Thomas Jackson was born on January 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia (later West Virginia), the son of Jonathan Jackson, an attorney, and Julia Beckwith Neale. The future Confederate general signed his name “Thomas J. Jackson” and tradition asserts that his middle name was Jonathan, in honor of his father. The paternal side of Jackson’s family was Scots-Irish, the maternal side Irish. When Jackson was two years old his father and an older sister died, and his mother gave birth to a daughter, Laura. The widow Julia Jackson’s struggle to support her family was heroic but unsuccessful, and after various trial arrangements Thomas was raised by his uncle Cummins E. Jackson. His mother, who had remarried, died in 1831. As a child Thomas Jackson was self-reliant but shy. As an adult he lacked social graces but impressed people with his sincerity. Jackson was devoted to his sister Laura, but they were later estranged when she did not support the Confederacy.
An appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, provided Jackson educational and career opportunities beyond what was possible in rural Virginia. He was poorly prepared academically when he entered West Point in 1842, but by applying his immense powers of concentration and formidable memory he raised his standing each year. He graduated seventeenth in rank of fifty-nine cadets in the class of 1846. Future Union general George B. McClellan ranked second and future Confederate general George E. Pickett ranked last.
The United States was then at war with Mexico. Assigned to the 1st U.S. Artillery, Jackson participated in Winfield Scott‘s campaign to capture Mexico City, winning renown and promotion to brevet major for his fearless conduct at the Battle of Chapultepec on September 13, 1847. Like many young junior officers, he confessed to intense ambition and a desire for distinction. Following the close of the war in 1848, Jackson was eventually assigned to duty in Florida. His characteristic inflexibility contributed to a complex dispute with his commanding officer over authority and conduct. The War Department dismissed the incident as insignificant, but it influenced Jackson’s decision in 1851 to resign from the army and accept a position as professor of natural and experimental philosophy (akin to modern physics) and artillery instructor at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
Jackson proved to be such a poor teacher that there were demands he be removed. He relied exclusively upon the rote memorization methods that had served him well at West Point. Formal, reserved, and taciturn, he cut an awkward military figure in his ill-fitting uniform, giving commands on parade in a high-pitched voice with pronunciations that revealed his rural origins to a cadet corps that included the sons of many of Virginia’s leading families. More than a few cadets made fun of him and some labeled him “Tom Fool,” but others noted his kindness to individual students. All remembered the intense concentration and exactitude he brought to every task, large or small.
Jackson married twice. On August 4, 1853, he wed Elinor Junkin, whose father, Reverend George Junkin, was president of Washington College in Lexington. Known as Ellie, she died on October 22, 1854, from complications after delivering a stillborn child. Jackson married Mary Anna Morrison on July 16, 1857. Anna Morrison was the daughter of Reverend Robert Hall Morrison, the first president of Davidson College, near Charlotte, North Carolina. Her sister Isabella Morrison was married to the future Confederate general Daniel Harvey Hill. Jackson and Anna Jackson had two daughters: Mary Graham, who died shortly after her birth in 1858; and Julia Laura, who was born on November 23, 1862. Anna Jackson’s memoirs portray her marriage to Jackson as both tender and passionate, their home life providing the only realm in which the highly self-conscious Jackson was completely relaxed and informal. Her stories of a lighthearted and even playful Jackson contrast sharply with the stern Jackson of legend.
In Lexington Jackson gave the fullest expression to his religious beliefs, which had grown to become the center of his life. After characteristically thorough study, he had embraced Christianity, becoming a man of deep piety who ordered his entire life around his faith. The sincerity of his belief and his determination to live a Christian life to the fullest possibility left an impression on many. Jackson was an active member of Lexington’s Presbyterian Church, where in defiance of local opinion he taught a Sunday school class for African American children. He was himself a slaveholder, at one time owning as many as six slaves, some of whom he rented out, which was a common custom. He is not known to have criticized the system of racial bondage.
As he had throughout his life, Jackson suffered from a variety of ailments while at VMI, particularly in relation to his digestion and eyesight. Many considered Jackson a hypochondriac, and his assessment of his own ailments and his pursuit of good health attracted comment. But many of Jackson’s beliefs (regarding the effect of certain foods on his body and his perceived weakness in one limb) and his regimens (hydrotherapy, strict diet, and abstention from reading by artificial light) were not unusual in his day. After Jackson’s death some writers overemphasized his health concerns and exaggerated his mannerisms and habits to create an inaccurate portrait of Jackson as a thorough eccentric. Jackson did strike many people as odd, but those who got to know him well discovered beneath his initial formality and reserve an essentially ordinary man and a pleasant companion.
