Stonewall’s death confirmed his spot in the Rebel pantheon.
“Stonewall” Jackson inspirited the Confederate people on many occasions. He played a major role in celebrated victories while exhibiting the audacious generalship his fellow citizens craved. His 1862 Valley Campaign catapulted him to unrivaled fame in the Confederacy (R.E. Lee would surpass him late in 1862 or early in 1863). He followed up his success in the Valley with a march around John Pope’s army in August 1862, the capture of Harpers Ferry in September 1862 and the famous march on May 2, 1863, beyond Joseph Hooker’s exposed right flank at Chancellorsville. All these accomplishments were offensive in nature and fit the model of what most Confederates considered superior military leadership. Jackson’s boldness and insistence on inflicting the greatest possible damage to the enemy, together with his well-known Christian piety, made him a perfect soldier for the Confederate people.
The 1862 Valley Campaign illustrates Jackson’s impact on Southern morale. Timing and command style meant everything in terms of why this operation, modest by Civil War standards, resonated so powerfully. Between May 8 and June 9, when Jackson’s campaign unfolded, Confederate fortunes reached a critical low point. The Federals had captured New Orleans and Nashville, won victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and Shiloh, secured southern Missouri with a success at Pea Ridge, blunted a quixotic Confederate offensive in the far west at Glorieta Pass, and placed a 100,000-man army at the vital rail center of Corinth, Miss. In the Eastern Theater, CSS Virginia had been scuttled and the largest Union army approached Richmond, the fall of which likely would end the war. The Confederate people hungered for good news from the battlefield.
Jackson supplied it with five small engagements that loomed large because of when they came and how they were achieved. Through rapid movement, daring and aggressiveness, “Old Jack” triumphed at McDowell (May 8), Front Royal (May 23), First Winchester (May 25), Cross Keys (June 8) and Port Republic (June 9). As a quintet, those clashes scarcely added up to one real battle, but Jackson had taken the war to the enemy when all other Confederate generals seemed to be retreating and suffering defeats. Had Richmond fallen during the ensuing Seven Days’ Campaign, the Valley operations would be an insignificant footnote in Civil War military history. But the Confederate capital did not fall, and Jackson’s victories, which raised hopes in the hearts of countless Southerners, assumed almost mythical status.
Four quotations underscore how news from the Valley hit the Confederate home front. The Charleston Daily Courier offered a breathless, and inaccurate, accounting on June 18, inviting “attention to the following summary of the achievements of Gen. Thos. J. Jackson, (‘Stonewall’). With a handful of citizen soldiers… he has, in little more than sixty days, marched over five hundred miles, fought about twelve battles— five of which were pitched battles— defeated four generals—routed four armies—captured millions of dollars worth of stores, &c., and killed, wounded and secured as prisoners, almost as many of the enemy as he had soldiers under his command! These are startling assertions, but they are literally true!”
Judith McGuire, a refugee living in Richmond, expressed feelings typical of many Confederates upon learning of events at Cross Keys and Port Republic. “General Jackson is performing prodigies of valor in the Valley,” she observed on the evening of June 9, adding, “he has met the forces of [John] Fremont and [James] Shields, and whipped them in detail.” Three days later, McGuire juxtaposed Jackson’s campaign with failed operations in the West. “We are more successful in Virginia than elsewhere,” she observed, adding that the “whole Mississippi River, except Vicksburg and its environs, is now in the hands of the enemy, and….Memphis has fallen!”
The Richmond [Daily] Dispatch, on June 11, 1862, suggested that aggressive maneuvering and fighting by “glorious ‘Stonewall’ in the Valley cannot fail to raise a high old panic among the functionaries of Washington….The result of these splendid victories is too evident to need comment; and it is therefore unnecessary to urge that immediate reinforcements be sent to Jackson, that he may be able to follow up the advantages already gained.”
From eastern North Carolina on June 11, diarist Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston noted that “Jackson has gained another victory in the Valley of Va. He has beaten Shields & holds Fremont in check, who fears to attack him singly.” Edmondston then got to the heart of why so many Confederates loved Jackson: “He is the only one of our generals who gives the enemy no rest, no time to entrench themselves.” In contrast, she deprecated the efforts of Joseph E. Johnston and Lee, his successor, outside the capital. “Matters before Richmond look gloomy to us out siders,” she wrote sadly. “McClellan advances, entrenching as he comes. Why do we allow it?”
The reputation for coldblooded effectiveness won in the Valley clung to Jackson for the rest of the war. It pervaded accounts of his activities and showed clearly in reporting about the rear-guard action at Shepherdstown, Va., on September 19-20, 1862. An aftershock to Antietam, this fight claimed more than 650 Union and Confederate casualties and compelled a Federal retreat across the Potomac. The Confederate press described it as a bloody Union defeat, a theme picked up by civilians. “On the 19th a division of the enemy crossed over to Shepherdstown,” wrote a woman in Fredericksburg, Va., with typical hyperbole. “Jackson captured or killed the whole of them. The Potomac was damned up with their bodies.” A second diarist estimated that “Ten thousand Yankees crossed at Shepherdstown, but unfortunately for them, they found the glorious Stonewall there….we succeeded in driving a good many of them into the Potomac….The account of the Yankee slaughter is fearful.”
Neither his questionable performances at the Seven Days’ and Fredericksburg nor a striking absence of tactical skill even in his victories diminished Jackson’s reputation among Confederates. He was their Stonewall, purposeful, destructive to the enemy and Lee’s right arm. Death in the wake of Chancellorsville cemented Jackson’s place as the second most important figure in the Confederate pantheon.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.