With the exception of Robert E. Lee, no Confederate general was more feared or admired than Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Once derisively known as “Tom Fool,” Jackson was an innovative battlefield strategist who struck terror in the hearts of Union army commanders and inspired Confederate soldiers to victory after victory in the early days of the Civil War.
A fanatically religious man, Jackson prayed at the start and conclusion of every battle—yet showed no mercy when confronting the enemy. Eccentric, enigmatic, and fiercely intelligent, he became the stuff of legend soon after he died from wounds suffered during the Battle of Chancellorsville; his untimely death would help to change the course of the conflict. Based on a wealth of first-person sources, including Jackson’s private papers and correspondences, and the memoirs of family, friends, and colleagues, They Called Him Stonewall is a masterful portrait of the man behind the myth.
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They Called Him Stonewall
A Life of Lieutenant General T. J. Jackson, CSA
By Burke Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Burke Davis
All rights reserved.
IS GIDEON QUITE SANE?
Roosting on the fence in the early May sun, he was more scarecrow than man, an effigy from the hands of some rustic humorist of this hill country. He was a joke of some sort; otherwise he defied belief.
He sat, incongruously sucking a lemon, on the outskirts of the village of New Market, Virginia, this spring day of 1862, surrounded by his troops, who rested after a brief noon meal. Wry-faced and pensive, he dealt with his everlasting lemon, evidently oblivious to all else.
No one knew where the fruit came from, but it was always on hand. He spent half his time with one of the yellow skins gleaming in his beard, and his men had been waved into combat with his half-sucked lemons, as if by the batons of some imperial marshal. None other among the millions caught up in the great war seemed to be supplied with lemons, as this one was. The fruit had surely come from afar, through the blockade which was beginning to strangle his country — and whose leaks were a scandal on both sides of the Potomac. Yet the grim, warring deacon, T. J. Jackson, affected lemons. It was one of the least of his mysteries, vaguely connected with the nervous indigestion and cold feet of which he complained.
Last night, in the midst of his troubles, he had made the first confession of his suffering, to Kyd Douglas, the cub of his staff. Douglas, reading a Richmond newspaper to his commander, had laughed at the report of a man who had committed suicide because of his dyspepsia. Jackson wagged his head.
"Ah, you don't understand, young man. I have been in agony from it for twenty years, and I'll never again risk its horrors. I can think of nothing more likely to drive a man to suicide than dyspepsia."
Hence, the staff presumed, lemons, and the curious meals: raspberries, milk and bread. But the officers exchanged no amused glances before him. It was not precisely fear which ruled his headquarters, but there was little time for levity.
Today he wore, as he had since anyone could remember, the old coat of a major, a grimy, dusty, threadbare and single-breasted survivor of the Mexican War, permanently wrinkled into the General's inelegant mold by its sixteen years of service. The most urbane of his officers could describe the General's cap only as "mangy." Now, as ever, it rode far down his nose, the visor all but touching the beard. The coat was stained with the rusty watermarks of years; everything about him seemed in disrepair. So awkwardly did he crouch on his fence that he created the impression that, if he should fall, he might clatter to earth in three or four sections.
Unnoticed now by his men or his staff, he fell into one of his customary five-minute naps, having taken at least a dozen during the day. In that moment, nothing could have been more ludicrous than the suggestion that this man and these troops stood on the very threshold of military immortality. There was scarcely a soul on hand who recalled with any pride, just now, that the weather-beaten figure hanging on the fence rails had won passing fame last summer at Bull Run, as well as a curious nickname, Stonewall.
He had been up most of the night with new worries, these the most embarrassing of all. Some troopers of Turner Ashby — Ashby, the dashing leader of his cavalry — had got drunk on duty, from sampling applejack of the country. The enemy, of course, had seized that moment to drive them in, killing a few, capturing others, and driving the survivors into the hill fastnesses, God knew where. It had not been long, either, since the General had stamped out a rebellion of the mountain people, shot some deserters, and fought a couple of unfortunate battles. Yet his plain face wore that serene somnolence.
