THE MANY “DEMONS” OF STONEWALL JACKSON
What Really Killed the Famed Confederate General
On this date, May 2, 1863, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was accidentally shot by several of his own men during the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia and he died a short time later, plunging the people of the Confederacy into despair and leading many to believe that the war might not be won without him. Ironically, it might not have been the bullets that Jackson. Instead, he may have died because of this own bizarre medical beliefs and the “demonic” diseases that he feared could inhabit his body!
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
The American Civil War was filled with heroes, on both sides of the conflict. One of the great generals of the Confederacy was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the brooding, Bible-quoting philosophy teacher from Virginia, whose odd personal habits and daring attacks made him a legend in his own time. As Robert E. Lee’s most trusted commander, no other general helped win more decisive victories for the South and no other commander’s death was as fatal for the Confederacy. In battle after battle, from Bull Run to Chancellorsville, the tall, bearded scholar with the gaunt, weathered face shocked and bloodied the Union forces with his brilliant cavalry strikes and tremendous infantry assaults.
Behind his gallant image, though, lurked a man obsessed with weird ailments, peculiar dietary compulsions and a dark fear that evil spirits had somehow taken control of his body. At the Virginia Military Institute where he taught, Jackson was nicknamed “Tom Fool” because of his personal eccentricities, which included sucking on lemons to ease the discomfort of what he thought was an ulcer. Students and colleagues thought of him as a dull professor who rarely smiled, but when he found something funny, he would throw his head back and let out a frightening roar. Throughout his life, he struggled to overcome the belief that his body was somehow “out of balance,” and that the only way to correct this was to remain in a rigid, upright position so that his organs remained aligned on top of one another. For this reason, he rarely sat in chairs, preferring to keep his posture erect when standing, lying straight in bed, or on horseback. In battle, he often charged with one gloved hand held high over his head, allowing the blood to flow down into his body to establish equilibrium.
Jackson was what some saw as dangerously devout about his religion. Wherever he went, even onto the battlefield, he always took along his prayer book and prayer table. A devout Christian since 1849, he believed that the Civil War boiled down to a struggle between good and evil. In his mind, he was a crusader against the forces of darkness.
His health was always a major preoccupation. He was constantly concerned with a mysterious stomach ailment. To combat it, he kept up a strict regimen of raspberries, milk, plain bread or cornbread and an endless supply of lemons that he sucked on even when charging the enemy lines. He also undertook a rigorous program of running, rope climbing and booming shouts that he believed expanded his lungs. His infirmities included rheumatism, dyspepsia, poor eyesight (which he treated by dipping his head, eyes open, into cold water for as long as he could hold his breath), cold feet, nervousness, impaired hearing, tonsillitis (which eventually required an operation) and a “slight distortion of the spine.” Some modern doctors believe that Jackson may have suffered from a fairly common and most uncomfortable condition known as a diaphragmatic hernia, a hole in the diaphragm that allows the abdominal contents to move into the chest cavity.
But even if Jackson was an off-balance hypochondriac, as General A.P. Hill believed he was, he may have had good reason to be, based on his early family life.
Thomas Jackson was born in January 1824, the third child of Julia Beckwith and Jonathan Jackson, an attorney. The family lived in Clarksburg, in what is now West Virginia, when Thomas was born. Thomas's sister Elizabeth died of typhoid fever at the age of six on March 6, 1826, with two-year-old Thomas at her bedside. His father succumbed to the same illness 20 days later. Jackson's mother gave birth to Thomas's sister, Laura Ann, the following day, leaving her a widow with a large amount of debt and three young children, including a newborn. She sold the family's possessions to pay off the debts and moved into a rented one-room house. She declined family charity, taking in sewing and teaching school to support the family for more than four years.
In 1830, Julia remarried. Her new husband, Blake Woodson, cared little for his stepchildren. The family’s money problems continued. Then, in 1831, Julia died after giving birth to Thomas’ half-brother, leaving her three older children orphaned. She was buried in an unmarked grave along the James River, marking another death in Thomas’ young life. And more were to come.
As his mother’s health was failing, Jackson and his sister, Laura Ann, were sent to live with an uncle, Cummins Jackson, who owned a grist mill in what is now central West Virginia. His older brother, Warren, went to live with relatives on his mother’s side of the family. He later died from tuberculosis in 1841. After this series of deaths and illnesses, it was no wonder that Jackson feared sickness throughout his life.
