Stonewall Jackson: Lee's Right Arm

Born on this day in 1824, Stonewall Jackson's tactics were to ‘mystify, mislead, and surprise.’

“Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

These words, spoken at 3:30 on the afternoon of May 10, 1863, were the last uttered by one of the Civil War’s most brilliant and perhaps most eccentric generals. During his brief career, “Stonewall” Jackson confounded his enemies as well as his troops and fellow officers. And when he fell, Gen. Robert E. Lee remarked with sadness, “I have lost my right arm.”

The birth of a legend

Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born in 1824 in Clarksburg in what is now West Virginia. Life was hard on the frontier. His father and an older sister died when he was 3. When his impoverished mother remarried, young Thomas was farmed out to live with a paternal uncle. He was orphaned when his mother died in childbirth soon after.

Jackson was the second choice when he was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1842. The first candidate to receive the congressional appointment could not stomach the military discipline and when he resigned Jackson got his opportunity. With only a rudimentary education, Jackson ranked 51st among his class of '83 after the first year. But with a remarkable ability to apply himself, he graduated 17th in his class — in the top third. The standing joke among his peers was that Jackson would have been first in his class if there had been one more year.

The Mexican-American War was in progress upon Jackson’s graduation in 1846. Assigned first to garrison duty at Port Isabel, Texas, and then to occupy Saltillo, Mexico, Jackson hoped for the opportunity to engage in combat. He soon had his chance under Gen. Winfield Scott for the assault on Mexico City; Lt. Jackson distinguished himself in the ensuing fighting. “If devotion, industry, talent, and gallantry are the highest qualities of a soldier, then [Jackson] is entitled to the distinction which their possession confers,” wrote Capt. John Magruder, his commanding officer who later became a Confederate general. Jackson quickly received battlefield promotions to captain and then brevet major.


When the war ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Jackson remained in Mexico, where his interest in religion began, although he did not become a devout Presbyterian until later.

Returning to the United States, Jackson resigned his commission to become a professor at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. It was at VMI that his eccentricities began to surface. By most accounts he was not a gifted instructor. He memorized the lessons and repeated them from memory, and when questioned by cadets he merely reiterated the same words. This practice gained him the nickname “Tom Fool” Jackson.

He nevertheless was a strict disciplinarian, an attribute that would serve him well in time of war, but that angered his students, many of whom were from well-to-do families and looked down on Jackson with disdain. One cadet, court-martialed at Jackson’s request for insubordinate behavior and subsequently dismissed from the institute, threatened to kill Jackson. Much to the consternation of his friend, D.H. Hill, who was later a general during the Civil War, Jackson swore out a warrant on the disgraced cadet — an act that some perceived as a failure to confront the student. The warrant was never served, but Jackson took no measures to protect himself, confident that he had done the right thing. During his tenure at VMI Jackson had more students court-martialed than any other professor.

Jackson displayed ambivalence about slavery. He owned several slaves — the first had asked Jackson to purchase him. Jackson obliged and promptly gave the man the opportunity to earn money to buy his freedom. Jackson revived a Sunday school class at the Presbyterian church in Lexington for slaves and freed African Americans, a class that was so popular that there were soon 100 students.

His first wife, Eleanor Junkin, died in childbirth, as did their infant, in 1854. When he remarried three years later, it appeared his life was settled, but history swept Jackson up in its path. War clouds were gathering. In November 1859, Jackson and VMI cadets were ordered to Harpers Ferry to maintain order during the execution of John Brown. Like many Southerners, Jackson hoped to resolve political differences within the Union, but when the split occurred he obeyed the command from the State of Virginia, and on April 21, 1861, he headed to Richmond with the VMI corps of cadets.

The tactician emerges

Jackson’s maneuvers in the Shenandoah Valley earned him a place in the ranks of history’s great military strategists. Outflank, surprise, and pursue were his bywords. Jackson’s military strategy is best summed up in his own words:

“Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never give up the pursuit as long as your men have strength to follow; for an Army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number. The other rule is, never fight against heavy odds, if by any possible maneuvering you can hurl your own force on only a part, and that the weakest part, of your enemy and crush it.”

It was at Bull Run that Gen. Barnard Bee uttered those famous words, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall.” Jackson demonstrated his preference for close combat right from the start. “Reserve your fire till they come within 50 yards,” he told his men. “Then fire and give them the bayonet; and when you charge, yell like furies.” When the battle was over he told Jefferson Davis, “We have whipped them — they ran like sheep...Give me 10,000 men and I will be in Washington City tomorrow.” Jackson’s wish, rejected by his superiors, could have delivered a crippling blow to the retreating army of Gen. Irvin McDowell.

Jackson was at his best when planning and executing his own maneuvers. When assigned to defend the Shenandoah Valley, his military brilliance came to the fore. Always outmanned and threatened by Union forces, his primary objective was to prevent his opponents from joining forces to attack Richmond. To this end he led his brigade on bewildering maneuvers that earned them the nickname, “the foot cavalry.” In January 1862, he led them on a 15-day 150-mile march that disrupted Federal communications in the valley.

Jackson was not always victorious in battle. In March 1862, for example, he learned through intelligence that the Federals were leaving Strasburg in the northern Shenandoah Valley to attack Richmond. With 3,000 men, Jackson attacked at nearby Kernstown, Va. Forced to retreat when they ran out of ammunition, the Confederates nevertheless accomplished their goal of preventing a consolidated Union attack on the Confederate capital.


