Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824-63) was a war hero and one of the South’s most successful generals during the American Civil War (1861-65). After a difficult childhood, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in time to fight in the Mexican War (1846-48). He then left the military to pursue a teaching career. After his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Jackson joined the Confederate army and quickly forged his reputation for fearlessness and tenacity during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign later that same year. He served under General Robert E. Lee (1807-70) for much of the Civil War. Jackson was a decisive factor in many significant battles until his mortal wounding by friendly fire at the age of 39 during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born on January 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). When Jackson was two years old, his six-year-old sister died of typhoid fever. His father, Jonathan Jackson (1790-1826), an attorney, perished of the same disease a short time later, leaving his wife, Julia Neale Jackson (1798-1831), with three children and considerable debt. After Julia Jackson remarried in 1830, to a man who reportedly disliked his stepchildren, Thomas Jackson and his siblings were sent to live with various relatives. The future Civil War hero was raised by an uncle in the town of Jackson’s Mill, located in present-day West Virginia.
In 1842, Jackson enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Older than many of the other students, he initially struggled with the curriculum and endured frequent ridicule for his modest background and relatively poor education. However, Jackson worked hard and eventually met with academic success, graduating in 1846.
Jackson left West Point just as the Mexican War was starting and he was sent to Mexico as a lieutenant with the 1st U.S. Artillery. He quickly earned a reputation for toughness and bravery, and by the war’s end in 1848 he held the rank of brevet major. Jackson continued his military service until he accepted a professorship at the Virginia Military Institute in 1851.
Stonewall Jackson’s Civilian Life
Jackson spent 10 years as a professor of artillery tactics and natural philosophy (similar to modern-day physics) at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He was better at teaching artillery than natural philosophy, and was disliked by some cadets for his brusqueness, lack of sympathy and eccentric behavior. Students mocked him for his hypochondria and his habit of keeping one arm elevated to hide a perceived discrepancy in the length of his limbs.
In 1853, Jackson married Elinor Junkin (1825-54), the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who was the president of Washington College. She died in childbirth 14 months later; in 1857, Jackson married Mary Anna Morrison (1831-1915), the daughter of a former president of Davidson College. The following year, the couple had a daughter; however, the child lived for only a month. Jackson’s one surviving daughter, Julia Laura (1862-89), was born less than a year before her father’s death.
Jackson’s final years in the Lexington community earned him a reputation as an honest and dutiful man of devout faith. He did not drink, gamble or smoke. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Jackson accepted a commission as a colonel in the Confederate army and went off to war, never to return to Lexington alive.
Jackson Earns His Name
During the first wave of secession from December 1860 through February 1861, during which time seven Southern states declared their independence from the U.S., Jackson hope that his home state of Virginia would remain in the Union. However, when Virginia seceded in April 1861, he supported the Confederacy, showing his loyalty to his state over the federal government.
Jackson served only briefly as a colonel before receiving a promotion to brigadier general under General Joseph E. Johnston (1807-91). Jackson earned his nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as Manassas) in July 1861 when he rushed his troops forward to close a gap in the line against a determined Union attack. Upon observing Jackson, one of his fellow generals reportedly said, “Look, men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall!”–a comment that spawned Jackson’s nickname. Jackson was commissioned a major general in October 1861.
Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign
In the spring of 1862, Jackson spearheaded the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, firmly establishing himself as a strong and independent commander. The Confederate army’s high command had charged him with the task of defending western Virginia from an invasion by Union troops. With an army of some 15,000 to 18,000 troops, Jackson repeatedly outmaneuvered a superior Union force of more than 60,000 men. Jackson’s army moved so quickly during the campaign that they dubbed themselves “foot cavalry.” President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) had split the Union army into three parts, and Jackson used his mobility to attack and confuse the divided forces over the course of the campaign. He won several key victories over armies of larger size. By the campaign’s end in June, he had earned the admiration of Union generals and had become the South’s first great war hero. Jackson had prevented the Northerners from taking the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and had done so in the face of unfavorable odds.
By October 1862, Jackson was a lieutenant general and led a significant portion of Lee’s army. His widely publicized exploits had elevated him to legendary status among Southern soldiers and citizens alike. Jackson’s bravery and success inspired devotion from his soldiers, but to his officers, he was known as overly secretive and difficult to please. He frequently punished his officers for relatively minor violations of military discipline and rarely discussed his plans with them. Rather, they were expected to obey his orders without question.
The Battle of Chancellorsville and Jackson’s Death
Lee and Jackson’s most famous victory took place near a crossroads at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia in May 1863. Facing a numerically superior Union force of 130,000 men to 60,000 of their own, Lee and Jackson devised and executed a plan to rout the army of Union General Joseph Hooker (1814-79).
Historians call this battle one of Lee’s finest moments as a Confederate general, and his success owed much to Jackson’s participation. On May 2, Jackson stealthily and quickly took 28,000 troops on an approximately 15-mile forced march to Hooker’s exposed flank while Lee engaged in diversionary attacks on his front. Jackson’s attack on the Union rear inflicted massive casualties on the superior force, and Hooker was forced to withdraw only days later.
But the victory was not without cost. Jackson’s brutal attack ended at sunset, and he took some men into the forest to scout ahead. A North Carolina regiment mistook them for enemy cavalry and opened fire, severely wounding Jackson. He was taken from the field and General J. E. B. Stuart (1833-64) took over his command. Doctors determined that a bullet had shattered the bone just below his left shoulder, and they quickly amputated Jackson’s left arm. He was transferred to a field hospital at a nearby plantation to recover. Lee dispatched a letter, writing, “Could I have directed events, I would have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead.” Jackson initially appeared to be healing, but he died from pneumonia on May 10, 1863, at the age of 39. Southerners mourned the death of their war hero, while Lee faced fighting the war without a highly valued general and comrade. Jackson was buried in Lexington, Virginia.