Civil War, 1861–1862
In 1859 Jackson led cadets from the Virginia Military Institute to Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), where they provided security at the hanging of John Brown following the abolitionist’s unsuccessful attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Jackson was a Democrat and voted for the Southern Democratic candidate, John C. Breckinridge, in the presidential election of 1860. He opposed secession until it was clear in April 1861 that U.S. president Abraham Lincoln would use force against the Confederate states following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Like many of his contemporaries, Jackson especially feared that the conflict might spark slave insurrections across the South.
After the Virginia Convention voted to secede on April 17, 1861, Jackson was appointed a major of topographical engineers in the state’s forces. But he soon obtained a colonelcy and an infantry command at Harpers Ferry. He was appointed a brigadier general in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States, and became famous for his brigade’s stalwart action at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21. He earned his famous nickname from Confederate general Barnard Bee’s words: “Look, men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall!” Jackson’s brigade also took on the nickname, coming to be known as the Stonewall Brigade, but Jackson’s own soldiers most often called the general “Old Jack,” a sobriquet dating from West Point, where he had been slightly older than the average cadet.
Jackson was promoted to major general in the Provisional Army. The Provisional Army consisted of volunteers raised for wartime service. Jackson also sought, but failed to receive, high rank in the Confederate Regular (permanent) Army. He was, however, appointed to command a military district in the Shenandoah Valley. There, in the spring of 1862, he launched the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, for which he is most renowned. To prevent Union troops in the Valley from reinforcing George McClellan’s advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign, Jackson attacked Union forces at Kernstown on March 23. He was repulsed, but in subsequent weeks he used speed, surprise, and maneuver to defeat his enemies in detail, winning victories at Cross Keys on June 8 and Port Republic on June 9. Jackson’s initiative caused Union troops to be diverted away from their Richmond campaign at a critical moment. More important, by strongly reinforcing Lincoln’s fear for the safety of Washington, D.C., Jackson negatively impacted the Union war effort for the duration of the conflict.
During the campaign Jackson’s men complained about the fast marching pace their commander set, but when success followed their efforts they proudly labeled themselves “Jackson’s foot cavalry.” But here and in subsequent campaigns, Jackson’s subordinate officers found him to be demanding, inflexible, and secretive to the point where it could be difficult to carry out his orders. Jackson’s court martial of Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett, who retreated without permission at Kernstown, sparked a sharp controversy; the proceedings were unfinished at the time of Jackson’s death. Garnett would himself die at Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) in what some claimed was an attempt to redeem his honor.
In the summer of 1862, Robert E. Lee brought Jackson’s forces from the Shenandoah Valley to join his offensive against McClellan on the Peninsula. During the subsequent Seven Days’ Battles, Jackson participated in the operations or fighting relating to the battles of Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mill, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill. Some of Jackson’s contemporaries and many subsequent historians considered his performance tardy, lethargic, or inept, while Jackson partisans have defended his reputation with zeal. The drive and purpose Jackson had displayed in the Valley were indeed lacking, and it was not Jackson’s finest hour, but there were mitigating circumstances. Thanks to overwork during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, his reluctance to delegate tasks, and a nervous energy that robbed him of sleep, Jackson was occasionally fatigued to the point of unfitness for command. Moreover, Jackson operated over unfamiliar terrain with poor maps. The instructions Jackson received from Lee lacked clarity, and Lee did a poor job of coordinating the movements of Jackson and his other subordinates. Nevertheless, the campaign halted McClellan’s advance on Richmond.
Lee demonstrated his confidence in Jackson by dispatching him with several divisions to oppose a new threat to the Confederate capital from the north, led by Union general John Pope. When Jackson defeated Pope’s subordinate Nathaniel P. Banks at Cedar Mountain on August 9, the Union commander halted to concentrate his forces, which gave Lee time to shift the bulk of his troops northward. Lee then detached Jackson a second time, sending him with one wing of the army to cut Pope’s line of communications. Jackson maneuvered with consummate skill, destroying the Union supply base at Manassas Junction on August 27. Jackson then engaged some of Pope’s forces the next day at Groveton. This distracted the Union commander and set the stage for the Second Battle of Manassas. Unaware of Lee’s approach, Pope attacked Jackson on August 29 and 30. Jackson held, and Lee’s attack on Pope’s flank on August 30 drove the Union forces from the field.
When Lee exploited his success by moving north into Maryland, he divided his army temporarily, leaving Jackson in Virginia in order to capture the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry. Jackson’s victory on September 15 marked the largest such capture of the war by Confederates, and secured Lee’s line of communications. Almost as remarkable was Jackson’s subsequent forced march into Maryland where, two days later on September 17, McClellan’s Army of the Potomac confronted Lee along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg. Jackson’s men arrived in time to prevent disaster at the Battle of Antietam, but Lee was still forced to retreat.
