In Memorium: Thomas J. Jackson

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the tragic death of one who can truly be called a “Christian soldier.”

In the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederacy had not only one of its greatest victories but also one of its greatest losses. Although the Southern armies won the battle, they lost one of their greatest generals through the wounding, and ultimately the death, of Thomas J. Jackson.

Many of Jackson’s contemporaries considered him to be a rare bird, an eccentric, a fanatic. Many of them complained about his various personal quirks, but much of their dissatisfaction with him actually lay in their dislike of his strict adherence to his religious convictions. Some of them even blamed some of the South’s military reverses on Jackson’s reluctance to wage war on Sunday, or “the Lord’s Day,” as Jackson called it. At least one of them (Richard Ewell), however, later accepted Jackson’s Christ as his own, and his formerly foul and obscene life immediately changed for the better. (The story of Ewell’s conversion and the influence of Jackson’s life is portrayed in the movie Red Runs the River by Unusual Films.)

Jackson expert James I. Robertson called Jackson “a man of arms surrounded by tenets of faith” (Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, p. ix). It was the courage that Jackson’s faith produced on the battlefield at Manassas (Bull Run) that produced his nickname “Stonewall.” Jackson said that he felt as safe on the battlefield as at home in his bed because he trusted in God to protect him until his time came.

But Jackson’s faith was not something that appeared just on the battlefield or on the Lord’s Day; it was part of his everyday life. As a young instructor at Virginia Military Institute, Jackson confided to his sister, “I have so fixed the habit [of prayer] in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without a moment’s asking of God’s blessing. I never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal. I never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward. I never change my classes . . . without a minute’s petition on the cadets who go out and those who come in.”

Jackson became a Christian in 1849 when he was a major in the U.S. Army. And from the very beginning, he took his religion seriously, and he grew in his faith. Whenever he discovered something in his life that Scripture condemned, he sought to rid himself of it. Whenever he saw something that Scripture required but that was lacking in his life, he strove to add it. Shortly after Jackson’s conversion, the pastor of the Presbyterian church he joined in Lexington, Virginia, called upon him to lead in public prayer. Shy and ill at ease when speaking in public, Jackson stammered and stumbled through his impromptu prayer. After the service, he apologized to the pastor but said that if public prayer was his duty as a believer, he would work to improve his praying. “Call on me whenever you think proper,” he said. “My personal comfort is not to be consulted in the matter.”

That attitude of doing one’s duty regardless of personal cost was a trait that Jackson exhibited in not only public worship but also combat. “Duty is ours; consequences are God’s,” he declared. This was just one of many maxims that Jackson collected and sought to apply to his own life. Here are a few other examples of his maxims:

  • “Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company.”
  • “Endeavor to do well everything which you undertake.”
  • “Sacrifice your life rather than your word.”
  • “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  • “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful.”

Jackson was a stern disciplinarian. He did his duty, and he expected his men to do theirs. And they responded with alacrity to his demands upon them. He was a master of surprise and envelopment, and his First Brigade became known as his “foot cavalry” because they made so many rapid, forced marches, catching the enemy by surprise and often producing resounding victories for the Southerners. And his men loved him as troops did no other general other than Lee.

But Jackson was concerned with more than military victory. He was concerned about the spiritual condition of people, including both blacks and the men under his command. Even before the war, he sought the spiritual welfare of slaves as he taught the Bible to them in a Sunday school class for them that he started in his church. Some people laughed at him; others opposed him. Jackson was actually “on the perimeter of the law” of the times, which prohibited teaching of blacks. But he knew their spiritual need, and he taught them the Bible anyway.

During the war, Jackson encouraged his soldiers to attend worship services conducted by chaplains of various denominations. He continually sought more chaplains and did everything he could to support their ministrations among his men. He encouraged attendance at revival meetings. Yet, he forced nothing religious on them. His most severe requirements of religious conviction were those he placed on and expected of himself. He led in religion by example, and many an officer entered Jackson’s tent to find their general on his knees in prayer.

