Like A Stonewall


In wartime, commanders must be able to handle attacks from the front or behind. Of those attacks from behind, not all are from the enemy; some are from “friendly fire.” And of those “friendly fire” incidents, not all are actually combat related; some, in fact, involve conflict of a more subtle nature. During the American Civil War, one of the South’s greatest generals faced challenges to his authority from those who wore the same uniform he did. Known for his unyielding character, both on the battlefield and off, he was not one to take such challenges lightly and determined to fight back with all his strength. His name was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. This is the story of how he faced his fellow Confederates with the same ferocity he employed against the Yankees.

From the time he entered the military, Thomas Jackson was unbending when it came to the military way of life and its attendant regulations. That attitude began early. He was born in January 1824 in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), and even as a teenager, he proved rigid in his sense of justice, once nearly cracking a man’s skull for refusing to pay for certain goods. At West Point he claimed a fellow cadet took his clean rifle and replaced it with a dirty one. Even worse, the cadet lied about it when he was confronted with the charge. Jackson stood firm in the conviction the cadet should be court-martialed and drummed out of the academy. The cadet was later dismissed. Later in Florida he leveled charges against his commanding officer for having an inappropriate relationship with a female servant. Not long after, he resigned and became a professor at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He was so unalterably fixed in his way of seeing and doing things that he earned not only the nickname “Tom Fool” but also the enmity of many cadets for his harsh discipline. Any cadet who raised his ire did so at their peril. He had several of them court-martialed when they failed to respect his wishes as their instructor. It was this same refusal to back down that was soon to make Thomas Jackson a legend among the people of the South.

When war broke out in 1861, Jackson immediately came to the defense of “Old Virginia.” Within three months of joining the new Confederate army in April, Jackson’s stubbornness had turned him into one of the South’s favorite heroes. His first duty after leading the VMI cadets to Richmond was to assume command of the forces stationed at Harpers Ferry and to prepare proper defenses to repulse any Yankee attack. Shortly afterwards, he was promoted to brigadier general, given command of the First Virginia Brigade and immediately ordered to Manassas, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. He arrived at the battlefield on July 21st and placed the brigade along the top of Henry House Hill. Some troops wondered if they would advance down the hill, but Jackson ordered the men to remain where they were. He saw Union troops climbing the hill but continued to stare with cold, unblinking blue eyes. From a nearby position, General Bernard Bee took heart from the sight and exclaimed to the faltering men around him, “There is Jackson standing like a stonewall!” No longer just Thomas Jackson, but the mighty Stonewall, the general told his men to give the enemy the bayonet and to “yell like furies.” Moments later his men did just that. The famous Rebel Yell would echo across countless battlefields over the next four years. Jackson’s charge started the Yankees running. They did not stop until they got back to Washington. He wanted to pursue the enemy, capture the capital and end the war, but his superiors disagreed. Word of his stand soon spread all over the Confederacy. His success at Manassas did not, however, necessarily mean all Confederate officers respected his talents.

In November 1861 Jackson was promoted to major general and sent to Winchester, Virginia with orders to protect the Shenandoah Valley, the “breadbasket of the Confederacy.” He took the Stonewall Brigade with him, but after studying the military situation, he concluded he needed more men. Jackson convinced Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin to place Brigadier General William Loring and his forces under his command. Having served in the army since the 1830s, Loring was mortified at the thought of serving under a man he considered to be both capricious and foolish. He searched for any way to slow his becoming subordinate to “Tom Fool.” After much contemplation, he wrote Jackson and informed the general he needed at least two to three weeks to prepare his troops to march. Adding further to the delay was the fact that when he did start the advance he allowed it to proceed more like a crawl, with troops even being allowed to stop to consume Christmas eggnog along the way. By the time Loring and his troops arrived, General Jackson, also known as “Old Blue Light” now because of the intensity of his gaze, was convinced Loring would be a detriment to his campaign. His opinion only hardened after witnessing Loring’s performance on the march. Nevertheless, Loring’s soldiers remained part of the plan.

On New Year’s Day, January 1, 1862, Stonewall and his army set off for the small town of Bath, just to the north of Romney. He intended to seize the Union garrison before moving on to Romney. His own men marched with a bounce in their step while those under Loring slogged along and wished they were back in Winchester. Loring’s men only managed thirty-six miles in three days. To Jackson, who always expected more of his men than other commanders did of theirs, it wasn’t good enough. Even worse was the fact that Loring camped four miles away from the town. The next morning Jackson ordered Loring to attack immediately, but Loring protested that his soldiers were exhausted and instead moved in slowly. Despite Loring’s lack of initiative, the Yankees were driven out of Bath and across the Potomac River to Maryland. When Jackson immediately turned around and led his army over the snow-covered mountains to Romney, many of Loring’s soldiers came to consider Jackson a madman. Like his former cadets, they too began to mock him, calling him “Fool Tom,” a play on his earlier moniker. He might have been a madman, but he was certainly a madman the Yankees did not want to face. They abandoned Romney even before Jackson reached the town. With his objective accomplished, he arrived in the town on January 13th. Almost immediately, he was yet again engaged in battle with Loring.