His troops were by no means unaware that he was a strange one, for he gave daily demonstrations of his character. Lately, when he had snappishly inquired the whereabouts of a courier who had been serving him faithfully, he was told that the boy was dead, a few moments earlier killed in line of duty. Jackson had muttered in his distracted voice, "Very commendable. Very commendable."
Nothing that came in the path of this little army seemed normal or within reason. Yesterday, for example. The troops were fresh from a bloody little brush with the enemy on a bluff hill called Bull Pasture Mountain, a victory, their commander assured them, after the Federals had abandoned the village of McDowell. They did not fathom the strategy in his mind and his elation at driving apart the twin armies of the enemy. They knew only that the Yanks of the Ohio and West Virginia regiments had fought like furies, and that the gray columns had lost more heavily than the enemy. The men in Jackson's ranks would remember the march home. Its route, they noted profanely, took them on a detour — in the path of the enemy, who was just now satanically clever.
All day the Confederates had plodded in a blue fog of smoke, coughing, spluttering. It was a bitter cloud that pressed over them on the mountain roadway. For the Federals had set fire to the hill forests to cover their retreat, winning praise even from Jackson for the stratagem. The pillars of smoke and fire lay far ahead, blotting out the vistas to the eye and telescope. The army stumbled forward, all but blind.
The Federals were not yet content. They lay on hidden bluffs with their horse artillery and, when the army of Jackson appeared in good range, poured concentrated fire down upon it from the masked batteries, scattering the files. It was slow, painful work: creeping forward, falling flat under fire, lying while the front files flanked out the big guns, then on to meet the next entertainment arranged by the Yankees. The skirmishers burned their feet in smoking woods, for they were driven out of the road by officers in an effort to prevent ambush. It went on until after dark. And so, on this May day, they were in no mood for heroics from anyone, not even their fierce commander.
He declared a half-holiday for them, and they rested, but they made bitter jokes about his being forced to march on Sunday, which must have tortured his God-fearing heart. And when they were enjoined by officers to celebrate a day of thanksgiving with fasting and prayer, they howled in mingled pain and amusement. Many had not eaten well since marching on McDowell — for then, as usual, they had been told to prepare for action by cooking three days' rations, which they had done, and then eaten all, knowing that hundreds of them might not survive the third day, and that rations carried easier in the belly than in the knapsack. They laughed, and complained, and yet they somehow loved the commander who drove them like a madman; they would not have exchanged him.
One of his officers wrote home what many were thinking: "General Lee is the handsomest person I ever saw. ... This is not the case with Jackson. He is ever monosyllabic and receives and delivers orders as if the bearer of a conduct pipe from one ear to the other. There is a magnetism in Jackson, but it is not personal ... no one could love the man for himself. He seems to be cut off from his fellow men and to commune with his own spirit only, or with spirits of which we know not. Yet the men are almost as enthusiastic over him as over Lee...."
This morning, there had been some who were not so enthusiastic. A few companies of the Twenty-seventh Virginia Regiment had come to the end of their voluntary enlistment; they had signed in for a year, and that was up today. Their officers would not allow them to leave. The Conscription Act was now in force, and by law they must remain in the ranks. The men swore they would not fight one more day. Their colonel came to Jackson, who refused even to see him and, with the stern face set like stone, said, "Why does Colonel Grigsby refer to me to learn how to deal with mutineers? He should shoot them where they stand." That was all.
The mutiny went down. The entire regiment, under harsh orders, aimed muskets at the reluctant companies, which were given their choice: die on the spot, or take up their duties, immediately. Jackson had not even to watch it to make his iron will felt among the insubordinate troops. They surrendered.
It had been a turbulent passage of days, but he seemed resigned to that. Surely nothing disturbed him today as he sat on his fence.
