but as a result Lincoln sent three whole armies after him, 60,000 Union troops. Jackson fought through the Shenandoah in the summer of ’62, using lightning-like tactics and completely befuddling his enemy.

Although he was a brilliant tactician and a master of ambush who could seemingly spring from nowhere, Jackson actually had little knowledge of ge­ography and a poor sense of direction or of the lay of the land. In many ways, like many successful people, he was plain lucky. He was particularly lucky to come by one of the greatest mapmakers the Civil War produced–Jedediah Hotchkiss. Hotchkiss was an ex-New Yorker who had fallen under the spell of the Shenandoah on a summer walking tour. He did not believe in the South­ern cause, did not believe in slavery, but he believed in supporting the people and land he had become smitten with and he fought for them. When Jackson found out that Hotchkiss was a master cartographer, he put him to work without a pause. It was Hotchkiss who laid out the maps that Jackson fol­lowed to surprise his enemy.

In the Mexican War, particularly in the Battle of Chapultepec, Jackson had learned the value of taking the high ground. As a trained artillerist, he also knew the importance of placing heavy guns on an elevated plateau. If he had lived to fight at Gettysburg, no doubt he would have strongly advised against George Pickett’s doomed charge of shoulder-to-shoulder infantry against fortified Cemetery Ridge. He himself probably would have found a way to circle behind George Meade and surprise him mightily from the rear. But of course he did not live to fight in the most critical battle of the war.

He died right after his most stunning victory, at the crowning moment of his military career, at Chancellorsville. There he circled around General Joseph Hooker’s right flank and launched a surprise attack from the rear.

Hooker, known for good reason as “Fighting Joe,” was certain that his defenses were impregnable and was relaxing in the late afternoon on the veranda of Chancellor Mansion, when suddenly a soldier on the road outside cried, “Here they come!”

First came Hooker’s own troops, running at full throttle, among them some German mercenaries shouting in broken English that they needed pontoons to cross the river. Behind the blue-clad Federals came in full stride scrawny soldiers in gray–Jackson’s troops. Hooker flung himself onto his white steed and rode into the melee, exhorting his men to stand fast and fight, but he changed not one man’s mind. The confusion was so complete, the dust and noise and powder smoke so overpowering, that Hooker got swallowed up. Ignored by the onrushing Confederates, he escaped. Jackson, meanwhile, kept pressing toward the ever-receding front. True to his belief in relentless pursuit, he urged his men and officers to cut off escape routes, to press for­ward–to punish.

It was around nine at night on May 2, 1863, in growing darkness that some of his frontline troops, North Carolinians, mistook him and his party for a Yankee patrol and shot him. Eight days later, on Sunday, May 10, he died quietly, his wife and daughter and a few of his staff beside his bed. Before the end, delirious, he had called out battlefield commands: “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front!” Then a calmness passed over him and he uttered his final, famous words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Of all those who missed Jackson’s presence in battle, Robert E. Lee undoubtedly led the list. Jackson was his right-hand man, the one soldier who could take a general plan of attack and brilliantly devise a method to execute it. No other general worked anywhere near as closely with Lee as Jackson did. The two of them were a perfect symbiosis: Lee, a tidewater patrician with courtly manners and an engineer’s mind; and Jackson, the self-made frontiers­ man who simply willed himself to make up for natural deficiencies. Lee was the only commanding officer with whom Jackson felt totally in tune, with whom he got along.

As a rule, Lee’s orders to Jackson were loosely put and circumspectly offered. Jackson would take Lee’s vaguely articulated wishes and carry them out with devices of his own making and with his own personal stamp on them. Lee told Jackson early in the war that he wanted him to hold the Shenandoah Valley and keep the Federals’ hands tied there. Lee didn’t tell him how. It was Jackson who came up with the lightninglike surprise assaults; it was Jackson who pursued crippled and battered enemy troops, inflicting as much damage as possible to make sure they wouldn’t attack him the next day.

