Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson surmounted a poverty-blighted orphan childhood in Clarksburg, Virginia, to become the most brilliant and certainly the most famous of Robert E. Lee's lieutenants. He had little in the way of formal early schooling to prepare him for the military academy at West Point, and he arrived there in 1842 well behind his classmates. He worked hard, though, rising to 17th of 59 cadets in the class of 1846. Graduating with him were future Civil War commanders George McClellan and A.P. Hill.
Jackson served with distinction in the Mexican War and saw action at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, and Chapultepec, but he struggled in the peacetime army. Bored, restless, and quarrelsome, he resigned in 1852 to teach mathematics at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
Like Ulysses S. Grant, Jackson showed little of the dash in civilian life that would mark his incomparable wartime career. Perhaps his formidable eccentricities stood in the way of success. His students called him "Tool Fool" Jackson, and he seems to have been the very model of the absent-minded professor. His obsessive Presbyterian piety was legendary. Yet he lived a tranquil, satisfying domestic life. His first wife Elinor Junkin, died in 1854. Three years later he married Mary Ann Morrison, who, liked Elinor, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.
Jackson did not involve himself in the debate over secession, though he commanded the VMI cadet detachment at the hanging of the insurrectionary John Brown in 1859. He once described war as "the sum of all evils," but when the Civil War began in 1861, he promptly obtained a commission in the Confederate army.
He earned his famous nom de guerre early in the war. At a critical moment during the first battle of Bull Run, he repulsed a Federal assault with such aplomb that an officer commanding down the line sought to inspire his own troops by calling out: "Look! There goes Jackson standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!" His soldiers called him "Old Jack." Tall, thin, with a long trailing beard, he looked ordinary except for his eyesthey were pale blue and glittered brilliantly in battle, or so nearly everyone who knew Jackson said. He neither smoked, drank, nor played cards, and sometimes refused to march or fight on Sundays. He wore a plain field uniform with few symbols of rank and had little patience with military pomp and ceremony.
A harsh disciplinarian, Jackson demanded a great deal of his men and of himself. "I never saw one of Jackson's couriers without expecting an order to assault the North Pole," recalled one of his officers. He fought with an intelligent slashing audacity that seemed to paralyze his opponents. "Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy," he said. His Shenandoah Valley operation of 1862, which put those principles into practice, had been judged as near to perfect as any similar campaign in military history. Planned as a diversion to draw off troops from McClellan in the Virginia Peninsula, it served its purpose brilliantly.
At Kernstown on March 23, 1862, Jackson suffered a tactical reverse. He retreated slowly up the valley with superior Union forces under Nathaniel Banks close behind. Then Jackson struck, repulsing a Federal attack at McDowell on May 8. On May 23, he struck Banks at Front Royal, driving him back to Winchester. Renewing the attack on the 25th, he clashed the Federals back across the Potomac. As a consequence, the Union high command, fearing Jackson would move next to Washington, suspended the march of an army corps bound for McClellan. This threw the Peninsula Campaign into array, and Jackson compounded the difficulty by closing out his valley operations with victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic on June 8 and 9.
Jackson's reputation slumped a bit after he joined Lee on the Peninsula for the Seven Days' battles. His chronic tardinesshe appears to have been suffering from strain and nervous exhaustionmay have cost Lee a decisive victory. However, he rebounded at the second battle of Bull Run, Antietam, and, most notably, Chancellorsville, where his flank march and assault on the Federal right wing set up Lee's masterpiece victory. Late in the afternoon of May 2, 1863, after a daylong tramp through dense woods, Jackson's 26,000 infantry approached the exposed flank of Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps.
Howard's command had stacked arms and called it a day when some of the men looked up to see deer, rabbits, and other wildlife bounding out of the thickets. Within moments, Confederate infantry burst out of the woods, shrieking the rebel yell. Jackson drove the Federals back two miles, almost to Chancellorsville itself. Not satisfied with a partial victory, Jackson pushed to the front under a full moon to organize a night attack. A group of North Carolina soldiers mistook his mounted entourage for an enemy cavalry and opened fire. Later that night, an army surgeon amputated Jackson's left arm just below the shoulder.
At first it looked as though he would recover. Then the dreaded complication of pneumonia set in. On Sunday, May 10, Jackson slipped into a delirium of fever, shouting out commands "Pass the infantry to the front!"and urging his aides to move faster, faster. He calmed down later in the day. "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees," he said finally, and then he died.
Lee offered a simple epitaph: "I know not how to replace him."