While returning from a chaotic pursuit in the midst of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was shot by Confederate troops. Earlier, he had led his men in a surprise attack on a camp of Union soldiers, many of them playing cards. The attack was so successful that Jackson chased and captured Yankees until after dark, when he gave the order to return to camp. There, infantry on guard mistook the commander's horses for Union cavalry and opened fire even before Jackson had a chance to reply to “who goes there?” It was the latest stroke of bad luck in a trouble life.
Jackson was born in Clarksburg in 1824 in what would later be called West Virginia. Typhoid fever took his older sister and father in 1826, one day before his mother had her fourth child, Jackson’s sister Laura Ann. The young widow struggled in poverty, remarrying and dying during the birth of Jackson’s half-brother. Now orphans, Jackson and his siblings were divided among relatives. After a year at his Aunt Polly’s, eight-year-old Jackson decided he preferred his Uncle Cummins and ran away, walking eighteen miles to his new home and showing willpower that would be the foundation of his personality.
In 1846, Jackson was accepted to West Point. His formal education had been lackluster, and entrance exams placed him at the bottom of his class. Through diligent hard work, he graduated four years later in the top third. His fellow students said that if it had been a five-year program, he would have been first in the class.
Directly out of West Point, Jackson served in the Mexican-American War as an artillery commander. He disobeyed an order to retreat, earning a promotion to major by the end of the war. After various assignments from Florida to New York, he found a teaching career at the Virginia Military Institute, where he expected his students to have the same level of discipline he did. Stories were told that Jackson memorized his lectures the night before class. If he were interrupted by a student, he would give a glare and then start over from the beginning. Students routinely fought with him, and sentiments were so sour that even after graduating, alumni requested that he be forced to resign.
Although they were overall happy years, Jackson’s time in Lexington, VA, continued his life’s plague of ill luck. His first wife died during the stillbirth of their first child. He remarried and had two daughters, but Jackson himself suffered a variety of ailments. Today doctors hypothesize he had a herniated diaphragm, but at the time Jackson was seen as an eccentric who slept only in catnaps, took mineral water baths, ate little other than crackers, milk, and lemons, and constantly stood rather than sitting, which he said caused indigestion.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jackson transitioned from a peacetime teacher to a drillmaster. He seized the depot at Harper’s Ferry and began winning fame with daring raids. During the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, his stalwart brigade refused to give a foot of battlefield, spurring General Bernard Bee to say (shortly before being mortally wounded), “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall.” The Valley Campaign of 1862 thrust Jackson further into the spotlight as his infantry raced from battle to battle up the Shenandoah, covering an average of more than thirteen miles of marching each day and earning themselves the nickname “foot cavalry.” Through worn-torn north Virginia, only General Robert E. Lee, whom Jackson had met in the Mexican War, was more famous.
Stonewall Jackson was shot three times in Chancellorsville, prompting the amputation of his left arm and part of his right hand. A particularly astute doctor noted Jackson’s complaints of pain in his chest as the onset of pneumonia. His lifelong bad luck had proven good since that pneumonia could have taken his life. As May turned to June, Jackson was back on his feet and requested duties from Lee.
Lee was dubious. Jackson, who was notoriously already terrible horse-riding, could barely hold a pencil, let alone a rein. Lee tried to convince Jackson to return home, but Jackson’s dedication required that he serve his country. At last Lee found a place for him replacing Major General Pendleton to oversee the artillery and brought him along on the new campaign to invade the North. Union General Hooker, still seething from defeat at Chancellorsville, took up pursuit but was replaced by the more cautious Meade. On July 1, the two enormous armies became intertwined at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Confederates gained an early upper hand, but the Union defenses in the hills south of Gettysburg proved too solid to crack. Lee planned a daring artillery barrage followed by a sudden uphill charge to be led by Longstreet (a tactic perfected during Cavour and Garibaldi’s Unification Wars in Italy). His empty sleeve belted to his shirt, Jackson reviewed the artillery under Colonel Alexander and charged him with near-treason. Jackson, who had long practiced his hearing after his earlier work with artillery left him partially deaf, noted shells were going off too late, meaning they were overshooting. Longstreet, who was opposed to the risky assault, gave Jackson the duty of choosing the time for the assault. After reorganizing the artillery, Jackson volunteered to lead the charge.
Jackson’s Charge proved effectual in breaking the Union lines. Meade, who had already moved his command due to the early overshooting Confederate artillery, retreated southward. Over 15,000 Union troops to the north were encircled and captured, but the bulk of the army successfully escaped after a daring cavalry flanking attack by Union General Kilpatrick.
The South had won the day, but the victory proved a white elephant. Torrential rain on July 4 prevented Lee from pursuing Meade’s army. Meade reformed to the south and sent armies to cut off Lee’s supply lines through Chambersburg and Carlisle, just as the Confederates now had thousands prisoners to feed. Lee was forced to keep up his momentum, leaving behind thousands of unburied soldiers. He marched on Harrisburg, where he met with more Union armies that poured into the region from the north. At the disastrous Battle of Harrisburg, Lee surrendered along with tens of thousands of soldiers, including Jackson. Stuart led a force of less than 7,000 that escaped back to Virginia.
With the end of the war in 1864, Jackson returned to Virginia, where he became a teacher with the Freedman’s Bureau. Jackson already had a long history as a Black educator, even illegally teaching one of his uncle’s slaves to read in exchange for pine knots that he used as lighting for reading as a teenager. While at the VMI, Jackson had founded Sunday school classes for local Blacks while a deacon in the Presbyterian Church. Jackson continued his work through Reconstruction, helping to found the university that would later be named for him.
In reality, Jackson’s pneumonia went untreated, and he died on May 10. Jackson would be long remembered for his daring in battle and his superhuman resolve.