Tuesday, October 8, 2013

“I Have Lost My Right Arm” - Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson (1863)

Most historians consider Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson among the most brilliant tacticians ever produced by the United States Army. His Shenandoah Valley Campaign of Spring 1862 is a masterpiece of the military art. That campaign and Jackson’s performance at Chancellorsville in early May 1863 combined maneuver, stealth, and appreciation for terrain with an uncanny understanding of his opponents and his own commander. In fact, the battlefield combination of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson remains a rich source of historical investigation and one of the great partnerships in American military history. What is not as well appreciated is the totally bizarre and strange personality of Jackson, an American icon.
Tom Jackson showed no signs of greatness in his early years. Born to poverty, and a mediocre student, he was quick to take offense, and was already manifesting the quirks and peculiarities that would later prove legendary at West Point. He sulked in a dour, reserved, and downright grim manner, eschewing alcohol, gambling, tobacco, (women?), earning the nickname “Old Jack” in his teens. 
In spite of impressive displays of heroism during the Mexican War, Jackson botched his career after he interjected himself into the romantic affairs of his commanding officer, then Major Israel Richardson, who later commanded a division in Sumner’s II Corps and was killed in action at the Sunken Road at Antietam.
Forced to resign because of insubordination, Jackson was lucky to land a job as a professor at Virginia Military Institute. There he was universally disliked and the subject of ridicule. It is more than a little ironic that he remains one of the defining symbols of VMI. The Civil War changed everything. Jackson gained his famous nickname at the Battle of Bull Run on 21 July 1861 when Confederate general Bernard Bee saw Jackson’s men grimly holding fast in the face of a vigorous assault. He shouted to his men, “There stands Jackson standing like a stone wall. Rally to the Virginians.”  It was a moment of destiny. Jackson gained eternal fame; Bee died on the battlefield that day, one of the first of 160 general officers killed during the war.
By early 1962, Jackson was in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. There, outnumbered and constantly on the move, he fought three separate armies each to a standstill, earning a reputation as a hard-driving, ruthless, and brilliant commander. At Antietam, he captured Harper's Ferry and held Lee's left flank.
On 1 May 1863 in the opening move of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson routed the Union XI Corps under O.O Howard, threatening the whole Federal Army. It was a crushing victory. That night, Jackson was making his way back to camp near the front line positions. His own troops, mistaking the command group for the enemy, opened fire, wounding several of the general’s party, including Jackson who was hit in the arm, forcing amputation, after which Lee remarked, “he may have lost an arm, but I have lost my right arm.” Jackson died a few weeks later.
Jackson died in the most famous “friendly fire” incident in American history and he is the most renowned of all the American flag officers killed in action. His widow and child became objects of veneration for decades thereafter and his Image is central to any version of the Lost Cause.


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