Although the majority of To Appomattox will be devoted to the characters of Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman, James Longstreet and Abraham Lincoln, other prominent historical figures will feature in the miniseries. Among them will be a man who can best be described as a “walking paradox,” a devout man of God and loving family man, but also a fierce and heroic leader of men. Here, we shall look at the man history has forever nicknamed “Stonewall.”
One of the best introductions to the life of Thomas Jonathan Jackson can be found in Professor James I. Robertson’s epic Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Myth, the Legend, where he writes:
“Thomas Jonathan Jackson’s walnut bookcase at the Virginia Historical Society contains six shelves filled with the volumes he collected. Almost in the center of the case stand three books side by side. The one in the middle is John Gibbon’s The Artillerist’s Manual; on it’s left is the Holy Bible; on its other side is Philip Bennet Power’s “I Will:” Being the Determination of the Man of God. These three books, positioned as they are, epitomize the life of General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson: a man of arms surrounded by tenets of faith” (Robertson ix).
Jackson’s life leading up to his entry into West Point was marked by great loss in his life. Born in 1824, both of his parents were dead by the time he was seven years of age. Living with relatives, he had no real spiritual guidance or structure in his life. When he entered West Point in 1842, he was totally unprepared for the strict discipline and structure of the United States Military Academy. But even here, we see what would mark Jackson’s life up through the American Civil War: a fierce determination to succeed. Through this determination, he graduated seventeenth in the class of 1846. He served with great distinction as an artilleryman in the Mexican War, and by the end of the conflict in 1848, was a brevetted Major. It was also during his time in Mexico that he began to seek religious structure, first looking into the Catholic faith practiced by the majority of Mexican citizens.
He grew weary of peacetime service in the army, and in 1851, took up a teaching position at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. While living in Lexington, he found his religious home in the Presbyterian faith, and found real peace in the Word of God. He would marry twice while in Lexington. Tragically, he lost his first wife during childbirth, along with their child. He married again to Mary Anna Morrision, but the couple lost their first child as well. Although heartbroken, Jackson believed that God had a reason for all that transpired in his life, and rarely questioned His will in all things.
Jackson once said that “war is the sum of all evil,” but when war ultimately came in 1861, he did not shy away from that evil. He earned a brilliant reputation during the war. He first gained prominence at the Battle of First Manassas, where the actions of he and his First Virginia Brigade earned them the nickname “Stonewall.” Although First Manassas made him a hero, his actions in the Shenandoah Valley in the Spring and early Summer of 1862, where he defeated a much larger Union force with fewer than 18,000 men, made him a legend beloved in the Confederacy, and feared in the North. He once again lived up to his famous nickname at Second Manassas at the end of August, 1862, and served with great distinction in capturing Harper’s Ferry, and holding the lines at Antietam and Fredericksburg, in September and December. But it would be in the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863 that Jackson, along with Robert E. Lee, would achieve his greatest victory with a spectacular flank march and assault against a vastly superior Union force, and driving them from the field. However, this great success would be his last, as Jackson was severely wounded by friendly fire, contracted pneumonia, and passed away on May 10th, 1863.
Thomas Jackson was known for being somewhat eccentric, nicknamed “Old Blue Light” for his piercing blue eyes that seemed to hint at a somewhat half-crazed individual. He was seen to be sucking on lemons during battles, despite the fact that peaches were his favorite fruit. He would also hold his arm up in the air as if to be waving all the time, believing that it balanced his body. His “religious fervor” made him fearless in battle, and very critical of those who showed fear. He drove his men relentlessly, marching them as far as twenty or thirty miles a day, earning his men another nickname: Jackson’s “foot cavalry.” However, there is no denying that he was successful at using his lack of men and supplies to great advantage, winning key victories against superior Union numbers.
But behind the warrior that was “Stonewall” Jackson is a very humble, devout man of God as well. He didn’t fear death because he knew that God was with him, and when it was his time to go, he would not fight it. He was also a tender family man, and loved children. And in his way, he was also a pioneer as far as the civil rights are concerned. Although he believed that God had ordained slavery for reasons they could not question, he was very uncomfortable with the institution, and like Lee and other Confederates, believed that slavery would eventually end. He actually spent his own money to build Sunday Schools for blacks, and Bibles for them to learn to read from, believing that all of God’s children had a right to read the Scripture. And although slavery and secession troubled him, like many of those who fought for the Confederacy, he would fight to defend the state of Virginia, what he referred to as his home and country.
The best way to describe Jackson is that he was a “walking contradiction.” He was a tender and compassionate man, but also a fierce leader who believed in the idea of harsh war against the enemy. He once commented that war was horrible, but when asked what they could do, he said “kill every last man of them.” While it is easy to understand men like Lee, Longstreet, Grant and Sherman, it is very difficult to penetrate the life of Thomas Jackson.
Bill Paxton, star of such films as Apollo 13 and Twister, and the HBO series “Big Love,” will portray Thomas Jackson in To Appomattox. Mr. Paxton will have possibly the most difficult job of any actor on the project, as the character he will portray is one of the hardest to ever fully portray on film. But Mr. Paxton is definitely an exceptional and talented actor, and will give everything he has in bringing this larger-than-life character to the screen in 2013. I, for one, am very excited to see what he brings to the role of one of the most fascinating figures from American History.
Works Cited and Consulted
Robertson, James I. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Myth, the Legend. New York: MacMillan Publishers, 1997.