Following the campaign, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia, making official the unofficial arrangement where Jackson and James Longstreet commanded the army’s two wings. On November 6, Jackson was promoted to lieutenant general, and assigned command of the Second Corps. Longstreet took the First Corps. Late in the year Jackson held the right flank of the army during Lee’s defensive victory against Union general Ambrose E. Burnside at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. For reasons that have never been clear, Jackson left a gap in his front line. Union troops exploited it when they attacked, but Jackson was still able to defend his position successfully.
Civil War, 1863
In January 1863, Confederate general D. H. Hill left Jackson’s command at his own request. Hill had not found it easy to serve as a division commander under his brother-in-law, nor was he alone in this sentiment. During the Maryland Campaign Jackson had briefly arrested Major General A. P. Hill, also a division commander. Hill had protested when Jackson ignored the chain of command and issued orders directly to one of his brigadiers. The two men feuded thereafter despite Lee’s attempt to reconcile them. Jackson created strong resentment among many of his subordinate officers by expecting literal obedience to his orders regardless of circumstances. He was often inflexible and his single-mindedness was not always an asset.
In the spring of 1863, while Confederate forces in Virginia were stretched perilously thin, Union general Joseph Hooker outflanked Lee’s position on the Rappahannock River, initiating the Chancellorsville Campaign. Lee maneuvered brilliantly to defeat Hooker, and the most critical element in the Confederate victory came on May 2 when Jackson, entrusted with the bulk of Lee’s available forces, executed a long flanking march and launched a surprise attack on Hooker’s right. While Jackson partisans, including members of his staff, later claimed that the battle plan originated with Jackson, the plan was Lee’s entirely. Lee did, however, give Jackson much discretion in its execution, and his confidence in Jackson was fully justified.
Despite Jackson’s best efforts the difficult twelve-mile march through the woods and tangled underbrush known as the Wilderness did not occur in complete secrecy, but Union officers ignored evidence of the threat. When Jackson’s attack began late in the afternoon, it rolled up the Union flank. Jackson’s units inevitably became jumbled, however, due to the difficult terrain. While riding forward in an attempt to direct movements after sunset, Jackson was accidentally wounded by his own men. Lee’s famed cavalry commander J. E. B. Stuart led the Second Corps for the remainder of the campaign, which resulted in Hooker retreating back across the Rappahannock.
Jackson’s wounds were severe and his left arm was amputated, but his doctors initially anticipated a full recovery. The general developed pneumonia, however, and died on May 10. After a public funeral in Richmond, Jackson was buried in Lexington on May 15. His death left a vacancy at the corps level that was never successfully filled. Stuart went back to his cavalry command and Lee reorganized his army into three corps, with Longstreet (returned from a detached assignment) skillfully leading the First Corps, Major General Richard S. Ewell taking over Jackson’s Second Corps, and A. P. Hill commanding a new Third Corps. Neither Ewell nor Hill could match Jackson, however, and Chancellorsville was the last decisive victory won by the Army of Northern Virginia.
Jackson’s Place in History
As an independent commander Jackson could be superb. As a subordinate he was dutiful and loyal, but not as submissive or unambitious as legend would have it. Early in the war, while serving as a colonel under General Joseph E. Johnston, Jackson politicked for promotion to brigadier general and a separate command. Later, while himself exercising independent command in the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson bypassed regular channels and requested militia reinforcements from Virginia governor John Letcher. When Confederate secretary of war Judah P. Benjamin dictated troop positions to Jackson, Jackson offered his resignation in protest of such outside interference. Yet when Lee rejected a strategic proposal Jackson made in 1862, Jackson went over Lee’s head, sending his friend, the congressman Alexander R. Boteler, to make a direct appeal to Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Davis upheld Lee.
Viewed separately, the elements of speed, maneuver, initiative, and audacity that Jackson employed to achieve victory do not distinguish him from other successful military commanders. But Jackson’s generalship also was marked by a singleness of purpose and determination matched by very few and exceeded by none. His obsession
with secrecy occasionally impeded his subordinate officers’ ability to execute his orders, and some chafed under his leadership, but his many successes made him one of the foremost agents in the defense of Virginia up to 1863. During the Civil War Jackson’s reputation often equaled or exceeded Lee’s, and Jackson’s wartime martyrdom contributed to the South’s postwar Lost Cause mythology: but for Jackson’s death, might not the South have won? A very large body of popular writing exists on Jackson, dating from the year of his death, and Jackson’s generalship has been analyzed by both American and European scholars. Some of these writers have made excessive claims for the general, downplaying or denying his mistakes and shortcomings. But Jackson remains a great soldier whose reputation requires no artificial inflation.