A personal glimpse of Stonewall Jackson

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The following article was published in Feb. 1894 in The Century Magazine.

The author of this paper, the late General Daniel H. Hill, C.S.A., was brother-in-law to General Thomas J. Jackson, and commanded a division in Jackson's corps during the Seven Days' fighting, and in the Antietam and Fredericksburg campaigns.

So much has been said and written about the military career of Stonewall Jackson that I design to confine myself mainly to personal recollections of him, and to the relation of incidents and anecdotes which I know of my own knowledge to be true. By the way, I have never heard or seen an anecdote of him which had any marks of authenticity about it. A letter-writer from the Rio Grande said of General Taylor, after the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca, "We call him old Rough-and Ready." No one in the army had ever heard it before; but it struck the popular fancy, it won him tens of thousands of votes for the Presidency, and it has gone down to history.

In like manner a letter-writer from the field of the first Manassas gave Jackson the cognomen of Stonewall, and told a very pretty story about General Bee pointing to him, and saying, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall." Not only was the tale a sheer fabrication, but the name was the least suited to Jackson, who was ever in motion, swooping like an eagle on his prey. But the name spread like wild-fire, and has reached the uttermost limits of the globe. The story of how Jackson told the Yankee gunner at Port Republic to point the other way is very romantic, but is also false. So the pretty incident of his standing sentinel for his weary brigade is touching, but is monstrously absurd, and reflects but little credit on Jackson as a soldier. The efficient guarding of a whole brigade in the presence of an enemy requires more than the vigilance of one man, even though that man were Jackson himself; yet the grotesque story has been often repeated by press and pulpit.

There was a nuisance in the service known as the army correspondent. He was generally the hanger-on of some officer's headquarters, and managed to escape conscription by vigorous and unremitting puffing of his chief. As the knight of the quill never ventured into the fight, and only snuffed the battle afar, he knew nothing accurately of battles, but managed to pick up a few real or supposed incidents from the wounded and from stragglers. These, enlarged, beautified, and embellished, constituted the sensational letters from the front. He often, however, managed adroitly to give a sly laudation of himself by telling about what he heard Lee say, or what he saw Jackson and Longstreet do. Of course the letter-writer must have been under fire if with these generals. Many of the sensational anecdotes had their origin in this species of self-exaltation; but most of them were made out of whole cloth, to give spice and piquancy to army correspondence.

I knew Stonewall Jackson from 1846 till 1863, was often thrown into intimate relations with him, had many hundreds of conversations with him, heard his opinions upon a vast variety of subjects, saw him in many different positions, -- a lieutenant of artillery, a lieutenant general, a college professor, a church deacon, a Sabbath-school teacher, etc., -- and the estimate I formed of him in these different walks of life and phases of character was in many respects different from that usually accepted.

In the winter of 1846-47 the greater part of the regular troops of the United States army were taken from General Taylor, marched to the mouth of the Rio Grande, and shipped to Vera Cruz, the new base of operations selected by General Scott. While waiting there for shipping, I strolled over to the tent of Captain George Taylor of the artillery, and as we were conversing, a young officer was seen approaching. "Do you know Lieutenant Jackson?" asked Captain Taylor. "He will make his mark in this war. I taught him at West Point; he came there badly prepared, but was rising all the time, and if the course had been four years longer, he would have been graduated at the head of his class. He never gave up anything, and never passed over anything without understanding it." Lieutenant Jackson was rather reserved and reticent for a time, but soon proposed a walk on the beach, during which he became more sociable. One remark he made is still most distinctly remembered. "I really envy you men who have been in action; we who have just arrived look upon you as veterans. I should like to be in one battle ." His face lighted up, and his eyes sparkled as he spoke, and the shy, hesitating manner gave way to the frank enthusiasm of the soldier.

Some years after the Mexican war, a vacancy occurred in the chair of Natural and Experimental Philosophy in the Virginia Military Institute. It was offered to Professor (afterward Lieutenant-General) A.P. Stewart, who declined. Colonel F.H. Smith, the superintendent, applied to me for the name of a suitable army officer to fill the chair. Captain Taylor's eulogy upon Lieutenant Jackson at once recurred to my mind, and he was recommended. There was a meeting of the board of visitors held in Richmond, and Mr. Carlisle of West Virginia, a relative of Lieutenant Jackson, was present, and cordially indorsed the recommendation given him. He was elected without any other testimonial than that given on the banks of the Rio Grande. Lieutenant Jackson resigned from the army, and accepted the position tendered him. Thus a chance conversation on the utmost verge of Texas was the means of transferring him to the valley of Virginia, and of identifying him with those stubborn fighters of Scotch-Irish descent who first gave him reputation at Bull Run, and who will be known in history as the heroes of the Stonewall Brigade.

Jackson was not a religious man when he came to Lexington. His uncle, Mr. Alfred Neal of Parkersburg, West Virginia, told me that Jackson had never been under serious impressions as boy or youth, but had always been distinguished for great tenderness of conscience, and for a scrupulous discharge of what he believed to be duty. In Mexico he was noted for his faithfulness as a company officer, his strict compliance with orders in his own person, and his rigid notions of discipline. But he had no particular regard for religion, and was even the bearer of a challenge from Captain Magruder to General Pierce. Soon after the Mexican war, he brought charges of an immoral act against his commanding officer. The wife of this officer was a most charming lady, and a great favorite throughout the army. If the crime charged against her husband were proved, her peace of mind would be gone forever. An officer, who afterward became chief of staff to General Bragg, went to Jackson to get him to withdraw the charges, lest the wife should learn of her husband's unfaithfulness. Jackson shed tears, and said that the thought of inflicting pain upon her was agony to him, but his conscience compelled him to prosecute the case. This tenderness of conscience was the only religious element in him, so far as I could judge, when he entered upon his duties as a professor in the Virginia Military Institute.

Jackson had been baptized in the Episcopal Church, but not confirmed. His leanings, however, were toward that church. One day I read him the definition of sin given in the Assembly's "Shorter Catechism." Its brevity and comprehensiveness impressed him very much. Knowing his great admiration for sententiousness, I read him the answers to several other questions. He became so much interested that he borrowed the little book, which he said he had never seen nor heard of before. He kept it a week or more, and on returning it said that he had read it very carefully, that it was a wonderful production, a model of fine English, as well as of sound theology. I then gave him the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church. This, too, he had never seen. He kept it a much longer time than the catechism, and compared the foot-notes with his Bible. He professed himself pleased with everything except predestination and infant baptism. His scruples about the latter did not last very long. In the last years of his life he was regarded as a fatalist; but his repugnance to predestination was long and determined.

John B. Lyle of Lexington, one of the holiest of men, was instrumental in first arousing a religious interest in Jackson's mind. But even after he had become an earnest Christian, and wished to connect himself with the church, he had no special predilection for Presbyterianism. This was determined by a potent influence, unconscious, I doubt not, to himself. He fell in love with the daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman. Had he known it he would have resisted a bias in his denominational connection from such a cause. But I have always believed that her faith wore new attractions in his eyes, after he had given her his heart. In this love-affair, as in all other things, his simple, earnest nature was displayed. I remember but as yesterday his coming to my room, and, turn the conversation as often as I might, his bringing it back to this young lady. At length he said: "I don't know what has changed me. I used to think her plain, but her face now seems to me all sweetness." I burst out laughing, and replied, "You are in love; that's what is the matter!" He blushed up to the eyes, and said that he had never been in love in his life, but he certainly felt differently toward this lady from what he had ever felt before. They were engaged soon after, but a rupture took place, and the engagement was broken off. I don't think I ever saw any one suffer as much as he did during the two or three months of estrangement. He was excessively miserable, and said to me one day, "I think it probable that I shall become a missionary, and die in a foreign land."

The lovers' quarrel was settled. They were married, and in one short year Jackson followed his wife and new-born babe to their last resting- place. His grief was profound and of long continuance. More than a year after the death of his wife, he told me that on visiting her grave, which he did daily, he felt an almost irresistible desire to dig up the body and once more be near the ashes of one he had loved so well.

When Jackson first came to the Virginia Military Institute he was a dyspeptic and something of a hypochondriac. His health was bad, but he imagined that he had many more ailments than he really did have. He had been at a water-cure establishment in the North, and the prescription had been given him to live on stale bread and buttermilk, and to wear a wet shirt next his body. He followed these directions for more than a year after coming to Lexington. Boarding at a public hotel, these peculiarities attracted much attention, and he was much laughed at by the rude and coarse. But he bore all their jests with patience, and pursued his plan unmoved by their laughter. In like manner he carried out strictly the direction to go to bed at nine o'clock. If that hour caught him at a party, a lecture, a religious exercise, or any other place, he invariably left. His dyspepsia caused drowsiness, and he often went to sleep in conversation with a friend, and invariably, without exception, went to sleep in church. I have seen his head bowed down to his very knees during a good part of the sermon. He always heard the text of our good pastor, the Rev. Dr. White, and a few of his opening sentences. But after that all was lost.

I remember a witticism at his expense which caused a good deal of amusement. The faculty of the two colleges was specially invited to attend the lecture of a celebrated mesmerist. Many of the citizens of the town were also present. The lecturer, after doing some surprising things, wished to try his hand upon one of the professors. Major Jackson went forward to the stage, but his will was too strong for that of the mesmerizer, and the operator failed to affect him. The operator showed so much chagrin and mortification at his failure that the audience became very much amused, and their fun ran over when a witty daughter of Governor McDowell said in a stage whisper, "No one can put Major Jackson to sleep but the Rev. Dr. White!" I believe that Jackson never entirely overcame this drowsiness in church, though in military service his health improved, and drowsiness wore off to some extent.

A remark of the Rev. Dr. White that "in our country the man who can speak multiplies himself by five" made a great impression upon Jackson, and he resolved to become a speaker. Like most of the graduates of West Point, he was totally unskilled in oratory. He had never made a speech in his life, and was remarkably diffident. But he had determined to succeed, and his iron will prevailed. I well remember his first effort. On anniversary occasions of the literary societies of Washington College, the students were in the habit, at the close of their exercises, of calling upon invited spectators for a speech, and would continue their noisy demonstrations until the persecuted guest rose to make some reply. At the time referred to, many gentlemen were called upon, and among the rest Major Jackson. He rose with a determined aspect, and never did resolution sit more grandly upon his brow when charging a battery than it did on that night. But his health was poor and his nerves unstrung, and he betrayed much embarrassment. The town paper, in describing the exercises, referred to the nervous speech of Major Jackson, coarsely and unfeelingly putting the word "nervous" in italics. Jackson, however, persevered. He joined the Franklin Debating Society, an institution that had been in existence over fifty years, and had enrolled in its membership some of the ablest men in Virginia. He succeeded in making an impressive, but never a ready or an eloquent, speaker. One one occasion Dr. White called upon him to pray in public. He was so much confused that Dr. White told him, some days afterward, that he would never require so unpleasant a task of him again. He replied that it was a cross to him to pray in public, but that he had made up his mind to bear it, and did not wish to be excused. He persevered, and became very fluent and easy in public prayer. I think that his conduct in this case was partly due to a determination which he had made early in life to conquer every physical, mental, and moral weakness of his nature. As an illustration of this, he once told me that when he was a small boy it was necessary to put a mustard plaster upon his chest, and his guardian mounted him on a horse to go to a neighbor's house, so that his mind might be diverted and the plaster kept on. He said that the pain was so dreadful that he fainted soon after dismounting. I asked if he had left it on in order to obey his guardian. He answered, no; it was owing to a feeling that he had from early childhood not to yield to trials and difficulties.

Dr. Dabney thinks that he was naturally timid, and that nothing but his iron will made him brave. I think that this is a mistake. The muscles of his face would twitch convulsively when a battle was about to open, and his hand would tremble so that he could not write. The men often noticed the working of his face, and would say, "Old Jack is making mouths at the Yankees." But all this only indicated weak nerves, and not timidity. I think that he loved danger for its own sake, and, though his nervous system was weak, he gloried in battle, and never shrank from its dangers or its responsibilities. Like Paul, he "kept his body under," and would not let any appetite control him or any weakness overcome him. He used neither tobacco, nor coffee, nor spirits; he would go all winter without cloak or overcoat in the mountains of Virginia, giving no other reason than that he "did not wish to give way to cold." These peculiarities were laughed at, and he was regarded as a marvel of eccentricity. But there was nothing erratic in it. This self-denial and self-control explain his wonderful success. He had conquered himself, and was thus made fit to be a conqueror. The contest with self begun in childhood, and perfected in manhood, culminated in those splendid victories which electrified the world. No self-indulgent man was every truly great, however lavishly nature may have showered upon him her bounties. How many splendid opportunities have been lost through the wine-bibbing or pleasure-seeking of some officer of rank! How often a blow might have been struck, but was not, because the commander had not, like Jackson, learned to master his weaknesses! Every page of history points to such instances, and the experience of every man in his own life confirms them.

"Let us go on" was the key to his marvelous success. "I would not have succeeded against Banks," said he to the writer, "had I not pressed him from the moment I struck his out-posts at Front Royal. Soon after crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah, I found my cavalry halted, and a formidable body of the enemy drawn up to receive them. I knew that delay would be fatal. I ordered a charge. They hesitated," -- here he paused, and at length added, -- "but they did charge, and routed the enemy." (He himself led the charge, and hence his pause.) "I pressed them rapidly all night. They frequently halted and fought us for a time, but the darkness was too great to permit much execution on either side. But for the panic created by this rapid pursuit, I would have been beaten at Winchester. Banks is an able man, and his troops fought well, under the circumstances. His retreat was skillfully conducted. Had my cavalry done their duty, he would have been destroyed; but they fell to plundering, and did not carry out my orders." And here he spoke freely of cavalry leaders. "Ashby never had his equal in a charge; but he never had his men in hand, and some of his most brilliant exploits were performed by himself and a handful of followers. He was too kind-hearted to be a good disciplinarian. `Jeb' Stuart is my ideal of a cavalry leader; prompt, vigilant, and fearless." His fondness for Stuart was very great, and it was cordially reciprocated. Their meeting after a temporary absence was affectionate and brotherly in the extreme. No welcome was ever more hearty and cordial than that given by Jackson to Stuart after his return from his celebrated raid around McClellan, a few weeks subsequent to the battle of Sharpsburg. They both laughed heartily over a picture Stuart picked up in Pennsylvania headed, "Where is Stonewall Jackson?" "Well, Stuart, have you found your hat? inquired the general. This was an allusion to the narrow escape from capture of the great cavalry leader with the loss of that important article of head-gear. Stuart laughingly replied, "No; not yet." The general laid aside his old Valley suit, and appeared at the battle of Fredericksburg in a magnificent uniform presented to him by Stuart. "Ah, General," said one of his impudent rebel boys, as he rode along the line, "you need not try to hide yourself in those clothes; we all know you too well for that." The love of the rank and file for him at that time was almost idolatrous, and it steadily increased till the close of his career. A more grandly impressive sight was never witnessed than that of the greeting of his men on that bright morning at Fredericksburg as he passed in his gay clothing on his fiery war steed. These hardy veterans, all of them ragged, and many shoeless, sprang to their feet from their recumbent position, and waved enthusiastically their dingy hats and soiled caps; but refrained from their wonted cheers lest they should draw the fire of the enemy's artillery upon their beloved chief.

Jackson was not a popular professor. He had rigid notions of discipline, and was uncompromising in his enforcement of the rules of the Institute. He was unbending, uncongenial, intolerant to neglect of duty, inattention to studies, carelessness at drill, etc. This, combined with his eccentricities, made him a mark for the witticisms and the mischief of the cadets. They played tricks upon him, they made sport of him, they teased him, they persecuted him. All in vain. He turned neither to the right nor to the left, but went straight on in his own ways. As he was passing by the tall Institute building one day, a vicious and cowardly cadet, who hated him, let drop a brick from the third-story window. It fell close by his feet, and his escape was almost miraculous. He did not deign to look up, and stalked on with contemptuous indifference. He brought charges against a cadet for some misdemeanor, and got him dismissed. The cadet was a daring and reckless character, and challenged him, accompanying the note with the message that if the professor failed to give him satisfaction in that way, he would kill him on sight. Jackson brought the challenge to me, and asked my advice in regard to swearing the peace against a cadet. I vehemently opposed it on the grounds that the cadets would always regard him as a coward, and that he would be annoyed by their contemptuous treatment. He heard me through patiently, thanked me for my advice, went straight to a magistrate and swore the peace against the cadet. There was a perfect hoot of derision in the town, in Washington College, and in the Institute. A military man, who had distinguished himself on the plains of Mexico, had taken an oath that he was in bodily fear of a mere stripling. But the end was not yet. The officer of the law was afraid to serve the writ on the young desperado, who easily kept out of his way. Jackson had rooms in the Institute building. He went in and out as usual, both day and night. The dismissed cadet told his comrades that he would attack Jackson at a certain hour one day, but he did not. The time was changed to that night, to the next day, to the next night. But the attack never came, and the boys discovered that the blusterer was afraid of the man who had sworn the peace against him, and they turned their derision from the professor to their comrade. The explanation of his conduct was this: Jackson had let it be known that as a Christian he felt it to be his duty to avoid a difficulty, and therefore had gone to an officer of the law for protection. That failing, he had felt it to be a duty to protect himself, and had prepared himself for a personal affray. The cadet had seen the flash of that blue eye, and knew that the result of a collision would be fatal to himself. I have thought that no incident in the life of Jackson was more truly sublime than this. He was unmarried, a comparative stranger, with but few friends. He was ambitious, covetous of distinction, desirous to rise in the world, sensitive to ridicule, tenacious of honor, -- yet, from the high sense of Christian duty, he sacrificed the good opinion of his associates, brought contempt upon his character as a soldier and a gentleman, and ran the risk of blighting his prospects in life forever. The heroism of the battle- field, yea, the martyr courage of the stake, are nothing to this.

Jackson was truly a modest man. He would blush like a school-girl at a compliment. He was easily confused in the presence of strangers, especially if they were ladies. It is well known that the noisy demonstrations which the troops always made when they saw him were painfully embarrassing to him. This was usually attributed to his innate modesty; but that was not the sole cause. It had its origin in a higher source. In the last interview I ever had with him, he said: "The manner in which the press, the army, and the people seem to lean upon certain persons is positively frightful. They are forgetting God in the instruments he has chosen. It fills me with alarm." Did this fear foreshadow his own sad fate at the hands of his own men, who almost idolized him? "These newspapers with their trumpery praise make me ashamed," said General Lee to me at Petersburg. What a lesson is here to flatterers!

But the admiration for Jackson was by no means confined to his own soldiers and to his own section. The Federal prisoners always expressed a great desire to see him, and sometimes loudly cheered him. This was particularly the case at Harper's Ferry, where the whole line of eleven thousand prisoners greeted him with lusty shouts. Citizens say that the hostile troops always spoke of him with marked respect. While he was making his stealthy march around Pope's rear, as still as the breeze, but eventually as dreadful as the storm, a Philadelphia paper remarked, "The prayerful partizan has not been heard from for a week, which bodes no good." "Where is Jackson?" I asked an Irish prisoner, who was astonished beyond measure to find a rebel grasp upon his shoulder. With the apt readiness of his people, he replied, "Faith, and that's jist the trouble all the time, shure."

It is an interesting subject to investigate the cause of his popularity with friend and foe. Jackson went from the professor's chair to the officer's saddle. He carried with him the very elements of character which made him odious as a teacher; but I never saw him in an arbitrary mood (see footnote *). I happened to be present upon two occasions when subordinate officers spoke to him in a manner that very few superior officers would have tolerated. One of these subordinates was a magnificent soldier; the other was not. But he was patient with both. Why, then, was he hated in one sphere, and almost adored in another? I think it was owning mainly, if not entirely, to his success. When his Romney expedition turned out badly in the winter of 1861-62, he was as unpopular with the troops at Winchester as he was with the cadets at Lexington. He had about him none of those qualities which the man of the people and the man for the people must have. He had not the grace and suavity of Marlborough, the easy fascination of Napoleon, the imposing dignity of Washington. His bearing was awkward, his address unprepossessing, his conversational powers limited save when warmed up, his manner cold and ungenial to strangers. Success threw a halo of glory around all this, and endeared even his ungainly qualities to his men. The successful general is always popular.

Jackson's men loved him, then, for his victories, and not for his piety and purity of character. It is true that this love was mingled with a good deal of awe, because of his communings with Heaven; but his prayers, unaccompanied by heavy and telling blows, would have been looked upon as tokens of weakness.

* I think it was Jackson's reticence more than anything else that gave offense. His next in command knew no more than the private soldier what he intended to do. I think that this must have had a palsying effect at times on his next in command. I was for some weeks in this embarrassing position. The ultimate end of the movement was unknown to me, and it was almost impossible to coordinate the secondary movements with the chief one without knowing what that was to be. -- Extract from a letter by the author .

D. H. Hill.

“When the soul is once taken up with the things that are of absolute necessity, it will not be much troubled about other things.”
–Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment