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"Old Blue Light": Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson on a Confederate $500 bill (1864)

Stonewall Jackson on a Confederate $500 bill (1864)

Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson ( 1824-1863 ), Lt. General, Confederate States of America, has been a hero of mine since childhood.

I do not often engage in blind hero worship, and it is not my practice in General Jackson's case either.

General Jackson's historical record has many ups and downs -- especially with regard to his military campaigns-- many "gray" areas, if you'll pardon the obvious pun.

But, the story of " Stonewall " offers many opportunities for personal inspiration - for his sense of dedication, devotion, and bravery, for his ability to think on his feet and 'outside the box', and for his heroism and character.

This post is not an attempt to document his life and deeds, but simply to point out some points of interest about one of the South's most fascinating sons.

Thomas was born in Clarksburg, Virginia ( now part of West Virginia ) in 1824 --- by 1831, he was an orphan living with his uncle.

He had a rudimentary education , but was able to teach himself well enough to gain admission ( just barely ) into West Point, where, through hard work, he came to excel.

Jackson's first action was seen in the Mexican-American War, serving as a Second Lt. at the battles of Chapultapec, Veracruz, and Mexico City.

At Chupultapec, he refused to withdraw his troops under fire, despite a direct order to do so, and this decision proved to be correct, when a relieving force was able to break through the enemy line at the point Jackson and his men had so stubbornly held.

It was during this period of time, in Mexico, that Stonewall Jackson was to meet his future Commander, Robert E. Lee.

After the war, in 1851, Jackson became Professor of Philosophy ( and Instructor of Artillery ) at Virginia Military Institute ( VMI ) - where some of his curriculum is still being used today.

As a matter of fact, a statue of Jackson stands on the campus directly across from the cadet barracks, and it is VMI tradition that first year students must salute the statue when passing that way.

At the time, due to a tendency toward rigid discipline, piety, and an eccentric nature, many of his students didn't like Professor Jackson, calling him " Tom Fool ".

No fool, was Thomas Jackson.

His lessons stressed military mobility, attention to detail, stealth, and the coordination of artillery with cavalry and infantry that would serve both his men and himself well in the upcoming conflict.

Many of his students would go on to serve in his famous "Stonewall Brigade" , and see these lessons put into practice, at great cost to his enemies.

He summed up his military philosophy to General John Inboden, C.S.A., thus:

" Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit so long as your men have strength to follow; for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number. The other rule is, never fight against heavy odds, if by any possible maneuvering you can hurl your own force on only a part, and that the weakest part, of your enemy and crush it. Such tactics will win every time, and a small army may thus destroy a large one in detail, and repeated victory will make it invincible."

And this indeed was the philosophy of war he used, when in 1861, the War Between the States caused him to be called to serve his State as Colonel, and then, the Confederate States as General.

Jackson's capacity to strike suddenly and with frightening force shocked his Union opponents, who quickly re-learned just how capable Jackson was, especially after the battle of First Manassas ( "Bull Run " ) where he was to earn the epithet he would carry forever --- "Stonewall".

This story has been told several different ways, but it all revolves around the refusal of the Stonewall Brigade to give up it's position to the enemy on Henry House Hill :

C.S.A. General Barnard Bee, while attempting to regroup his own men, was heard to exclaim:
" There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians ! "

Now, whether Bee meant this as a rally cry or as a complaint that Jackson wasn't coming to the aid of his own position is not known, since Bee was killed during the battle.

What is known is that Jackson's well disciplined Brigade beat the Yankees back and won the day for the Confederates, despite losing more men than any other Southern brigade.


His exploits, and the exploits of his "Stonewall Brigade", during the Valley and Peninsula Campaigns, Second Manassas, and Fredricksburg, are the stuff of legends.

Those interested in this subject should read Shelby Foote's seminal three volume work:
" The Civil War - A Narrative " .
I highly recommend it.

Most folks know that General Jackson was killed by friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville.... actually, he died from complications of his injuries 8 days later, on May 10.

