After Lee the most mythologized Confederate general of the Civil War, Jackson died shortly after leading one of his trademark idiosyncratic flanking attacks at Chancellorsville. Not yet 40 and at the pinnacle of his fame—and with the Army of Northern Virginia's reputation for invincibility intact—Jackson's death won him a lasting, if not wholly deserved, reputation as master of mobile offensive operations.
What passed for eccentricity in the nineteenth century might be ascribed a less benign categorization today. Jackson—in common with Grant, Sherman, and any number of other Civil War luminaries—would have led an anonymous life, known only within his own small sphere and then mostly for personal failures, if not for the war. When Virginia seceded from the Union, Jackson, who graduated from West Point in 1846, fought with distinction in Mexico, and resigned in 1851, teaching physics—and by all accounts very poorly—at the Virginia Military Institute. “Old Tom Fool” to his students, Jackson's bizarre persona—halting speech, mood swings, hypochondria, paranoia, and religious fanaticism—engendered only bemusement. But in warfare—given the right circumstances—even warped personalities can yield astounding results.
At Bull Run his brigade stemmed the Union tide, earning Jackson his famous sobriquet and renown throughout the South. As often the case, Jackson's first foray in command ended poorly; an ill-advised winter campaign failed and produced only bitter enmity among his subordinates. Talked out of resigning, Jackson retained command in the Shenandoah Valley, where his obsession with driving “these people” from the sacred soil of Virginia led him into a premature attack at Kernstown and tactical defeat. Again, he blamed others for his own mistakes. Nonetheless, audacity in defeat sometimes pays dividends; and in this case, strategic rewards far beyond the limited forces involved. Preoccupied with the safety of Washington, Lincoln reinforced the Valley and, more vital, withheld forces earmarked for the movement on Richmond.
After Kernstown, Jackson retreated up the Valley, and reinforced, on May 8 struck a Union force at McDowell beyond the east ridge of the Alleghany mountains. His rear secure and brilliantly exploiting geography to mask his movements, Jackson relentlessly pushed his forces down the Valley, defeated in turn exposed Union forces at Front Royal on May 23 and Winchester two days later, then pursued them to the Potomac River. News of Jackson's victories obliged Washington into making two responses: dispatch forces to the west to defeat Jackson and withhold others defending the capital. McClellan, who suffered a chronic case of the “slows” and now deprived of promised reinforcements, dismissed any attempts at taking Richmond by storm.
Jackson's “foot cavalry” barely avoided converging movements by two Union corps seeking to block his flight up the Valley. Retreating to the end of the Massanutten mountains—which separated the two pursuing Union forces—Jackson blunted one at Cross Keys on June 8, then in a classic battle of the central position turned and defeated the other the next day at Port Republic. With seventeen thousand troops, Jackson thwarted three Union corps; three corps, if available, that might well have induced McClellan into action before Richmond. Mounting railcars, Jackson's little army then moved to Richmond. Throughout the Valley Campaign, Jackson drove himself and his troops with maniacal fury—court-martialing and cashiering officers and shooting ill-disciplined soldiers or Anabaptist civilians for refusing arms. Pushing himself without respite, he assumed the mien of Old Testament warrior. In battle, observers talked of his “Blue Light,” his eyes possessing an otherworldly glow.
The Blue Light mysteriously went out during the Seven Days fighting. Assigned the key role in rolling up the Union right at Mechanicsville, Jackson arrived late and although facing an exposed enemy flank and within earshot of a raging battle he ordered his troops into early bivouac. Disoriented and lethargic, Jackson repeated this performance at Gaines Mill and Savage Station. In between, at White Oak Swamp, he spent the entire day rebuilding a bridge, even with adjacent fords available, and engaging in dilatory exchanges of artillery fire. Lee's constant attacking saved Richmond, but glittering opportunities for crippling if not destroying McClellan's army went unredeemed; overly complex plans and abysmal staff work contributed, but so too did Jackson's strange stupor. Whether prompted by a combination of physical exhaustion, unfamiliarity with the ground, and pique at losing his autonomy, or the result of a deep psychological trough after his hypomanic high during the Valley Campaign, Jackson's abrupt absence in all but body presents an enduring enigma.
Lee retained faith in Jackson, making him one of two corps commanders in his reorganized army. Mysteriously, Jackson regained his bold initiative in the ensuing Second Bull Run campaign. Again in what amounted to an independent command, Jackson defeated Pope's advance guard at Cedar Mountain, struck the Army of Virginia's rear and captured its base at Manassas, and pulled another Stonewall defensive action allowing Lee's other corps to nearly complete the envelopment of the Union army. In Lee's raid of Maryland, Jackson took Harper's Ferry and rushed to help Lee stave off disaster at Antietam. At Fredericksburg in December, Jackson's corps fended off Federal attacks against the Confederate right.
A new Union commander renewed the march on Richmond. Feigning renewed attacks at Fredericksburg, “Fighting Joe” Hooker completed a masterful flanking movement, crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers and advancing into Lee's rear at Chancellorsville with a force of 73,000 troops. Casting the book aside, Lee divided his forces not once but twice in the face of vastly superior forces. Leaving only ten thousand troops in Fredericksburg, Lee assailed Hooker before he emerged from the tangled undergrowth known as the Wilderness. The next day, May 2, Lee attacked with only thirteen thousand troops while dispatching Jackson, with twice that number, on a bid to find Hooker's flank. In the meantime, Hooker succumbed to his own brand of paralysis. After a ten-hour march, Jackson completed his movement and attacked and routed a Union corps. In the gathering darkness, Jackson went forward, performing his own reconnaissance; returning to his lines, friendly troops fired and mortally wounded him.
Intellectually and temperamentally illsuited to occupying any role other than the one he played, Jackson—utterly incapable of formal planning, working with politicians, headquarters staffs, and headstrong subordinates, and entirely ignorant of logistics—would have proved a disaster in higher command. “I shall always be sorry,” said Grant, “that Stonewall Jackson never fought Sheridan. The result of that battle would have given him the place in history which he died without attaining.”
SEE ALSO: Lee, General Robert E. (1807–1870); US Civil War (1861–1865).
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