Jackson worked for his uncle for the next seven years. He learned to read and write and attended school when he could. In 1842, Jackson was accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Because of his inadequate schooling, he had difficulty with the entrance examinations and began his studies at the bottom of his class. Displaying a dogged determination that was to characterize his life, he became one of the hardest working cadets in the academy, and moved steadily up the academic rankings. Jackson graduated seventeenth out of 59 students in the Class of 1846. It was said by his peers that if he had stayed there another year, he would have graduated at the top of the class. In spite of his hard work, he made a strange impression on some of his classmates. Ulysses S. Grant stated that Jackson was a “fanatic” whose delusions “took strange forms – hypochondria, fancies that an evil spirit had taken possession of him.”
After graduating from West Point in 1846, he served with distinction in the Mexican War. It was in Mexico that Jackson first met Robert E. Lee. During the assault on Chapultepec Castle, he refused what he felt was a "bad order" to withdraw his troops. Confronted by his superior, he explained his rationale, claiming withdrawal was more hazardous than continuing his overmatched artillery duel. His judgment proved correct, and a relieving brigade was able to exploit the advantage Jackson had broached. In contrast to this display of strength of character, he obeyed what he also felt was a "bad order" when he raked a civilian throng with artillery fire after Mexican authorities failed to surrender Mexico City at the hour demanded by the U.S. forces. The former episode, and later aggressive action against the retreating Mexican army, earned him field promotion to the brevet rank of major. He was later recognized by army commander Winfield Scott at a celebratory banquet in Mexico City for earning more promotions than any other officer during the three-year war.
In the spring of 1851, Jackson accepted a newly created teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. He became professor of natural and experimental philosophy and an artillery instructor. Despite the high quality of his work, he was unpopular as a teacher. He memorized his lectures and then recited them to the class. Any students who came to him asking for clarifications were given the same route explanation as before. If they asked again, Jackson viewed this as insubordination and punished them. The students mocked his stern, religious nature and his eccentric traits. In 1856, a group of alumni attempted to have Jackson removed as a teacher. Ironically, when the Civil War came, many of those same students would rally around their old professor because of his extraordinary achievements in battle.
Jackson remained at the school until Virginia’s secession in April 1861, when he was given command of the First Brigade of the Virginia Volunteers – later known as the famous “Stonewall Brigade.” He earned his nickname while leading his troops at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, when General Barnard Elliott Bee, who was mortally wounded soon afterward, is said to have remarked to his men, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall... rally around the Virginians!”
Thanks to his amazing victories during the early days of the war, “Stonewall Jackson” became a household name in the South.
His nickname soon became a household word in the South and was constantly invoked by Confederate soldiers as they went into battle. Jackson’s fame continued after Bull Run and he began his masterful Shenandoah Valley campaign, one of the most brilliant in military history. Racing up and down the valley with his fast-moving infantry, Jackson decimated three separate Union armies, causing the Union to divert troops from General George McClellan’s offensive against Richmond.
In June 1862, Jackson’s brigade joined with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the bloody Seven Days battles, which succeeded in driving Federal troops away from the outskirts of Richmond. He later shared in the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run. At this point, Lee praised Jackson as his finest commander. The relationship between the two men, though never intimate, was warm and respectful. It was rooted in professional respect, but it was far from personal. Lee found it hard to break through Jackson’s quiet shyness, which kept him from sharing his personal life with anyone other than his wife and a small circle of friends. A large part of Jackson’s inability to socialize with the other commanders almost certainly stemmed from his bizarre outlook on the war and his personal life. Terrified for his health, he also struggled with a preoccupation with sin. His family affairs and the demands of the military left him little time to cultivate personal relationships.
Jackson’s most daring campaign was his last one. On May 2, 1863, he led his army against a much larger Federal force at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Launching several surprise attacks against the enemy, he was able to rout an entire wing of the Union forces. Late that afternoon, however, while on a reconnaissance ride, Jackson was shot by several of his own guards, who mistook him for an enemy officer. Jackson was hit three times, once in his right hand, one in his left wrist and a third time above his left elbow.
Complications set in following the amputation of his left arm, and the legendary general died of pneumonia at Guinea Station, Virginia, on May 10, 1863. Only a few hours before, Lee had sent a note to Jackson that read, “Could I have directed events, I should have chosen for the good of the country to have been disabled in your stead.” Lee later confided to a friend that Jackson “has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.”
Ironically, Jackson may not have died as a result of his wounds – it may have been his bizarre beliefs about his health that actually killed him. His strange habit of covering his abdomen with cold towels in an effort to relive pains of “dyspepsia” may have led to his death. According to some sources, he fully recovered from the amputation but died when pneumonia set in after an attending servant draped the wet towels over his body without the knowledge of his doctor. Tragically, Jackson was never able to overcome the fears that plagued him as a child and refused to leave him when his life was hanging in the balance.
Mourners at Stonewall Jackson’s grave