Stonewall Jackson’s Deadly Calm

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Jackson spent less than three years in the Army after leaving Mexico, being posted first to Fort Hamilton, near New York, and then to Fort Meade, in Florida. Proximity to New York’s bookstores and libraries gave him an opportunity to exercise a relentless bent toward self-improvement. He wrote earnestly in 1849 to the congressman who years earlier had appointed him to West Point: “I propose with the blessings of providence to be a hard student and to make myself not only acquainted with military art and science, but with politics and…well versed in history.” He pledged himself to read forty to fifty pages every day—more than fifteen thousand pages annually. Jackson’s library survives in enough bulk to confirm his lifelong commitment to serious private study. It includes well-read books (most bearing his signature) in five languages, many with marginal notes in his hand; an extensive set of Shakespeare; scientific treatises; and more history and biography than any other genre. The uncomplicated T. J. Jackson of popular lore actually read almost encyclopedically across a very broad spectrum.

The Florida assignment offered little chance for self-improvement or anything else attractive. Fort Meade, not far southeast of Tampa, faced no Seminole threat; instead its warfare raged within the post, between Jackson and his commander, Maj. William H. French. One of Jackson’s peers at West Point had noticed how a petty misdeed by another cadet, “prompted only by laziness,” had seemed to Jackson “to show a moral depravity disgracing to humanity.” That meddlesome inflexibility now led Major Jackson to attack French (whose pregnant wife was at the post) with an endless array of charges over what Jackson thought was moral turpitude involving a female nursemaid. Reviewing the flood of paper generated by the squabble leaves a modern reader uncertain about French’s guilt—and not much interested in the question (which is about how the two officers’ superiors felt at the time). A crusade that unquestionably struck Jackson as a solemn duty now looks like pettifoggery.

In the short term Jackson’s righteous campaign at Fort Meade turned out badly for everyone involved, as could easily have been predicted. Weary and demoralized, he resigned to take a position at the emerging military college in Lexington, Virginia. The result was entirely salutary. He found contentment in Lexington, fell in love twice there, and developed into the mature man who would exploit the opportunities fate offered him a few years later. The Virginia mountain town enchanted Jackson (as it still does those who visit). “Of all the places that have come under my observation in the United States,” the major wrote emphatically, “this little village is the most beautiful.”

He also found satisfaction in his role in the community and with his neighbors, declaring himself “delighted with my duties, the place and the people.” However, although the terse and somewhat eccentric professor clearly had the respect of his neighbors, he “certainly did not have their admiration,” a contemporary wrote. Then and later he was as far from convivial as a man could readily be.

His rigidity, undiluted by pragmatism, made the Virginia Military Institute cadets dislike him. They called him Square Box, a derisive tribute to his imposing boot size, and at times would sneak into his classroom to draw an immense foot on the chalkboard. Cadets delighted in falling into lockstep behind Jackson as he strode about campus; he never turned his head, so the jape went undetected. Students pulling a practice artillery piece by hand looked for opportunities to whirl it suddenly toward the professor, to make him dodge awkwardly. A cadet writing in 1855 bewailed his lot as a student of physics under “such a hell of a fool , whose name is Jackson,” and launched some doggerel that concluded, “Great Lord Almighty, what a wonder, / Major Jackson, Hell & Thunder .” The disenchanted cadetpoet died fighting under Stonewall seven years later.

Jackson never did unravel the intricacies of effective public discourse, nor did he learn to endear himself to his charges. He weathered a formal investigation of his classroom performance by the Board of Visitors, made at the insistence of the institute’s alumni association. He also survived an attempt on his life by a cadet who had been the undeserving victim of his rigidity; the cadet went on to become a Confederate general, and, after Jackson’s death, commanded his former tormentor’s old brigade.

For his part, Jackson liked much about academic life. He contemplated writing a textbook on optics and collaborated with a brother-in-law on the design of a military school opening in North Carolina. Had he taken to that new opportunity, he probably would have commanded North Carolina troops in 1861—with an impact on his career and on the course of the Civil War that is unknowable but fascinating to contemplate. The famed Stonewall Brigade, five sturdy Virginia regiments, never would have existed, nor could Jackson have become Stonewall at Manassas. Would Thomas Jackson sans nickname have succeeded as dramatically without the magical circumstances that attended his career in Virginia?