Present at the time of the shooting was Capt. Richard Eggleston Wilbourn:

" I had just returned from carrying an order and had just reported that his order had been delivered, when he replied as is his custom "very good." So there was no one left with Gen. J at this time, but myself and Messrs. Wm. E. Cunliffe & W. T. Wynn of the Signal Corps, and Capt. [William F.] Randolph in charge of the few couriers present. Gen. J with this escort was now at about fifty or sixty yards more or less distance in advance of Gen. Hill who was in advance of his troops. Gen. [James H.] Lane's Brigade extended across the road just in the rear of Gen. Hill, and commended firing at us from the right for some cause I suppose taking us for the enemy and the firing extended unexpectedly along his whole line. When the firing commenced all our horses had been frightened and started off—some moving into the enemy's lines. At the first fire some of the horses were shot from under their riders and several persons killed or wounded. Mr. Cunliffe of the Signal Corps fell in a few feet of Gen. J., mortally wounded. Gen. J.'s horse dashed off in the opposite direction, that is to the left, at the first firing, as did all of the escort who escaped this fire & who could control their horses. I was at Gen. J.'s left side & kept there. When we had gotten about fifteen or twenty paces to the left of the road, we came up in a few yards of the troops of this same Brigade on the left of the road and received their fire, as the fire had by that time extended to the extreme left of the Brigade and it was by this last fire that Gen. J(ackson). was struck in three places, viz, in the left arm halfway between the elbow & shoulder, in the left wrist, and in the palm of the right hand. "

He was carried off the field, seriously wounded, but expected to recover.

His arm was removed, and subsequently buried near the battlefield.

( only to be dug up some 70 years by Marine Corps General Smedley Butler on a bet... it is now buried at Spotsylvania National Battlefield )

However, pneumonia and infection set in --- General Jackson would fight no more.

During his last day, General Jackson had a visit from his beloved wife Anna, and she told him that the Doctor had told her the prognosis was grim.

According to attending Doctor's McGuire's statement, General Jackson consoled his wife:

"Oh, no! you are frightened, my child; death is not so near; I may yet get well."
She fell over the bed weeping bitterly and told him again that the physicians said there was no hope.
"After a moment's pause, he asked her to call me.
He said:
"Doctor, Anna informs me that you have told her that I am to die today; is it so?
"When he was answered, he turned his eyes towards the ceiling, gazed for a moment or two as if in intense thought and then replied: "'Very good, very good, it is all right.'

( Very soon after, he cried out: )

"'Order A. P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks! "
< see footnote >
"And then stopped, leaving the last sentence unfinished. Presently, a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief:

" 'Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees' "

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and thus, General Jackson's final words.

General Jackson is buried near the home he shared with Anna in Lexington, Virginia.

His image is carved for posterity in the Stone Mountain Monument in Georgia.

There is also a fitting monument for General Jackson at the Confederate Cemetery of Mount Jackson, southwest of Lexington.

Jackson had never feared death.

He is quoted by General Inboden as saying:
" 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. ... That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave. "

Stonewall was highly thought of by Robert E. Lee ... and so affected was Lee by the death of Jackson, he said: "William, I have lost my right arm".

The loss of Stonewall affected the South greatly as well.... many scholars believe that the absence of General Jackson at Gettysburg changed the very outcome of the battle, and ultimately the war....

But General Jackson would not have a problem with that--

His strong faith was such that he believed that the will of God was the only thing important.

and about the "Old Blue Light " nickname--

His men in the Stonewall Brigade say it came from a strange blue light that could be seen in the eyes of Jackson before a battle.

Yes, stuff of legends, that.



A.P. Hill was a Confederate General whom General Jackson relied upon a great deal.

The very interesting aspect of Jackson calling for Hill is that, on his deathbed years later, General Robert E. Lee also called for that same General "Little Powell" Hill to be brought up.


carolina muscle (author) from Charlotte, North Carolina on November 20, 2012:

drbj: well, if that ain't the nicest thing anybody's said to me in months, I dunno what is. Thank you! He is an easy subject to write about, tho. :)

drbj and sherry from south Florida on November 20, 2012:

You are an exceptional historian, Chris. Your recounting of a bit of history about Gen. Stonewall Jackson made the man come alive in your retelling. Bravo, my friend, and a very large Up.

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