Andrew Jackson Grigsby’s fury was an advantage on the battlefield, but it sure didn’t help when he turned it on his own commander.
Colonel Andrew Jackson Grigsby was mad as thunder; and not without reason.
Mustered in as major of the 27th Virginia Infantry in April 1861, Grigsby had risen to the rank of colonel by the following spring. He led his regiment throughout the Shenandoah Valley and Seven Days’ campaigns; at Second Manassas, he commanded the famed Stonewall Brigade; and at Antietam, he had been propelled to command of the entire Stonewall Division when Brig. Gen. John R. Jones left the field and Brig. Gen. William E. Starke was killed. So when the time arrived for Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson to name a permanent commander for his beloved Stonewall Brigade, the appointment would surely go to Grigsby. Or so everyone thought.
After all, he had just led the unit with great merit during two of the war’s most significant battles, not to mention the fact that he was now the brigade’s senior officer. No wonder, then, that the soldiers of the brigade were astonished when the command instead went to Elisha Franklin Paxton. And no surprise either that Grigsby was furious.
Not only was Paxton, a major, some grades junior to Grigsby, but he had spent the previous seven months not as a field commander but as a member of Stonewall Jackson’s personal staff. To make matters worse, Jackson’s explanation for violating military protocol to promote Paxton—a fellow resident of Lexington and an old friend—was a slap in the face to the heir-apparent. “My rule has been,” Jackson told Robert E. Lee, to select those who were “best qualified to fill vacancies. The application of this rule has prevented me from even recommending for the command of my old brigade one of its own officers because I did not regard any of them as competent as another.”
When Grigsby learned the news, he “was filled with resentment against Jackson,” remembered Lieutenant McHenry Howard, “and told me for the good of the service he would do nothing while the war lasted, but that as soon as it ended he would certainly challenge Jackson,” presumably to a duel.
There was no denying Grigsby was a fighter. On the field of battle he was, in a word, fearless. Never afraid to lead from the front, Grigsby exhibited little, if any, regard for his personal safety. A fellow officer described him simply as “the bravest of the brave,” while another labeled him “the gallant Grigsby, who knew no fear.” At the First Battle of Winchester in May 1862, he led his men on foot into a “hail of grape shot and musket balls,” with at least one Yankee bullet piercing a hole through his sleeve.
A month later, at Port Republic, Grigsby’s horse was shot from beneath him, and his sword belt was later shot clean away. At Malvern Hill during the Seven Days’ Campaign, a bullet tore through his left shoulder; at Second Manassas he was hit twice more, receiving slight wounds.
Despite being a stern disciplinarian, Grigsby won the admiration of his soldiers and the respect of his superiors. Clearly there was no question about Grigsby’s fighting prowess; his personal manner, however, was a different story.
Grigsby was hot-tempered and profane. He often filled his canteen with whiskey, and he was renowned throughout the ranks for swearing. In the words of one Stonewall Brigade officer, Grigsby was “always rather headstrong,” and McHenry Howard wrote that Grigsby was “a bluff soldier, much given to swearing.”
“Tall, lanky, hawk-nosed, and heavily-bearded, he proved as outspoken as he was reckless, as caustic as he was daring,” historian James I. Robertson wrote of Grigsby, who ran afoul of the mighty Stonewall on several occasions. Despite Grigsby’s abilities as a battlefield commander, that went far in Jackson’s decision to pass him over. Perhaps because fate placed him under the command of someone as morally exacting as Stonewall Jackson, Grigsby may have been, as the cliché goes, his own worst enemy. Indeed, for an officer who served with such combat distinction in what was perhaps the most famous unit of the war’s most famous army, Grigsby remains a largely forgotten figure—relegated a footnote in history.
Born November 2, 1819, in Rockbridge County, Va., Andrew Jackson Grigsby secured an appointment to West Point in 1837, only to be expelled one year later because of poor grades. He next settled in Missouri, where he led the life of a hardscrabble frontier farmer. With the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846, Grigsby volunteered for service and joined Company F of the famed 1st Missouri Mounted Volunteers as a private, under the command of Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan. After an eventful term in uniform, he returned to his native Virginia and to his plow. He also taught school for a period. His peacetime ventures, however, were interrupted once again when the decades-long sectional tensions between North and South culminated in war in 1861.