Yes, all that Jackson was seemed fanatical and extreme to his contemporaries, just as it does to his critics today. But his life holds forth important lessons for us.

Jackson was accidentally shot in the darkness by his own men in the waning minutes of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. When Lee learned of Jackson’s being wounded, he exclaimed, “He has lost his left arm but I my right arm.” Jackson’s wounds did not kill him; the pneumonia that set in did. His last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Jackson crossed over his final river at 3:15 p.m., Sunday, May 10, 1863, and rested in the arms of Jesus Christ. But he left a legacy and many life lessons for those who are wise enough to learn them.

[For more information on Jackson’s religious views and practices, see David T. Myers, Stonewall Jackson: The Spiritual Side, Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 2003.]

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2 thoughts on “In Memorium: Thomas J. Jackson

  1. While I have no doubt of Jackson faith or even of his many talents, I cannot help but wonder how and why he and so many others could align themselves with the splitting of the union or supporting such a great evil as slavery. Please understand I have read much on the Civil War and have tried to understand the mind set of both sides. Understanding escapes me and seems to be completely out of my reach. Perhaps that is due in part to my own family history. I had no less than a dozen great uncles who fought (Union) in the war. Two were in the 20th Maine. Another who was in a regiment from Ohio died at Gettysburg. I had one great grandfather from Maine who volunteered at age 40 leaving farm and pregnant wife behind to fight in the infantry. My great grandfather from Vermont was disabled for the rest of his life due to wounds received in battle. When we speak of “honor” the state where Southern leaders were born was an accident, but the oath they gave to the U.S. was not and it was given freely. Well as they say the best steel must go through the fire. Perhaps this awful war was the fire that bound us and made all of us stronger.

    I almost deleted this comment as I went far off the subject. But I think you will understand my thoughts and questions, so I will let it stand.

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    1. I’m glad you didn’t delete your comment; your struggle to understand the causes and motivations of the war is not uncommon at all–for people on both sides. I often struggle over it myself. I think the key, underlying fact is that we today think of the United States with an emphasis on the unity whereas back in the early national-to-antebellum period people generally thought in terms of individual states. Many West Pointers (e.g., Lee and Jackson) believed that their primary allegiance was to their state, not to the nation, and when the two came into conflict, the latter superseded the former. This understanding was quite common, not at all unusual for the time, and is reflected in the fact that before the war (“the late unpleasantness”) the literature and common usage referred to “the united States are” (lower-case U and plural states) whereas after the war it referred to “the United States is” (upper-case U and singular States). As for the issue of slavery, considering that most of those who actually fought for the Southern side, including many of the generals (e.g., Jackson), did not even own slaves, so there had to be something else that motivated them, and often it was allegiance to their individual states. For many others, however, they either were defending slavery or sympathized with slavery as an institution because of racial opinions. Many others who would have preferred not to fight were forced to do so by conscription (by both sides). In my native area of East Tennessee–which, by the way, was heavily pro-Union and voted overwhelming against secession–both North and South sent troops out to enforce their respective conscription laws. A lot of otherwise law-abiding people became law-breakers, draft dodgers, hiding deep in the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina and fought parties of both sides when they came to capture them. And then there were a plethora of economic issues that had nothing to do with slavery (e.g., tariff and internal improvements). And then to make things even more confusing, among those who opposed slavery were some who wanted immediate emancipation and some who wanted gradual emancipation and still others who wanted to ship all the slaves back to Africa (Liberia). The whole slavery issue was a messy blot on American history, not just during the war and not just in the South. Northern ship owners facilitated the trade and sought to perpetuate the traffic, and Northern textile manufacturers wanted the South to grow more cotton to feed their industry, thereby encouraging the continuation of the institution. The Founding Fathers “kicked the can down the road” rather than dealing with it early on, and subsequent generations had to suffer as a result. My post about Jackson was intended to focus on his religious convictions, not on the slavery issue. Thanks for sharing your views. They are not at all uncommon–and not taken with any ill feelings on my part. đŸ™‚

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