West Virginia’s most famous soldier never quite overcame the lonely childhood of an orphan. Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born near midnight on January 20–21, 1824, in Clarksburg. The death of his father and the destitution of his mother led to the boy being raised by a bullish uncle on the ancestral Jackson estate near the village of Weston. A lack of familial love molded Jackson into a shy, reticent, independent, and determined adult.
In 1842, the poorly prepared, rough hewn teenager entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He firmly believed that ‘‘you may be whatever you will resolve to be.’’ Such resolution enabled him to graduate a surprising 17th in a class of 59 cadets. Jackson was assigned to the artillery, which was always his favorite branch of service.
Three promotions for gallantry came in the Mexican War. Jackson took part in the Siege of Veracruz and the battles of Contreras, Chapultepec, and Mexico City. He earned two brevet promotions in Mexico and first met Robert E. Lee, under whom he would later serve in the Confederate Army. In 1851, Jackson left the army and spent the next ten years at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington as a professor of natural and experimental philosophy and instructor in artillery. He was not a stimulating teacher. That, combined with a number of odd mannerisms, made him the campus character. Yet during those years Jackson allied himself with the Presbyterian faith, dedicated his whole life to God, and became one of the most actively pious men of his day.
When Virginia left the Union in 1861, Jackson dutifully went with his native state. He commanded the strategically important post at Harpers Ferry until being appointed a brigadier general of infantry. In the opening battle at Manassas on July 21, 1861, he and his brigade won the name ‘‘Stonewall’’ for steadfastness at the critical point in the engagement.
Unusually tall (six feet) and heavy-set (175 pounds), Jackson had brown hair, huge hands and feet, plus pale blue eyes that seemed to penetrate whoever faced him. He was so unpretentious that for the first year of the Civil War, Jackson wore the blue uniform of a VMI faculty member. His favorite mount was a small, unimpressive-looking horse affectionately called Little Sorrel.
Jackson repeatedly sought permission to lead a force into northwest Virginia to save his home area from being kept in the Union by federal invaders. Meanwhile, his successful 1862 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley electrified North as well as South. For 11 months thereafter, in a near-model partnership with Gen. Robert E. Lee, Jackson was instrumental in victories at Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, and Fredericksburg. By the end of 1862, the lonely orphan from the mountains was regarded by many as the most accomplished soldier in the world.
The brilliant career ended in May 1863, at Chancellorsville. Having used his favorite tools—secrecy, swift marching, a sudden and heavy attack where least expected—Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops in the chaos of battle. The amputation of his left arm led to pneumonia. On May 10, 1863, Stonewall Jackson died after uttering the words: ‘‘Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.’’
He is buried in the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Lexington, Virginia.
Written by James I. Robertson Jr.
Robertson, James I. Jr. Stonewall Jackson. New York: MacMillan Library Reference, USA, 1997.