Living in Giles County, Va., at the time, the 41-year-old Grigsby joined the 27th Virginia Infantry, which would soon be attached to the Stonewall Brigade. He would rise successively to the rank of lieutenant colonel and then to colonel when John Echols was wounded at the Battle of Kernstown in March 1862. As he rose in the ranks, Grigsby endeared himself to his soldiers and his superiors. He was immensely popular, it seems, with just about everyone: everyone, that is, except Stonewall Jackson.
Troubles between the two developed soon after Kernstown, which proved a black eye in Jackson’s otherwise stellar military career. There, his Stonewall Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett, broke to the rear after running out of ammunition while facing overwhelming Yankee pressure. Jackson considered the retreat disgraceful, and on April 1 arrested Garnett for neglect of duty and relieved him of his command.
That drew the ire of the disgraced Garnett’s friend Colonel Grigsby, who pledged his full support for the general and went so far as to voice his outrage to Jackson himself. When Jackson asked Grigsby if he believed the Stonewall Brigade could have held its position at Kernstown for just five minutes longer, the colonel snapped back: “No, sir! They could not have stood a damned second longer!”
That, of course, wasn’t the most tactful way to respond to a pious superior officer, and Jackson’s estimation of Grigsby was further dimmed several weeks later following the occurrence of a potentially ugly incident.
After the Battle of McDowell on May 8, 1862, a group of soldiers in Grigsby’s 27th Virginia whose one-year terms of service had expired stacked their arms and demanded their discharge. The men were refusing to honor the stipulations of the Confederacy’s recently passed conscription act that bound all soldiers in the field to remain in the Army for three years, previous terms of enlistment notwithstanding. These men believed the act was unjust.
Grigsby was now faced with a mutiny; he appealed to Jackson for advice. A staff officer present when Jackson read Grigsby’s plea remembered that Jackson, “with flashing eye and rigid brow, demanded with portentous sternness, ‘What is this but mutiny? Why does Colonel Grigsby refer to me to know what to do with a mutiny? He should shoot them where they stand!’” Grigsby was ordered to parade his regiment with loaded muskets, march the mutineers to the front, and deliver to them the ultimatum to either return to the ranks or face immediate execution. Grigsby, himself a stern disciplinarian, immediately obeyed, “and the mutineers when thus confronted with instant death promptly reconsidered their resolution.”
Despite his flare-ups with Jackson, Grigsby continued to distinguish himself in combat. His bravery was especially pronounced at the July 1, 1862, Battle of Malvern Hill, where he valiantly led the 27th Virginia into a veritable storm of shot and shell. “We used to illustrate afterwards the severity of this fire over the open field by saying that even Colonel Grigsby…stopped swearing,” Lieutenant Howard later recalled.
Grigsby received his most severe wartime wound at Malvern Hill when a bullet struck his shoulder. Following the fight, Private John O. Casler of the Stonewall Brigade remembered that “while some of us were at a spring that evening getting some water, [Grigsby] came along and wanted some water poured on his wound.” One of the soldiers inquired, “Colonel, does it hurt?”
“Yes, damn it,” the colonel replied, “it was put there to hurt!”
Losses in the Stonewall Brigade following the Shenandoah Valley and Seven Days’ campaigns were appalling, and the unit’s numbers continued to dwindle as the summer wore on. Brigadier General Charles Winder, who had assumed command after Garnett, was mortally wounded at Cedar Mountain in August; Colonel William S.H. Baylor next took the helm of the Stonewall Brigade, only to fall dead three weeks later at Second Manassas. Rising to brigade command following Baylor’s death was its next highest-ranking officer, Colonel Grigsby, who was still feeling the effects of the wounds he had received two days earlier.
Grigsby led the Stonewall Brigade, or what was left of it, throughout the Maryland Campaign in September. At the beginning of action at Antietam, the brigade totaled only 250 men, which, as Private John Worsham observed, was “no larger than a good regiment!” By the time darkness brought a merciful end to the carnage that day, the brigade’s ranks had been reduced by another 88 killed, wounded or missing.
During the battle, Grigsby rose to command of the entire Stonewall Division after General Jones left the field—stunned by an exploding artillery shell—and the death of General Starke. Grigsby guided the division through the rest of the action with much skill and fierce determination; indeed, it may be argued that Antietam was the colonel’s shining moment.
