Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was the most famous Confederate general after Robert E Lee during the American Civil War. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was highly respected by the men he commanded who gave him his nickname “Stonewall”. Jackson’s premature death on May 10th 1863 was a huge blow to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as Jackson, for whatever reasons, had almost developed an aura of invincibility around his leadership. His death was a huge blow to Southern morale. However, it was a major boost to the North.
Jackson was born on January 21st 1824. His father died when Jackson was two years of age. His wife was left with large debts and three children to look after. She had to sell all of the family’s property and moved into a one-room house. Jackson’s mother remarried when he was six but Jackson did not get on with his stepfather. He, along with his sister, was sent to live with his uncle who owned a mill. Jackson lived here for four years before going to live with his father’s sister, Polly. He stayed with Polly and her husband for a year but ran away as a result of the abuse he received from her husband Isaac. Jackson returned to his uncle and remained at his mill for the next seven years.
While with his uncle, Thomas had a strict upbringing based on hard outdoor work around his uncle’s farm. He educated himself and in 1842, Jackson was accepted into the US Military Academy at West Point. Jackson found the academic side difficult as his education was not as advanced as others in his class. However, he persevered and gained a reputation as a person who did not give up. Jackson graduated from West Point in 1846 and joined the US Army as a second lieutenant in the 1st US Artillery Regiment. He fought in the Mexican-American War between 1846 and 1848 and during the course of his service in this war Jackson was promoted to major.
In 1851, Jackson took up a teaching appointment as an Artillery Instructor at the Virginia Military Institute. His style of teaching was not popular among the students at VMI and in 1856 there was an unsuccessful attempt to remove him from his teaching post.
When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, Jackson was put in charge of new recruits. He was given the charge of Harper’s Ferry where he commanded five Virginia Infantry regiments (the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd) who were to be given the nickname the ‘Stonewall Brigade’ because it never retreated. Jackson believed that discipline was at the core of military success and at the heart of discipline was doing what you were ordered instantly. Therefore, he made his men spend many hours drilling.
Jackson and the ‘Stonewall Brigade’ found fame of the First Battle of Bull Run. At Henry House Hill, while Confederate lines all around him seemed to be crumbling, Jackson ordered that his men should stand firm. Their stand was said to have rallied other Confederate units around them who solidified their lines and stopped a Union victory. The ‘Stonewall Brigade’ suffered more casualties on that day than any other Confederate unit. Jackson was promoted to Major General and given command of the Valley District.
During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Jackson was tasked with ensuring that the Shenandoah Valley was not captured to the North. He had a major advantage over McClellan’s Army of the Potomac – all of his men came from the Shenandoah Valley and knew its landscape very well. Three Union armies approached the Confederate capital Richmond and Jackson had the task of ensuring that all three armies did not meet up and consolidate their forces.
Jackson’s aggressive tactics in the valley led to McClellan concluding that the Army of the Potomac faced a much larger Confederate force than he first thought. It did not take much to make McClellan adopt a cautious approach and he informed President Lincoln of the new development. The result was that 50,000 Union soldiers were withdrawn from the proposed attack on Richmond to ensure that this supposedly much larger Confederate force did not leave the Shenandoah Valley and advance on Washington. In fact, at this moment in time, Jackson only had 17,000 men under his command. However, his tactics were such that a larger Union force was finally pushed out of the valley in early June 1861. The ‘Stonewall Brigade’ won five battles during this campaign against a combined Union force of 60,000 men. Jackson became a hero in the South.
After his success in the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson was ordered to join up with Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to defend Richmond. Jackson fought in the Seven Days Battles but he, along with his men, did not perform well. It was said that all of them were suffering from exhaustion after their forced march from the Shenandoah Valley.
Jackson restored his reputation during the Northern Virginia Campaign of August 1862. He captured and destroyed the Union Army’s main storage depot at Manassas Junction. Jackson’s men then fought in the Confederate success at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28th-29th).
The ‘Stonewall Brigade’ fought at the Battle of Antietam. Like all the other units there on both sides, they suffered badly in one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. However, the ‘Stonewall Brigade’ held out at the northern end of the battlefield and resisted a ferocious Union assault. In recognition of what Jackson had achieved up to that date, he was promoted to Lieutenant General in command of Second Corps.
The Second Corps fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Chancellorsville. At Chancellorsville, the Second Corps was involved in a huge sweeping manoeuvre that brought them to within a mile of the Union Army that was completely unaware of their presence. The Second Corps made a silent approach on the Union Army before charging. Many Northern soldiers were captured before they had time to load their rifles. Those not captured, fled the battlefield. However, a major victory on the battlefield ended disastrously for the Confederates.
While returning to his camp that night, he and his staff were mistaken for a small force of Union soldiers. They were fired on and Jackson was hit three times. His left arm had to be amputated. He quickly developed symptoms of pneumonia and died on May 10th 1863.
Lee considered Jackson’s death a great blow to the Confederate cause. Lee always gave Jackson plans that lacked detail but specified what at the end he wanted Jackson to achieve. Lee did this because he knew that Jackson would see what was required at the end and then he would plan out a campaign. Other commanders not only told their subordinates what was required at the end but also how such an end was to be achieved. Jackson did not face this and he was also a highly flexible commander in the field and had an ability to change his plans at an instant if the course of a battle determined it. Above all else, he did not refer his plan to a superior officer and wait until being given permission to do something as this lost him time.