Perhaps one of the most gifted tactical commanders in U.S. military history, Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born in 1824 in Virginia. His father and an older sister died of typhoid fever when he was very young, leaving Jackson’s mother, Julia Neale Jackson, a widow with three young children and a lot of debt. Julia sold the family’s possessions to pay off debts and took in sewing and taught school to support her family. Julia remarried, but her husband Blake Woodson did not like his stepchildren. The following year, after giving birth to Thomas’ half-brother William Wirt Woodson, Julia died leaving the children orphaned.
Thomas and his siblings were shifted around among relatives until Thomas eventually settled with uncle Cummins Jackson in Jackson’s Mill in Virginia where he worked as a sheepherder.
In 1842 Thomas was accepted to West Point. His education background weak, Thomas struggled with his studies, but through dogged determination, which was his style, he graduated 17th in a class of 59 students.
As a second lieutenant in the 1st Artillery Regiment, he fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. During the assault on Chapultepec Castle, Jackson refused an order to retreat, arguing instead such was riskier than continuing the fight. Events proved him right when his actions allowed the assault to succeed.
In the spring of 1851, he accepted a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), in Lexington, Virginia where he was a Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Instructor of Artillery. He was unpopular as a teacher; his droning teaching style often put cadets to sleep. He was sometimes mocked by the students as “Fool Tom” and “Old Jack.”
Thomas was eccentric in many ways and was somewhat of a hypochondriac with strange ideas about health. He often sat up ramrod straight, believing such properly aligned the internal organs for better digestive function. He famously sucked lemons during the Civil War to ease his peptic problems. It is somewhat of a mystery where he managed to obtain these lemons. So strange were his mannerisms to others, some actually thought he was crazy.
In 1853 Jackson married Elinor “Ellie” Junkin, who died in childbirth soon after. In 1857 Thomas married Mary Anna Morrison from North Carolina. They had a daughter who died less than a month after birth and a second daughter, Julia Laura, was born in 1862 not long before her father’s death.
Thomas Jackson was a devout Presbyterian and always eager to discuss matters of faith and Scripture. Some of his military strategies came from the Book of Joshua. During the Civil War, he often personally witnessed to soldiers and was not above chastising his men for profanity as he did to Dr. Hunter McGuire, his corps surgeon, when he was using profanity to hurry orderlies moving the wounded to safety. Stonewall admonished the doctor, “Sir, don’t you think you can manage these men without swearing?” McGuire nodded and promised to try.
Jackson was asked why he could remain so calm during battles, and he replied, “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me.”
Jackson would often join his men around the campfire and sit silently, deep in thought. Many believe he was in prayer as it was his practice to pray often.
In his book Christ in the Camp by J. William Jones, a chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia, the good reverend relates the following story about Jackson.
Reverend Dr. William Brown, former editor of the Central Presbyterian, arrived in Jackson’s camp near Centerville in 1861. A friend of Brown remarked to him how the strain of battle seemed to have taken its toll on Jackson. He related how he had encountered Stonewall in the woods walking about aimlessly, speaking incoherently, and gesturing wildly with his arms. He could only conclude that Old Jack was crazy.
Later that night, Brown spent time with Jackson, and the subject of prayer came up. Jackson related the following, “I find it greatly helps me in fixing my mind and quickening my devotions to give articulate utterance to my prayers, and hence I am in the habit of going off into the woods, where I can be alone and speak audibly to myself the prayers I would pour out to my God. I was at first annoyed that I was compelled to keep my eyes open to avoid running against trees and stumps, but upon investigating the matter I do not find that the Scriptures require us to close our eyes in prayer, and the exercise has proven to be very delightful and profitable.”
On another occasion the subject of 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “pray without ceasing” came up in a discussion and how hard that command was to keep. To which Jackson insisted we could accustom ourselves to it, and it could easily be obeyed. “When we take our meals, there is the grace. When we take a drought of water, I always pause, as my palate receives the refreshment, to lift up my heart to God in thanks and prayer for the water of life. Whenever I drop a letter in the box at the post office, I send a petition along with it for God’s blessing on its mission and upon the person to whom it is sent. When I break the seal of a letter just received, I stop and pray to God that He may prepare me for its contents and make it a messenger of good. When I go to the classroom and wait for the arrangement of the cadets in their places, that is my time to intercede with God for them. And so for every other familiar act of the day.”