Jackson was thirty-eight years old. Beyond a certain notoriety as an eccentric, he was now almost without reputation, though in the North they still frightened children with his name. He had few intimate friends, and but few, though select, admirers. He had not quite twelve months to live, a prospect which probably would not have caused him to panic if it had been revealed to him.
"My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed," he had said. "God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that."
In officers' quarters his friends sometimes defended him when he was attacked as a bumpkin Presbyterian fatalist, but some of his views made his case difficult for them. Long ago, when the war was only a dark vision looming over them all, he had chided those who feared secession was coming: "Why should Christians be disturbed about the dissolution of the Union? It can come only if by God's permission, and will be permitted only if for His people's good."
His troops gave him plentiful attention today, at their distance, but they had no conception of him as a Christian hero. They thought of their hides, trying to puzzle out what he would next ask of them. They still laughed a little over his message of congratulations on the little victory. That was fare for the draft dodgers and politicians in Richmond. They wondered, too, what he had been up to in the night. They knew that some of the engineers and a cavalry troop had been out in the storm, tearing down bridges, destroying culverts, rolling boulders down into, and felling trees across roads, for more than a mile at a stretch. They puzzled, unable to discern that their commander had already effectively blocked a junction of the three Federal armies in the region and set the stage for an assault upon General N. P. Banks and his army. It was too early to see that the enemy was already helpless.
The General remained alone on this afternoon, and not one of his staff officers approached him. It was a singular staff. Some of them men of skill and experience, though not military men — an excellent map maker, a fine physician, a wagoner who knew his business from long training, a lawyer or two of promise, and a veteran theologian. But none were assistant generals. These were little more than errand boys, not consulted about the decisions of war, and seldom given more than glimpses of plans in the mind of Jackson. The staff was seldom enlightened until the driving marches were over, and the astonished Army of the Valley looked down upon its victims, the thunderstruck enemy.
It was like Jackson to have chosen a preacher as his chief of staff. This one, the Reverend R. L. Dabney, was a major, a good enough camp officer, but with no military experience; and the younger men thought him stiff and a bit sour and less than able. There was constant talk among the boys of the staff that old Dabney should be retired. Sandie Pendleton did all the work of chief anyway. But Jackson fancied ministers, and he found Dabney good company, a distinguished Bible scholar, and an efficient chief, as well. The General left few details for others to attend to in the management of his little army.
The General roused from his brief lethargy on the fence, instantly awake, pulling once more at his lemon. In the roadway, advancing toward him, was a sight such as he had never seen. Parade ground soldiers these were, filling the turnpike, more than three thousand of them, neat in new gray uniforms, flashing white gaiters, passing by the drab lines of his mountain-worn men. The General told himself that the newcomers could not have marched five miles this day, to be so fresh.
They were a brigade of Louisiana troops, called to him from General Ewell's command, about half of them Irish, half Creoles. Their boots fell as one on the sandy road, and the regiments wheeled off into the camping grounds, watched by Jackson's open-mouthed troops. Almost before they had broken ranks, the new soldiers gathered about their regimental bands, which began to play polkas. The Army of the Valley crowded in to investigate its comrades in arms, shouting catcalls.
A young officer approached Jackson, having been directed to the fence. He was not an ordinary soldier, this commander of the Louisiana Brigade, General Richard Taylor, only son of the late President, Zachary Taylor. He was a promising officer who had studied at Yale and Harvard, Edinburgh and Paris. A bayou planter and politician and already a man of wealth and influence.
Taylor saluted Jackson.
"Brigadier General Taylor, sir. Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth Louisiana."
A long pause ensued, with Jackson pulling at the lemon. Taylor gazed at the unkempt, sunburned beard, the thin, sharp nose and pallid lips, the tiny blue eyes set deeply, clouded as if with fatigue. Only those and the largest pair of cavalry boots he had ever seen. The voice, at last, was a squeaking drawl, like that of a woman.
"How far have you come today?"
"Keazletown Road. Twenty-six miles over the mountain."
"You seem to have no stragglers."
