Few men have received the worship Jackson has. Every aspect of his death has been memorialized, from the spot where he fell, the trail of his evacuation, the place where he first seemed to recover then died, to his tomb – and even the burial place of his arm. He was a good general, but he was even more a symbol to his people. Even his idiosyncrasies (eating lemons skin and all, holding his right hand over his head) are looked on charitably.
He had managed to get an education, though coming from humble stock in western Virginia, and went on to West Point (class of 1846). He graduated into the artillery just in time for the Mexican War and earned two brevets under fire. He resigned from the Army to teach at the Virginia Military Institute (which reveres him still), which was a mistake. He was not a good teacher, although he improved from wretched to mediocre, and students called him “Tom Fool Jackson” or “Old Blue Light”. This last was from his intense religious belief: he tried to avoid fighting on the Sabbath, and funded (from his own tight purse) a Sunday School for slaves.
When Virginia seceded Jackson was appointed a colonel in Virginia state forces and set to organizing troops in the upper Shenandoah. He rapidly gathered a brigade, although he was superceded in command of the whole area by Joe Johnston. When McDowell moved toward Manassas Junction, Johnston moved his small army east and joined Beauregard along the Bull Run stream. Jackson’s brigade formed a vital anchor to the Confederate line when it seemed the Union forces might sweep through. Barnard Bee gave Jackson his nickname, although it may not have been meant as a compliment.
Jackson’s performance made him a hero, although the overall performance of the Confederate army made a number of heroes. He was promoted to Major General in October 1861 and sent back to command in the Valley. In the winter of 1861-62 he launched the Romney Campaign, which was not well judged and ended in defeat, more from weather than in battle, and started a feud with Brigadier General William Loring. Jackson thought about resigning, but was talked out of it.
In the spring he started moving against various Union forces in the Valley, but his first engagement was a defeat. Jackson thought part of the reason was the day (Sunday), but more may have been bad scouting by his small cavalry force. After initial defeat (which had a strategic benefit: troops didn’t go from the Valley to McClellan) he won a series of victories that came to be known as THE Valley Campaign. It is still studied today. After demolishing as series of Union forces (each under a marginally competent commander) his whole force was moved to Richmond and swung straight into the Seven Days Battles.
Jackson didn’t do well. He may have been exhausted (he’d ridden for several days for conferences with Lee, while his troops moved by rail) and he certainly didn’t have the topographical information that he did in the Shenandoah. Regardless, he was slow in moving and unimaginative in tactics.
He resumed his usual vigor when that campaign was over. He was sent back towards the Valley (it had been virtually stripped for the Seven Days campaign) and fought at Cedar Mountain and then cleverly at Second Manassas. Not only did he destroy Pope’s supply base, he ambushed a Union force, then held out to create the conditions for a Confederate victory.
When Lee moved up into Maryland, Jackson was detached to capture Harper’s Ferry, which he did quickly thanks to clumsy Union deployment. If he hadn’t been so quick, Lee would likely have been crushed at Antietam. As it was, enough of Jackson’s men were present to stave off defeat until the last of them, A. P. Hill’s Light Division, arrived to deliver the critical counter-attack.
Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia, persuading the Confederate Congress to allow the creation of Corps. Longstreet received the first, Jackson’s men (hitherto his ‘wing’ or ‘command’) became 2nd Corps. He wintered on the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg, and was perhaps slow to arrive for that battle. He also misread the ground, allowing Meade’s division to penetrate the Confederate line before counter-attacks drove him back. Jackson was always aggressive, and thought that the Union forces opposite him were badly disorganized – badly enough that his smaller forces could destroy them against the river. Lee looked it over, and noted the strong Union batteries on both sides of the river, and didn’t risk mauling his army.
Jackson’s greatest effort was at Chancellorsville. He’d been posted on the right wing of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Hooker turned the left. Lee held off Hooker’s half-hearted attacks and swung Jackson over. In a long, long forced march on May 1, 1863 Jackson moved completely behind the Union right flank. He then formed his line of battle and charged, crumpling an entire Union Corps (XI, under Howard) and sending it reeling into the center of the Union line. Darkness prevented him pursuing through any more – he might have followed so closely on the heels of the “Flying Dutchmen” that he could have beaten the center of the Army of the Potomac. His own troops had become disorganized in the fighting and pursuit, so he went forward to see where they were, and figure out what orders to issue. He was actually forward of his own men, between Confederate and Union lines, and he turned back. A picket of nervous North Carolinians fired at the mounted party, wounding Jackson in the arm.
He was evacuated and his arm was quickly amputated. He was moved down to a quieter neighborhood and was recovering well from the amputation. Then pneumonia set in, and eight days after being hit he was dead.
The South had taken him to their hearts, and never got over his death. Everything he did became wonderful, and the Confederate defeat was written off “if only Stonewall had lived.” He was not perfect. He did not always take orders well, and was prickly with his equals. Defeat was often blamed on someone else. He tended not to explain what he wanted, so it was difficult for his subordinates to know what to do if circumstances changed. Jackson was very good when operating on his own, or given a detached command within an operation. Importantly, his style of command didn’t develop any successors. While nobody could replace Jackson, he never nurtured senior officers.
Jackson was a fascinating man, with extraordinary talents and a fair share of limitations.
Content provided by:
Eicher, John H. & David J. Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2001.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray - Lives of the Confederate Commanders.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.