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.]