Stonewall Jackson’s Deadly Calm

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HIS PROFESSIONAL experiences during the decade in Lexington did much to mold him, but his domestic life probably made an even deeper impression. Jackson’s relationships with three women during the 1850s—two wives and a sister-in-law—reveal aspects of the man that do not fit the randomly constructed legend that obscures him. In the summer of 1853 Jackson married Elinor Junkin, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who was president of Washington College. The major’s tender, loving attentions to Ellie would have astonished those who saw only his public austerity. Fourteen months after their marriage Ellie Jackson died in childbirth (the baby, a boy, died too). Thomas held Ellie’s hand as it turned cold. He was never quite the same thereafter. A few hours later, he wrote to a West Point mate, “I desire no more days on the Earth.”

Ellie Jackson’s sister, Margaret Junkin (later M. J. Preston, and known as Maggie), was one of the brightest, most literate women in the South. Her poetry and prose received wide publication in an era when female writers were supposed to aspire to private circulation only. An 1857 autobiographical novel by Junkin limns Ellie and Maggie, with a thinly disguised Jackson in the background. This woman of erudite, inquisitive, creative mind became T. J. Jackson’s best friend as both of them recovered from Ellie’s loss. They likely were romantically attracted as well, but Presbyterian canon—an unimpeachable guide for the bereaved major—forbade the marriage of widowed in-laws. Jackson’s status as best friend and confidant of the brilliant author makes incredible the simplistic notion that he was nothing more than a determined dullard.

In 1857 he was married again, to Mary Anna Morrison, the sweet-tempered daughter of another college president and Presbyterian preacher. Love letters, many of which survive, show that again Jackson’s marriage was marked by a tenderness at odds with his public image. In November 1862 Anna bore his only surviving child. Stern notions of duty kept the proud father, by then a world-renowned lieutenant general, from going to see the baby—or even allowing his family to visit him—until late the next April. By then Jackson had only a few days to live. He had meanwhile assuaged his yearning for children by cultivating the enchanting five-year-old daughter of his hosts during the winter of 1862–63. Almost as though cursed with her admirer’s bad domestic luck, little Jane Wellford Corbin died of a sudden, violent childhood disease a few hours after General Jackson moved his headquarters away from her home.

By 1861 Major Jackson had become a familiar figure to a few hundred residents of Lexington and its environs and a few hundred more Virginia Military Institute men. Had the Civil War not offered him a stringent new environment in which his remarkable abilities would be revealed, he would have remained all but unknown. It is hard to imagine that the histories of his city and county, or even of the institute where he taught, would have mentioned him in more than a footnote next to other names now long forgotten. The war supplied a dramatically different stage upon which to strut, one for which he was uniquely suited.

One moment crucial to his career, and even more essential to the legend, came at the crisis of the Battle of First Manassas (or the First Battle of Bull Run, as Yankees called it) on July 21, 1861. While the Confederate tactical situation deteriorated all around him, Jackson held his brigade of five Virginia regiments to their duty with characteristic resolution. A South Carolinian hoping to inspire his own troops pointed out Jackson standing “like a stone wall.”

THE DEFT complementary relationship between Lee and Jackson reached its pinnacle at Chancellorsville—the apogee of the Confederate nation’s fortunes.

The general deserved every bit of the credit bestowed upon him for the stand at Manassas, but the nickname was of course purely happenstance. What he soon achieved at the head of his troops in Virginia catapulted him to worldwide renown. Had he accomplished precisely what he did, however, under a less riveting label than “Stonewall,” the Jackson legend might not have maintained quite the grip it has on the popular imagination. Consider by contrast the names of the Confederate generals Nathan G. (“Shanks”) Evans, Sterling (“Old Pap”) Price, Jerome B. (“Polly”) Robertson, and H. H. (“Mud”) Walker.

Jackson spent the twenty-two months of life left to him after First Manassas validating his nom de guerre . After a months-long sitzkrieg in Virginia and the collapse of Southern frontiers in the Western theater, he electrified the Confederacy with his dazzling Shenandoah Valley campaign during the spring of 1862. Southerners used to bad news idolized the only one of their leaders demonstrating aggressive instincts and delivering good news. The fabulous Valley campaign demonstrates what made Jackson great. He began it with a mere thirty-five hundred troops. In addition to being overwhelmingly outnumbered, he faced a strategic imperative that limited his options: His paramount obligation was to keep as many Federals as possible anchored in the Valley and thus out of the force building against Richmond. To achieve that end, Jackson struck with characteristic boldness and energy at the Battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862. He lost the tactical honors but forced his enemies to remain in the Valley when they had started to leave.