At heart Jackson was a loner. Only once, at Winchester, did he call his staff to a war council–and he rued the day. On that occasion he had wanted to attack the Union army under General Nathaniel P. Banks, after dark, even though he would have been outnumbered ten to one. His staff, however, advised him to retreat. As he rode out of Winchester, one of the last to leave, he stopped at the top of a hill and turned to look back at the sleepy little Southern hamlet, pinpoints of light showing in a few homes. Dr. Hunter McGuire, his personal physician, stopped beside him. McGuire, who idolized Jackson, later wrote that at that moment Jackson had a look of unholy ambi­tion on his face, which was enough to frighten McGuire. “That is the last council of war I will ever hold!” Jackson said. And it was.

Jackson was rather like a warrior from the Old Testament, a devout Christian who sought mightily to keep the Sabbath holy and to obey the Ten Commandments. A man who didn’t even like to mail a letter on Sunday, he was forced to fight some of his major battles on the sabbath-the Battle of Kernstown, for one–and, of course, the commandment concerning killing had to be overlooked. But in peace and in war, the general did not like to hear the Lord’s name taken in vain, and hardly anything pleased him as much as seeing his troops at revival services in the field. Some of his soldiers later confessed that they attended these services simply because they knew it would please Old Jack, not because they felt religious stirrings.

Jackson’s life was relatively short. He had been seasoned in the Mexican War, as had Grant, Sherman, and Lee, but unlike them he never lived to become an elder statesman. Because of his dark, full beard and also because of his deep imprint on the Civil War and his reputation as a leader of men, one tends to think of him as older. But in fact Jackson was only 39 when he died, and he fought a young man’s war. His stamina, his daring, his uncom­promising stances came in part from a young man’s makeup. Old men tend to compromise, to delay, to be prudent rather than rash. Not Jackson.

The quality, though, that made Jackson a great general–perhaps the greatest of the Civil War–is an intangible one that defies definition and can’t be taught. He personified the word indomitable. He would not accept defeat and had a way of coming back, prevailing no matter what was thrown at him. Many of these setbacks would have caused others to lose heart. He came through–despite an apparent learning disability, despite an under­ manned army and inferior arms (when bullets ran out, he cried, “Charge them with the bayonet!”), and despite gargantuan demands on his mind and body. When the Battle of Cedar Mountain was being lost, bluecoats storming over Stonewall’s regiments in a clatter of musket fire, Jackson himself gal­ loped into the maelstrom, drew his sword, and rallied his retreating troops back into the fight. “Rally, brave men, and press forward! Your general will lead you. Jackson will lead you! Follow me.” The tide turned, and Cedar Mountain was won.

In the Seven Days’ Battle he suffered what we now might call a nervous breakdown, or shell shock–but somehow, in a near-trance, carried on, though not as the fearsome Jackson he was before, or would be later. He was assigned by Lee’s roundabout orders to cross Grapevine Bridge and pursue the Federals. For once, however, he couldn’t act. He stared off into space, mum­bling. Without his orders and directions, Stonewall’s army stalled and the enemy was able to get away. At a camp table, he fell asleep with a biscuit in his mouth.

Without aid from anyone or anything, Jackson willed himself back into the fray. After the Seven Days’ he won again at Manassas, invaded Maryland, and gave the South its crowning glory (and final unmistakable victory) at Chancellorsville. Confederate army general Richard Taylor, son of the former U.S. president Zachary Taylor, said the bullet hadn’t been molded that would kill Stonewall Jackson. He felt safe in his presence, for Jackson seemed pro­tected by Providence from the lead and iron that screamed and whined and buzzed around him. Shells would crash into trees and miss Jackson by inches. He was shot in the finger at First Manassas, was thrown off a horse in Mary­land, but suffered no other injury until a round of musket fire found him and brought him down at Chancellorsville. Like the rest of us, Jackson proved in the end to be neither immortal nor invincible. However, when the guns at last became silent and a reckoning took place, Jackson came to be thought of as arguably the most formidable general in the  conflict.

Over an archway to the barracks at VMI is a saying found in the com­monplace book of Stonewall Jackson. Those who knew and cherished him chose this sentence to personify and honor him. It reads, “You may be what­ ever you resolve to be.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1990 issue (Vol. 2, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Stonewall Enigma

Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!

 
 
 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Sponsored Content: