150 years ago today, on May 10, 1863, the South lost 39-year-old Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, one of its most colorful generals. He died of pneumonia one week after his own troops fired on him by accident during the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. Jackson had terrorized Union commanders and led his army corps on bold and daring marches, during the early years of the war. He complemented Robert E. Lee to perfection.
Jackson was native to Virginia, growing up in Clarksburg. His family lived in poverty in the mountains of what is now West Virginia. Jackson was orphaned at an early age and raised by relatives. He was shy and lonely as a young man. Having only a rudimentary education, he was secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, because a young man from the same congressional district turned down his appointment. Despite his poor upbringing, Jackson proved to be a hard worker. He graduated 17th in a class of 59 cadets.
Jackson served as an artillery officer during the Mexican War (1846-48), where he saw action at Vera Cruz and Chapultepec. He earned three brevets for bravery in a period of six months, leaving the service in 1850 to teach at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He was a difficult and eccentric classroom instructor, according to his students and was prone to strange and impromptu gestures during class. A devout Presbyterian, he refused to discuss secular matters on the Sabbath. In 1859, he led a group of VMI cadets to serve as gallows guards during the hanging of abolitionist John Brown.
Jackson was promoted to brigadier general in 1861 at the start of the Civil War . He led five regiments from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. During the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, he led the attack that secured an advantage for the Confederates. In an effort to inspire his troops, Confederate General Barnard Bee exclaimed “there stands Jackson like a stone wall.” The nickname for Jackson endured.
Jackson drew recognition as one of the most effective commanders in the Confederate army. During the summer of 1862, Jackson marched around the Shenandoah Valley, holding off three Union armies. This maneuver provided relief for Rebel troops who were pinned down on the James Peninsula by George McClellan’s army. He rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia for the Seven Days battles, and his leadership at Second Bull Run in August 1862, earned him a place of trust as a corp commander in Lee’s army.
At the Battle of Chancellorsville, despite the fact that the army they faced was twice the size of theirs, proved to be a victory for Lee and Jackson. General Lee split his force, sending Jackson to the Union flank. This move resulted in the Army of the Potomac’s most stunning defeat of the war. Nightfall halted the attack and Jackson rode forward to prepare for another assault. Unfortunately for both Jackson and his army, a group of Rebels mistook him and his aides as the enemy and opened fire. Hit three times, Jackson’s left arm was shattered. This led to an amputation the following day. Shortly afterward, Jackson developed pneumonia and died. On the Sabbath, May 10, 1863, he uttered his last words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
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