The Christian Soldier: General Thomas J. `Stonewall' Jackson: James I. Robertson, Jr. Looks at the Man Behind the Legendary Confederate Hero

By Robertson, James I., Jr. | History Today, February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Christian Soldier: General Thomas J. `Stonewall' Jackson: James I. Robertson, Jr. Looks at the Man Behind the Legendary Confederate Hero


Robertson, James I., Jr., History Today


LORD ROBERTS, commander-in-chief of the British armies early in the twentieth century observed:

   In my opinion Stonewall Jackson was
   one of the greatest natural military
   geniuses the world ever saw. I will go
   even further than that--as a
   campaigner in the field he never had
   a superior. In some respects I doubt
   whether he ever had an equal.

Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill commented of General Thomas J. Jackson (1824-63) in a letter of 1863:

   The striking characteristic of his mind
   was his profound reverence for divine
   and human authority. I never knew of
   any one whose reverence for Deity
   was so all pervading, and who felt so
   completely his entire dependence
   upon God.

The well-known American Presbyterian cleric Moses D. Hoge was more succinct on the subject:

   To attempt to portray the life of
   Jackson while leaving out the
   religious element, would be like
   undertaking to describe Switzerland
   without making mention of the Alps.

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) also possessed military genius and religious devotion, but even the faith of Lee paled in comparison with that of his principal lieutenant. Jackson was extraordinary to many, enigmatic to others. He was an artillerist who excelled in infantry tactics, a devout Christian but merciless in battle, an adult who loved the company of children, a man of odd habits but with an inflexible sense of duty. Jackson was far more simple than complex, yet generations of historians and writers have sought to make him into a `loose cannon': an unpredictable figure of inconsistencies. The General does not deserve such judgements.

Jackson was a fascinating mixture of contrasts: eccentricity and excellence, ambition and humility, restlessness and repose, wrathfulness and righteousness. Each of those ingredients, in acceptable measurement, existed in his make-up. General John B. Gordon, who marched and fought with Jackson, concluded that there was `in all his mental and moral characteristics the most perfect harmony'.

Jackson lived but thirty-nine years; his fame rests on exploits performed in the last two years. However, the first thirty-seven years moulded the simple man who became the supreme soldier. No general ever rose from humbler beginnings. Born in January, 1824, in the mountain wilderness of north-western Virginia, he was the second of four children to Jonathan and Julia Jackson. His father and a sister, Elizabeth, died when he was two; his poverty-stricken mother was forced to give him away to relatives when he was seven. Julia Jackson died less than a year later.

The orphaned lad was separated from his brother Warren (who died in 1841) and his half-brother William. With his sister Laura he was put in the care of an uncle who gave him security and little else. For ten years Thomas weathered the absence of a real family, and the lack of familial love a lonely boy needs. Lacking the fundamentals of youthful happiness produced a young man shy, introverted, distrustful of others, and desperate to know how to give and receive love. He was never allowed to be a child; he was an adult from the age of seven. So sad and empty were the first seventeen years of his life that Jackson would not openly discuss the period. Still, the closeted personality of the man was a direct outgrowth of the withdrawn boy.

In 1842 Jackson secured appointment to the US Military Academy. West Point offered Jackson the chance to make something of himself. Highly limited in formal education, he began cadet life ranked at the bottom of his class. But undaunted, he studied day and night for four years. All of his energies went toward the single purpose of learning. In the now-famous West Point Class of 1846, Jackson ranked seventeenth of fifty-nine graduates. Faculty and students alike agreed that had the curriculum lasted another year, the silent, impassive boy from Virginia would have been at the top of his class. …

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