Historian Describes ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s Rise to Prominence

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2012 — A hun­dred and fifty years after Con­fed­er­ate Army Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Val­ley Cam­paign, a renowned Civ­il War his­to­ri­an spoke about it at the Pen­ta­gon, describ­ing how a great suc­cess can boost a mil­i­tary leader’s rep­u­ta­tion to the point that it has a major impact on his future oper­a­tions.

Robert K. Krick deliv­ered a pre­sen­ta­tion June 15, titled “Stonewall Jackson’s Rise to Promi­nence and the Shenan­doah Val­ley Cam­paign,” as part of a speak­er series spon­sored by the His­tor­i­cal Office with­in the Office of the Sec­re­tary of Defense. Krick spent four decades as a Nation­al Park Ser­vice his­to­ri­an and retired as the chief his­to­ri­an at the Fred­er­icks­burg and Spot­syl­va­nia Nation­al Mil­i­tary Park in Vir­ginia. He is the author of 20 books and more than 200 arti­cles on the Amer­i­can Civ­il War. 

Dur­ing the Val­ley Cam­paign, which last­ed from late March until ear­ly June 1862, Jack­son used speed and bold tac­tics that enabled him to suc­cess­ful­ly engage much more numer­ous Union forces and pre­vent them from rein­forc­ing an offen­sive against the Con­fed­er­ate cap­i­tal of Rich­mond, Va. Jack­son drove his 17,000 men to march 646 miles in 48 days in Virginia’s Shenan­doah Val­ley, defeat­ing Union Armies total­ing more than 52,000 men in sev­er­al battles. 

The general’s suc­cess in the Val­ley Cam­paign cre­at­ed an “unbe­liev­able meta­mor­pho­sis” in his pub­lic image, accord­ing to Krick. Though Jack­son had earned his nick­name of “Stonewall” for stand­ing firm at the First Bat­tle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, Krick said that before the Val­ley Cam­paign he was known pri­mar­i­ly for being “odd” and “eccen­tric.” In fact, some of his sub­or­di­nates held him in such low esteem in ear­ly 1862 that they joint­ly wrote a let­ter com­plain­ing about him to the sec­re­tary of war and the pres­i­dent himself. 

At the begin­ning of the Val­ley Cam­paign, Jackson’s sol­diers were “decid­ed­ly uncer­tain” about his abil­i­ties, and some were actu­al­ly scorn­ful of him, Krick said. The his­to­ri­an described the gen­er­al as a dour man who held a “gen­er­al­ly stern world­view.” He was part­ly deaf, very secre­tive and had almost no sense of humor. Before the war, he had been a rel­a­tive fail­ure as a pro­fes­sor of nat­ur­al phi­los­o­phy and instruc­tor of artillery at the Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary Insti­tute. Stu­dents com­plained about him, asked for his removal and called him “Tom Fool.” 

Every­thing changed for Jack­son in that spring of 1862. “By the time the Val­ley cam­paign was over, every­one rec­og­nized Jackson’s genius,” Krick said. 

Jackson’s suc­cess in the cam­paign was sore­ly need­ed good news for the Con­fed­er­a­cy, Krick said, and it made the gen­er­al one of the most famous and adored south­ern mil­i­tary lead­ers. His new sta­tus as a genius boost­ed the morale of south­ern troops, who thought he could help lead them to vic­to­ry, and it demor­al­ized Union forces, who had come to believe he was such a for­mi­da­ble oppo­nent that it would be very dif­fi­cult to defeat him. This atti­tude very like­ly helped Jack­son in sub­se­quent mil­i­tary engage­ments, accord­ing to the historian. 

“Peo­ple suc­ceed far more often when they think they will suc­ceed,” Krick said. “And they fail far more often when they think they will fail.” 

The his­to­ri­an not­ed that Jack­son was an old-fash­ioned, devot­ed­ly reli­gious man. He believed in pre­des­ti­na­tion and thought he was “God’s instru­ment on earth” dur­ing the con­flict. Even when failed ter­ri­bly dur­ing the Sev­en Days Bat­tles around Rich­mond from June 25 to July 1 1862, the general’s faith in him­self did not waver, and nei­ther did Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers’ faith in his abil­i­ties as a commander. 

“Jackson’s great­est tal­ent on the bat­tle­field was that he had his jaw clenched more tight­ly than any­one else on either side,” Krick said. “He stuck to it.” 

In an inter­view with the Amer­i­can Force Press Ser­vice con­duct­ed after the pre­sen­ta­tion, Krick rein­forced the notion of Jackson’s deter­mi­na­tion as his biggest asset. 

“When things got chaot­ic and fog­gy and messy, he was more deter­mined than any­one,” Krick said. “That real­ly was his num­ber one characteristic.” 

Krick not­ed dur­ing the inter­view that Jack­son is among the dozen or so most famous Amer­i­can mil­i­tary com­man­ders of all time, despite lack­ing “that unbe­liev­able capac­i­ty to deter­mine what the ene­my might to do and make the per­fect coun­ter­point” that Fred­er­ick the Great and many oth­er great com­man­ders seemed to have. 

“Jack­son had very few resources in the val­ley. All he had was a small army and a lot of deter­mi­na­tion and will pow­er, and he built that into some­thing more than it was, which then gave him the oppor­tu­ni­ty on broad­er fields to do the same thing again,” Krick said. “I imag­ine that’s a uni­ver­sal … human equa­tion. Since the first peo­ple start­ed sling­ing javelins at one anoth­er, deter­mi­na­tion and ded­i­ca­tion have been an impor­tant feature.” 

Dur­ing the inter­view, Krick said that those qual­i­ties would also serve today’s bat­tle­field commanders. 

“It’s hard to imag­ine there will ever be a human peri­od of stress, tur­moil and dan­ger in which iron will, deter­mi­na­tion, ded­i­ca­tion and will­ing­ness to stick to it do not suc­ceed in some degree and then per­suade the peo­ple who have to help you that you can suc­ceed fur­ther,” he said. 

Jack­son achieved the rank of lieu­tenant gen­er­al in the Con­fed­er­ate Army. He died on May 10, 1863, eight days after being mis­tak­en­ly shot by Con­fed­er­ate troops dur­ing the Bat­tle of Chancellorsville. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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