Jackson was less effective when incorporated as part of a larger force. The Seven Days’ Battles of June and July 1862 started with confusion. Others started fighting before Jackson was in place. Orders were confused. When Jackson finally met up with Lee, the latter offered a mild rebuke, “Ah, General, I am very glad to see you. I had hoped to be with you before.” Historians attribute Jackson’s lack of effectiveness to exhaustion, the heat, and his lack of familiarity with the terrain. Nevertheless, when the bulk of the Union army was recalled to Washington to regroup, Jackson with 25,000 troops made a spectacular end run 20 miles behind the remaining Federal troops and routed Gen. Pope’s army in what became the Second Battle of Bull Run (depicted below).

The spring of 1863 brought a new Federal offensive. In late April, Gen. Joe Hooker crossed the Rappahannock, prepared to end the rebellion. On May 1, Jackson moved into Chancellorsville, Va. He circled the Union army and put Hooker’s right flank into retreat. But the next night, while scouting in front of his lines he was mistaken for the enemy by soldiers from North Carolina who opened fire. Jackson survived the wound and an amputation, but succumbed to pneumonia days later.

The man and the legend

Who was the real Stonewall Jackson? President U.S. Grant, recalling his days at West Point, told Col. John Moseby that “Jackson was the most conscientious being I ever knew.” In many ways he was an enigma. Even his nickname is subject to question. His fellow general and personal friend, D.H. Hill wrote years later that a war correspondent had concocted the exclamation from Gen. Bee. “Not only was the tale a sheer fabrication, but the name was the least suited to Jackson, who was ever in motion, swooping like an eagle on his prey.”

In her 1895 Memoirs of Stonewall Jackson, Mary Anna Jackson, the general’s widow, recounted how Jackson stood guard over his weary brigade on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. “Let the poor fellows sleep,” he told one of his officers, “I will watch the camp myself.” And so he did, according to legend, but Hill disputes this, too. “The efficient guarding of a whole brigade in the presence of an enemy requires more than the vigilance of one man, even though that man were Jackson himself.”

Jackson was eccentric and something of a hypochondriac. He avoided black pepper, since it caused, he thought, pain in his left leg. And he possessed a sentimental but contradictory side. When a soldier requested leave to visit his dying wife, Jackson refused permission, saying, “Man, man, do you love your wife more than you do your country?” Yet when a lady inquired if her son was nearby, Jackson arranged for the soldier to spend the night at his home.

His reluctance to share his plans — not only with his subordinates, but also with his fellow generals — led to distrust and confusion. During the valley campaign, Gen. Richard Ewell was summoned to reinforce Jackson. Awaiting the arrival of Jackson with no orders other than to defend if attacked, Ewell sputtered and fumed to another officer, “Did it ever occur to you that General Jackson is crazy?...I tell you, sir...he is as crazy as a March hare...I tell you, sir, he is crazy.” Ironically, the colonel to whom Ewell was speaking was none other than James A. Walker — the same man who as a cadet at VMI had threatened to kill Jackson years before. On a different occasion another officer made the observation, “As sure as you and I live, Jackson is a cracked man.” Misunderstood might be a better description. Once Jackson’s fighting tactics were understood, critics became admirers. Ewell recanted his earlier opinion saying, “I take it all back and will never prejudge another man. Old Jackson is no fool; he knows how to keep his own counsel, [and] does curious things, but there is a method in his madness.”

Jackson’s legacy is timeless. His 1st Brigade was officially designated the Stonewall Brigade by the Confederate government shortly after his death. When his soldiers met in 1895 for the dedication of the Stonewall Jackson statue in the Lexington cemetery (shown below), Henry Kyd Douglas, a member of Jackson’s staff, recalled that as the old veterans marched away, one cried out, “Goodbye, old man, goodbye! We’ve done all we can for you.” Gen. George Patton incorporated Jackson’s tactics in his own World War II victories, and those tactics are still studied in military colleges around the world. Indeed, Stonewall Jackson’s legacy is alive and well.

Jackson’s New Tactic

The Civil War was a pivotal conflict in the history of military tactics. When the war began both sides used what had become known as “Napoleonic tactics.” Since the muskets that armies had used were highly inaccurate, the accepted way of overcoming this shortcoming was to line up soldiers several rows deep opposite the enemy and fire away. With any luck, one could open a gap in the opposing side and rush in with bayonets.

The problems with the musket were twofold: Not only was it inaccurate, it was also necessary to clean after each shot. Both of these issues were solved with the introduction of the rifle-musket and the minié ball, named for its inventor, French Capt. Claude-Etienne Minié. The minié ball was actually cone-shaped. When fired it expanded and effectively cleaned a rifled bore. Not only did it improve accuracy and range, it also cleaned the barrel sufficiently to eliminate the need for cleaning after each shot.

While keeping his brigade in tight formation, Stonewall Jackson was able to maneuver his soldiers to outflank his enemy, attack its weak points, and “give them the bayonet” in close-quarter fighting. Jackson took Napoleonic tactics to a new level. Nevertheless, the minié ball hailed the end of the old style of fighting.

According to Col. Keith Gibson, director of VMI museum operations, “The disconnect between tactics (Napoleonic) and the technology (minié ball) was a big problem that would never be fully addressed during the Civil War, but by 1862 troops were beginning to see the value of shielding one’s self from the accurate muskets — the era of trench warfare was just around the corner.”


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