By the time Loring’s command reached Romney on January 16th, both Loring and his top commander, Colonel William Taliaferro, a Mexican War veteran and former Virginia legislator, had had enough. They told Jackson they would go no farther. Jackson in turn told them to hold Romney while he returned to Winchester. Officers and men alike detested the order. They did not want to spend the winter in a pigsty, as they deemed Romney. They were convinced Jackson had punished them since they did not belong to his pet brigade. A number of Loring’s officers believed they had sufficient political connections to go over Jackson’s head and have his orders reversed by appealing directly to the civilian leadership. Loring himself drew up the petition decrying the place as “one of the most disagreeable and unfavorable that could well be imagined.” Eleven other officers signed it and added their own thoughts, Taliaferro stating his belief it was “suicidal to keep this command here.” Taliaferro carried the petition to Richmond where he personally met Confederate President Jefferson Davis and convinced him that Romney was too close to Union lines to leave a major force there. Davis agreed and sent a telegram to Jackson ordering him to recall Loring back to Winchester.

Upon receiving the telegram on January 31, 1862, Jackson was flabbergasted not only at the order but also at his subordinates who had undermined his authority. It was apparent the politicians had outmaneuvered him, and it now appeared as if they were the ones dictating military strategy. Convinced that was no way to run an army, Jackson determined not to stand for it. He would force the issue with the politicians, both inside and outside the army, and settle the matter once and for all. He quickly pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote to Secretary of War Benjamin. With such interference, he said, “I cannot expect to be of much service in the field.” As a result, he would resign from the army. He sent a similar letter to Virginia Governor John Letcher. The arrival of the letters caused a firestorm to erupt in Richmond. Letcher denounced Loring and his officers and proclaimed such men were not worth losing one of the South’s greatest commanders. Likewise, Congressmen A. R. Boteler similarly sung the general’s praises. He undertook the arduous trip to Winchester where he pleaded with Jackson to remain in military service. The country could not spare him. Knowing all along he could not abandon Virginia in her hour of need, Jackson agreed to stay on, but he required assurances that he would not be bypassed again. Boteler guaranteed this and succeeded in getting his fellow Congressmen to enlarge Jackson’s authority as military commander. The first act Stonewall performed with his new powers was to court-martial Loring for neglect of duty. Before the trial began, however, Loring was transferred to the western theatre and his officers and men were dispersed among other units. To his credit, Taliaferro stayed on and served Jackson loyally until his transfer to North Carolina. The enemy from within thwarted at last, Stonewall Jackson had shown he would fight his adversaries no matter what uniform they wore. He had won the first engagement, but Jackson’s personality and single-mindedness did not always endear him to those around him. Problems with subordinates plagued him for the rest of his wartime service.

Even though a major nemesis was now gone, Stonewall Jackson remained committed to removing those he believed had disobeyed him. Only two months after Loring left, he ordered his old Stonewall Brigade, now commanded by General Richard Garnett, into battle at Kernstown, Virginia. As he rode to the front, he was disgusted to find that Garnett had withdrawn when his men ran out of ammunition. He believed Garnett should have stayed engaged and fought with bayonets and even, if need be, stones. Accordingly, he arrested Garnett and organized a court-martial, a personal shame Garnett carried with him until his death during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Not long after arresting Garnett, Jackson had an even more serious fight with his top subordinate, General A. P. Hill. As he led the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September 1862, Jackson discovered Hill had not followed his orders to allow ten-minute stops so the stragglers could catch up. He was infuriated and placed Hill under arrest. Hill was allowed to lead his men at the Battle of Antietam but always maintained thereafter he had been treated unfairly. All discord between the two men seemed to melt away at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 as Hill tended to Jackson who lay mortally wounded by actual friendly fire. In those last days of semi-consciousness, Stonewall in turn showed his affection for his top general as he continually “conversed” with Hill, who was now being treated elsewhere for his own wounds. Perhaps it was meant for Hill and for all those with whom Jackson had battled when he gently uttered his final earthly words — “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” With his passing, the battles with friend and foe alike ended at last.

Thomas Jackson was undoubtedly one of the greatest battlefield generals in our long and glorious past. The nickname he earned at the Battle of First Manassas/Bull Run was well-earned. He was not only a “Stonewall” on the battlefield but also an unbending force against those he believed attacked from the rear on his own side. His rigid sense of right and wrong, duty and insubordination, loyalty and betrayal left little room for any gray area. Such an outlook and attitude might seem quaint or even close-minded to us today. However, it is that very quality of unyielding character in the face of friendly fire that inspires us in our own battles to stand “like a stonewall.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s