So, as Jackson prepared the following month to appoint a permanent commander for the Stonewall Brigade, Grigsby seemed the logical choice. His battlefield performances certainly warranted promotion and he was, after all, the unit’s senior officer. When Jackson chose Paxton instead, many believed that the pious general, in addition to being offended by Grigsby’s caustic nature and use of profane language, may have resented his outspoken support of Garnett earlier that year.
The colonel’s appeal to Jackson during the mutinous affair within the ranks of the 27th Virginia did not help matters either. Moreover, Grigsby’s leadership in battle sometimes bordered on the reckless and impulsive. And one cannot dismiss the fact that Jackson and Paxton were friends, and that Paxton, like Jackson, was a devout Presbyterian.
A seething Grigsby ventured to Richmond to air his grievances directly to President Jefferson Davis, but Davis apparently evinced little emotion as Grigsby voiced his complaints. Grigsby, in turn, became more demonstrative, his voice growing louder and his words more wicked and profane.
Because of recent Confederate reverses in Maryland and Kentucky, Davis had far more important matters on his plate. This was but a trifling matter, something that did not require his involvement; a waste of his time.
Finally, Davis had had enough. “Do you know who I am?” he shouted, leaping from his chair. “I am the president of the Confederacy!”
“And do you know who I am, sir?” Grigsby shot back. “I am Andrew Jackson Grigsby of Rockbridge County, Virginia, late colonel of the Bloody 27th Virginia of the Stonewall Brigade, and as good a man as you or anyone else, by God!”
The meeting ended, as Grigsby stormed out of the room and then tendered his resignation. He returned to his home in the Shenandoah Valley, his days in uniform apparently over.
The following spring, an effort was made to have Grigsby reinstated to the vaunted ranks of Army of Northern Virginia. In March, about 40 officers, mainly from the Stonewall Brigade but also including Generals A.P. Hill and Jubal Early, signed a petition calling for Grigsby to be promoted to brigadier general and assigned a brigade command. “No bolder or more daring an officer ever led troops into a fight, or managed them better when actually engaged,” read the appeal.
Surprisingly, Elisha “Bull” Paxton was among those signing the petition. Yet in the end, the noble effort was in vain. Jackson simply shelved the document.
Grigsby would never get the opportunity to challenge Jackson to a duel. About six months after Grigsby’s resignation, Jackson was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville—a battle that, incidentally, also claimed Paxton’s life.
Andrew Jackson Grigsby lived out the final 33 years of his life in the Shenandoah Valley, living with relatives in Albemarle County. He was active in veterans’ affairs, and his fiery temperament seemed to ease as he aged. Despite the events leading to his resignation, he remained proud of his service and of his days donning the Confederate gray. Indeed, at the 1894 unveiling of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Richmond, Grigsby insisted on walking at the head of the veterans’ column despite his poor health and advanced age.
On December 18, 1895, Grigsby fell ill with pneumonia. Five days later, the old warrior passed away at the age of 76. On Christmas Day, “with a bright sunshine and a Sabbath stillness resting upon the scene,” Colonel Grigsby’s remains were laid to rest in the Goss Family Cemetery near Stony Point, Va.
A fitting tribute to Grigsby appeared in the March 1896 edition of Confederate Veteran: “He was a man of great force of character, and impulsive; he was brave almost to rashness, and in battle exposed himself with a reckless disregard for his own safety. He never said ‘go,’ but always ‘come.’ While a stern disciplinarian, his regiment was devoted to him, and would follow him anywhere. His kindness of heart was shown in later life by his habit of carrying apples in his pocket to give to children and others whom he met.”
Yet a greater tribute had come four years earlier. In 1891, the Stonewall Jackson statue in Lexington was unveiled amid much ceremony. Chosen to lead the surviving members of the famed Stonewall Brigade was Colonel Andrew Jackson Grigsby. Having long ago buried his resentment for Jackson, Grigsby rode at the head of his former soldiers, “manifestly delighted as the leader, on this peaceful occasion, of the men whom he had so often led in battle.”
Grigsby, at long last, was selected to lead the Stonewall Brigade.
John D. Hoptak works as a ranger at Antietam National Battlefield. He is the author of First in Defense of the Union: The Civil War History of the First Defenders, and maintains a Web site on the 48th Pennsylvania at 48thpennsylvania.blogspot.com.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.