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Stonewall Jackson’s Deadly Calm
COMING TO TERMS WITH THE MOST COMPELLING AND MYSTERIOUS OF CIVIL WAR HEROES
December 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 8
For the next six weeks Jackson either retreated or lurked in the arms of the mountains, patiently pulling Federals southward and isolating them from other duty. At the end of April the Confederates dashed east out of the Valley, only to return at once by train and then march rapidly west to win a victory in the Alleghenies at McDowell on May 8. Reinforcements available to Jackson because of that victory, and others he managed to wangle from east of the Valley, gave him the wherewithal to take the offensive for the first time. In a series of long, rapid marches and daring thrusts, he won battles at Front Royal and Winchester on May 23 and 25.
To magnify his successes, he boldly lunged all the way to the Potomac, with deadly effect on the thinking of Federals in Washington. At the last possible moment he scurried back through a bottleneck between two Federal columns closing in on his line of retreat and marched south through torrential rains. The climax of the campaign came on June 8 and 9, with two incredible victories in succession, at Cross Keys and Port Republic. Jackson’s carefully calculated daring had won its way past razor-thin enemy troops yet again.
With the Valley won, Jackson pushed east toward Richmond to help Robert E. Lee, newly in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, lift the encirclement of the capital city. During the Seven Days’ Battles the siege was ended, but more despite Stonewall’s participation than because of it. For the only time during the war, Jackson failed, totally and unequivocally. The failure clearly originated in a collapse of his faculties because of what today would be recognized as stress fatigue. In 1862 observers wondered whether the general was selfish and could not cooperate. Had his meteoric performance in the Valley been a fluke? Some even thought that his failure one day before Richmond happened because his well-known religious zeal forbade Sunday marching and fighting.
But no one had any occasion to wonder about Jackson over the next ten months; he and Lee cemented a skilled collaboration (“I would follow him blindfolded,” Jackson said) that discomfited the Federals at every turn. After he had won the Battle of Cedar Mountain as an independent commander on August 9, 1862, Stonewall joined Lee in a daring initiative that outmaneuvered the Unionists at Second Manassas. That victory opened the way for a raid across the Potomac during which Jackson captured thirteen thousand enemy troops at Harpers Ferry, then commanded half of Lee’s line above Antietam Creek during the Battle of Antietam. In December Jackson’s corps took part in the easy, bloody repulse of an immense Federal army at Fredericksburg.
The deft complementary relationship between Lee and Jackson reached its pinnacle at Chancellorsville in May 1863. Although outnumbered by more than two to one (about 130,000 to 60,000), the two Virginians contrived to befuddle Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the opposing Army of the Potomac. In a maneuver that, typically, Lee proposed and Jackson executed flawlessly, the Confederates marched thirty thousand men around their enemy’s flank. When Jackson’s legions came screaming out of the woods behind Hooker’s line, they routed onethird of the Federal army. They also marked at that moment the apogee of the Confederate nation’s fortunes.
A few hours later Jackson fell mortally wounded, the victim of a mistaken volley of smoothbore musketry by some confused North Carolinians. Eight days later, Sunday, May 10, 1863, the stricken general declared piously that he had always hoped to die on the Sabbath. “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” he said; then, as on so many marches and battlefields, he led the way. The war in Virginia—in fact the entire course of American history—veered onto an altered course.
The Confederacy could not survive the disaster; had there been any chance of independence, the loss of Lee’s “right arm” sealed the verdict. An Alabamian wrote prophetically of what many of his comrades were thinking: “This will have a gradeal to due with this war. I think the north will whip us soon.”
What combination of characteristics had enabled the sometime artillery major and academic mediocrity to carve so glittering a swath as a Confederate leader? There certainly was little in his appearance to contribute to the mystique. Storied military men, including Lee, for instance, often looked like powerful figures; Thomas Jackson was modestly handsome, a fraction under six feet tall, with “light bluish gray eyes” that often occasioned comment (”as brilliant as a diamond,” wrote one who knew him). The eyes burned in battle with a radiance that prompted the soldiers to call their general Old Blue Light or the Blue-Light Elder.