Stonewall Jackson’s Deadly Calm

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A mien either graceful or militant, combined with his ordinarily agreeable appearance, might have made Jackson look something like his legend. In fact, though, he was taciturn and marginally disheveled. A Fredericksburg woman who attended church in 1863 with Jackson summarized the contrast: The general was “decidedly interesting if not handsome in his appearance…and very young for his age.…He has an embarrassed, diffident manner. Is a little deaf.” A member of the 4th Alabama wrote that Jackson looked like an “old Virginia farmer.” One of his Louisiana soldiers described him as “very ordinary looking” and reminiscent of a “Jew pedlar.” A staff officer from North Carolina complained in his diary: “What a common, ordinary, looking man he is! There’s nothing at all striking in his appearance.”

Federals captured by the general’s troops eagerly sought a glimpse of their world-famous foe; usually it was a letdown. One injured captive asked to be lifted up so he could see Mighty Stonewall. After a glance at the officer, in a dingy uniform, an old hat pulled low over his eyes, the Northerner sighed: “Oh my god! Lay me down!” Some Northern prisoners taken at Harpers Ferry expressed similar disappointment, but on quick reflection they agreed with a comrade who lamented, “I wish we’d had him.”

A VAST ARRAY OF IMAGES of Jackson provides modern students ample chance to see what he looked like, but none conveys the full dimensions of his contemporary impact. A Virginia colonel who had attended V.M.I, under Jackson wrote in 1867 to an artist at work on a Chancellorsville painting that every photograph, engraving, or painting of Stonewall that he had seen “unmistakably represent[ed] him” yet none really captured “a good likeness.” Even though “every individual feature is good, and one artist has his profile perfect,” no artist “succeeded in catching Jackson’s tout ensemble , none of them have painted his awkwardness .”

Whatever his popular image, his subordinates, almost without exception, did not like him. Senior generals under his command used unrestrained language about their treatment. A. P. Hill called him “that crazy old Presbyterian fool”; Richard S. Ewell referred to him as “that enthusiastic fanatic”; and Charles S. Winder, in diary entries across three days full of maneuver and battle, declared: “Jackson is insane.…growing disgusted with Jackson.…requesting to leave his command.”

Discomfort so pronounced suggests frustrated dealings with a superior either dishonest, lazy, selfishly ambitious, or simply stupid. Jackson was none of those things. What he was, instead, was painfully terse. In his sometimes awkward civilian dealings he once admitted, “I have no genius for seeming .” Officers—some of them major generals famous in their own right—came away from meetings horrified when he abruptly cut off even the most cursory forms of courteous discourse. The deadly determined Stonewall, his diligence reinforced by calm acceptance of the notion that he was doing God’s work under fairly direct guidance, simply did not interact with others as most people do. Partial deafness exacerbated his taciturnity. Those who came to know him well, however, recognized the difference between his brusquely businesslike demeanor and actual rudeness. One of his staff wrote: “He is very reserved, not particularly companionable, but always…affable and polite.”

The unusual personality that offended generals and colonels actually polished the patina of Stonewall’s growing legend. A pre-war civilian observer noted—as did many others—that Thomas Jackson “never smiled and talked only when he had something to say,” and added a remark about seeing “a most peculiar glint in his eye.” Observers of that indefinable something in Jackson’s gaze doubtless interpreted it more eagerly after he had become famous (famous for both his military prowess and his alleged eccentricity). It prompted one witness to suggest “that if [Jackson] were not a very good man he would be a very bad one.” Tales of unconventional habits, such as sucking on lemons or rampant hypochondria, inevitably grew in the telling.

Americans expect at least a discernible tincture of colorful peculiarity in their legends. Muttering about crazy Stonewall turned into gleeful recounting of his valuable eccentricities once the string of gaudy victories had begun. The man of course had changed not one whit in the meanwhile. A Macon, Georgia, newspaper typified the glib switch in a June 1862 column: “Sometime ago, we accused Jackson of being of unsound mind. Since that time he has exhibited not the least symptom of improvement. In fact he gets worse and worse every day. Within the last two weeks he seems to have gone clean daft.…He has been raving, ramping, roaring, rearing, snorting and cavorting up and down the Valley, chawing up Yankees by the thousands.…Crazy or not, we but echo the voice of the whole Confederacy when we say ‘God bless Old Stonewall. ’”

THE MEN WHO GASPED and sweated through his epic marches discovered that a victory lay at the end of each one, usually without excessive cost in blood.

For the men in the ranks who gasped and sweated through the general’s epic marches, his oddities likewise became lovable quirks and his insanity genius. The men discovered that a victory lay at the end of each march, usually without excessive cost in blood. Trading sweat for blood, and exertion for victory, made great good sense to them.