His friend asked if he did not sometimes forget these occasions? He replied, “No. I have made the practice habitual to me and can no more forget than forget to drink when thirsty. The habit has become as delightful as regular.”
There is no question that Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was a man of faith and a powerful prayer warrior as well as a gifted military tactician. His successes on the battlefield are famous and studied even today at West Point.
Thomas Jackson was killed at the very height of his military career. Just as he was experiencing the success of his famous flanking move on the Union army at Chancellorsville, he was accidently shot by his own men and lost his left arm as a result. Of his wounding Robert E. Lee wrote, “You have lost your left arm; I have lost my right arm.” Seeming to recover at first, Jackson died of pneumonia a few days later with his wife at his bedside. Often delirious, in the end he uttered these words, “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks…” Then he paused. A smile slowly spread over his face, and he said quietly with an expression of relief, “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.” Then without pain or struggle, his spirit passed from Earth to God who gave it.
I am of the opinion that God took Stonewall Jackson home because of his military genius, which could have caused the war to end in a way that was not part of God’s plan for this nation. If Jackson had lived, some believe Lee might have prevailed at Gettysburg.
Note: The second image above was taken only a few days before he was wounded at Chancellorsville.
Excerpt from An Eternity of Four Years
This was Old Jack’s style. He wanted to see the battlefield for himself. Some of Jackson’s staff became concerned about the danger, and Sandie Pendleton finally asked, “General, don’t you think this is the wrong place for you?”
Old Jack replied, “The danger is over. The enemy is routed. Go back and tell Hill to press on.”
I did not think the danger was yet over, and though the enemy was routed, some were putting up an occasional spirited resistance when well led by their officers. And we did not know exactly where the enemy was. Had they stopped and prepared to make a stand, and we were about to blunder into them? Like Pendleton and others in our party, I had a most uncomfortable feeling about this scout.
We reached a clearing with an unfinished church about 150 yards out from Lane’s lines. I was riding behind Jackson when a single shot rang out to our right. It sounded to me as if it came from our rear where two of Lane’s North Carolina regiments were deployed. Others though it might have come from our right front. That shot was soon followed by several others, and that swelled into almost continuous firing like a string of firecrackers going off. I had no doubt then. The firing was coming from Lane’s North Carolina brigade to our right rear.
Blazing fire suddenly tore though our party and Hill’s! Several of Jackson’s staff were wounded or killed immediately! Two horses were shot from under their riders, and others wounded and frantic tore off in every direction. More shots rang out, screaming horses and screaming men, and those still in the saddle headed for the nearby woods.
Jackson took cover in the woods to our left away from the firing only to be met by more musketry on that side. Lane’s North Carolina Brigade had mistaken us for Federal cavalry! Lieutenant Morrison jumped from his wounded horse and ran towards the North Carolina lines screaming for them to stop firing. One of the Lane’s officers yelled it was a lie and to keep firing!
While blundering through the dark woods, Jackson was hit in the right hand and left upper arm, shattering the bone near the shoulder. Little Sorrel was also wounded, and the frightened animal ran back out on the road and away from the firing toward the Federal lines! Jackson managed to get control of his mount with his wounded hand and the help of Captain Wilbourn and signalman Wynn who brought him to relative safety on side of the road.
I somehow remained unwounded, but Pepper was decidedly unhappy about all the shooting and managing him was difficult. I joined Wilbourn and Wynn with Jackson, who they had laid down under a tree. “How bad are you hurt, sir?”
Grasping his left arm, he looked up at me. “I fear my arm is broken,” he replied almost calmly.
Wilbourn turned to Wynn. “Quickly now, go fetch Doctor McGuire and an ambulance!” He then bound the wound to stop the bleeding and said, “General, it is remarkable that any of us escaped.”
Jackson agreed, “Yes, it is providential.”