Stonewall Jackson’s Deadly Calm

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BY THE TIME DEATH PUT AN END TO Jackson’s fabulous career, the earnest, plain Virginian had become the most famous man in the Western Hemisphere. The terror—mixed with grudging admiration—that his name spread in the North was worth more than massive infusions of soldiers or munitions. Confederates caught a captured Northern sergeant yanking hairs out of the tail of Jackson’s famous mount, Little Sorrel. The fellow pointed out that once he was freed, he would get at least a dollar per hair on the streets of New York for a relic associated with the famous Stonewall. During the Maryland campaign, an otherwise dignified and reasonable Union surgeon claimed that he had figured out, too late to stop him, that a stranger who visited his hospital far behind Federal lines had been Stonewall Jackson spying in disguise! Like a spectral ogre, Mighty Stonewall was everywhere. In October 1862 Unionist firebrands brought to trial a quartermaster named Simms on charges of treason: He had observed aloud that “Stonewall Jackson had whipped the U.S. in every battle.”

The Georgia soldier who wrote that “his presence was sufficient to strike terror to the heart of the enemy” captured the essence of the general’s image in the North. Jackson had become “the great dread of the Yankees,” in the delighted phrase of one of his men. A Virginia private, hoping that the Confederacy would find an equally capable hero after Jackson’s death, acknowledged sagely that even if it did, it would still take time for the Yankees “to learn to fear him” as they had the legendary Stonewall.

A century and a third after the death of Thomas J. Jackson he remains an ogre only to tendentiously anti-Southern polemicists. The spectral aspect of his image continues to bemuse us, however, as we wonder at his unusual characteristics and his spectacular feats. This most compelling of 1860s warriors remains, in the memorable phrase of Stephen Vincent Benét, “Stonewall Jackson, wrapped in his beard and his silence.”