Stonewall Jackson’s Deadly Calm

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One aspect of Jackson’s businesslike style was his meticulousness. An intimate of the general at West Point (later a Confederate general himself) said aptly, “Jackson’s mind seemed to do its work rather by perseverance than quick penetration.” Stonewall had little of the acute intuition popularly presumed to be essential to great generalship—an attribute much mooted in nineteenth-century military texts as the French coup d’oeil or the German Fingerspitzengefuhl . Lacking the ability to master terrain at a glance, he employed several able topographic engineers to prepare sketches and maps that included distance charts and other reminders.

Another manifestation of his meticulousness was his rigorous insistence on gathering enemy property of all kinds, cataloguing it in full detail, and defending it at all costs. The official list of captured goods from the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign enumerates saddles and shoes and blankets—and six handkerchiefs, two and three-quarter dozen neckties, and one bottle of red ink.

ANYONE HOPING TO know Stonewall Jackson must come to terms with the depth and fervor of his religious experience. One Sunday morning a South Carolina officer received a telegram announcing that his wife was desperately ill. The worried husband’s brigade and division commanders promptly granted the distraught man a compassionate leave. When the Carolinian sought final clearance from his corps commander, Jackson somewhat atypically granted it—but only after lecturing the man on the impropriety of conducting private business on the Sabbath.

Wearing his new battle name of Stonewall, the general wrote soon after Manassas to his pastor in Lexington. Townspeople awaiting the mail eagerly sought to learn the contents of the envelope from their newly famous neighbor, but he mentioned the battle not at all. Instead he sent a check for the support of the Sunday school he had started (in contravention of law and social standard) for black youngsters. A few weeks later Jackson played host to a visiting minister from Lexington by putting the man of God up on his own cot; the general slept on the floor of the tent, “without bed or matrass,” the amazed visitor wrote.

Jackson’s letters to a confidant in the Confederate Congress included much about military affairs—requests for help with armaments and recruiting, suggestions for actions affecting the armies—but they also featured a steady flow of religious promptings. Should not the Congress forbid carrying the mail, to say nothing of actually delivering it, on the Sabbath? Why not ban distilleries, turning their copper tubing into cannon? (Jackson eschewed strong drink because, he said irrefragably, he liked the way it tasted.)

Deacon Jackson’s unflinching piety sometimes led him astray in military matters, as when he chose as his chief of staff a favorite Presbyterian cleric with precisely nothing to commend him for a staff role. In most instances, however, the divine guidance that Jackson perceived worked in his favor. In battle it became a Cromwellian religious fervor. (Comparing Jackson to the leader of the Roundheads was and remains a popular device.) Stonewall’s salient characteristics, both personal and military, profited from a calm certainty that he was doing God’s will: Flourish the sword of the Lord and of Gideon, and let the Philistines beware!

More than any other quality, Thomas Jackson displayed determination. That defining characteristic dominated his performance. On many a battlefield the unswerving resolve of one man had more effect than dozens of cannon or thousands of muskets. Earnest devotion to a single goal, no matter what the obstacles, made Jackson “the most one-idead man I ever saw,” according to an observer. A member of the general’s staff, in a manuscript note scribbled during the war, declared: “His will unsurpassed—fearless, unwearied, unchanging, persistent & it worked marvelously.” That most basic essence of Stonewall Jackson conveyed itself also to a South Carolinian who visited headquarters. Jackson’s face, he wrote, reflected “self-command, perseverance, indomitable will.”

Examination of his storied campaigns reveals that Jackson’s military abilities at a tactical level, especially early in the war, were no more than ordinary. On the intermediate military plane that is called “operational,” midway between tactics and strategy, Jackson sometimes displayed marked skill. Strategically he excelled, Grafting campaigns still studied as classics by military training programs. Even so, it is impossible to see in him the essential genius of a Frederick the Great or a Napoleon. What made him awesome in war was the clenchedjaw will that guided every decision at every level.