"Never allow them."
"You must teach my people. They straggle badly." There was a subtle edge of irony, bespeaking disbelief.
Taylor nodded courteously. Jackson's glance wandered to the new brigade across the field, now dancing to the music of their bands, their arms around the waists of their partners, capering in polkas.
"Thoughtless fellows for serious work," Jackson said.
"I hope our part of it can be done none the less well, for a little gaiety."
Jackson sucked at the lemon, glanced at Taylor and made no reply. The interview was over.
When the General swung down from his perch, the new troops could see the remarkable gait of their commander, a graceless plodding step, as if he strode across a ploughed field. The impression was heightened as he rode out from headquarters.
The horse was in its way as striking as the master; it contributed much to the general awkwardness of the pair. It was close-coupled and short, powerfully built, with a neck ludicrously large for so compact an animal; the coat needed attention, but in the May sunlight it gleamed in light tones. Little Sorrel, the troops called him; the staff called him Fancy, perhaps in irony. In his way of going he looked like a farm horse, but his gait was comfortable, and the General rode him without effort. The animal had huge, intelligent eyes, and was treated like a house pet. He had a habit of lying down like a dog on halts in the marching; Jackson often fed him apples at such times.
Sorrel was a piece of war booty, taken from a trainload of Union mounts at Harpers Ferry the year before. He had been the General's favorite horse from the first and was in use almost daily.
This afternoon the horse gave the old troops an opportunity to initiate the strangers to the ritual of life in Jackson's camp. The old troops raised a chorus of throbbing cries, halloos of greeting which swept from company to company, until the camp rang with them. At the outburst, Sorrel broke from his rolling gait into a canter. Jackson rode on as if he had heard nothing, giving no sign of pleasure or displeasure. The noise increased.
The appearance of Jackson was the only sight which could call forth this particular wild medley, though the camp was full of calls. The hungry men would always drop their duties, even if in ranks, and burst over the fields to chase a stray rabbit which bobbed into sight, and then they shouted in a similar way; thus there was the familiar saw in camp: "There goes Old Jack — or a rabbit."
Now, whether stirred by Jackson's brief appearance or the impressionable new audience, the Valley army began to roar through its rowdy calls in earnest. At sight of an officer in new jack boots — though he had been about most of the day — the troops now began to shout: "Come on outa there! We can see yer arms stickin' out! T'aint time to go in winter quarters!" Or they would spot a victim in a large hat, and scream: "Come on down outa there! Y' ain't hidin'! Yer legs is hanging out!" Or at the passing of a mustached man, the hoots would follow: "Take them mice outa yer mouth. See their tails drooping out!" Or: "Get on up outa that bunch of hair. We can see your ears aworkin'!" The gusts of crude humor swept the camp for an hour or more, ending in a furious storm of sound as the troops echoed through the woodland the calls of chickens, ducks and animals.
Excerpted from They Called Him Stonewall by Burke Davis. Copyright © 1954 Burke Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- Book One
- Prologue: John Brown’s Body
- 1 Is Gideon Quite Sane?
- 2 Front Royal
- 3 Winchester
- 4 The Victor Retreats
- 5 Cross Keys
- 6 Port Republic
- 7 Whence the Conqueror
- 8 The Professor
- 9 He Has Fought Before
- 10 Prelude to Fame
- Book Two
- Prologue: Smile, Mr. Davis
- 11 The Dash to Richmond
- 12 Strange Failures
- 13 The Longest of All Days
- 14 Seven Bloody Days at an End
- 15 The Debut of General Pope
- 16 The Foot Cavalry at a Gallop
- 17 Second Manassas
- 18 Invasion!
- 19 A Time of Leisure
- 20 Massacre in December
- Book Three
- Prologue: Take Heart, Mr. Lincoln
- 21 A Brief Elegance
- 22 Chancellorsville
- 23 “My Own Men!”
- 24 The Departure
- Select Critical Bibliography
- Image Gallery
- About the Author