Effective military leaders are often a little cooky or strange; it comes with the territory. During the American Civil War, there were many generals on both sides of the conflict that fit that bill, but none were as strange or odd as Confederate General Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson.
Jackson was born in present-day West Virginia, near the town of Clarksburg in 1824. Extremely poor, Jackson was orphaned early in life, and his stepfather sent him away to live with family.
Jackson rose from the poverty and gained acceptance to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York where he proved himself to be an unprepared student. For just a simple country kid from the backwoods of Virginia, the curriculum was a constant challenge to Jackson, but he showed grit and determination to rise from the bottom of his class and eventually graduate with decent grades.
After graduating, Jackson moved to the Virginia Military Institute to teach artillery. Jackson was that teacher that all students hate, he did nothing but talk, and talk, and talk throughout the entire class. And it wasn’t like his talks were entertaining stories of some kind, he repeated the textbook almost verbatim and expected the students to hang on every single word he said, it was brutal. The student detested Jackson, and so did his fellow teachers. It was while he was a teacher at VMI that his odd social and personal habits began to take shape, and it turned many people away from spending time with him.
Jackson was a religious zealot; there is no other way to put it. It’s not like Jackson was merely a believer in God, he saw everything, and I mean everything, as an act of God. Every conversation, every situation, every little event in life, Jackson had to bring God into it, and it made many people extremely uncomfortable even to hold a conversation with him. Jackson was like those people that pound on your door in the middle of dinner and want to tell you about a religious experience they had while cat-sitting for their mother in law and they saw the face of the Lord and Savior in a saucer of milk, it was just tiresome.
When the Southern States seceded from the Union in 1861, Jackson immediately raised a regiment of fighters from his students at VMI and led them into the army. At the First Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861, Jackson held an essential hill with his men and fought off the Union men attacking, earning him the nickname “Stonewall.” As time moved on during the war, he received multiple promotions and eventually led his army. His men noticed just how odd their commander was, during a battle he would continuously suck on lemons, and he rode into conflict with one arm in the air. When Jackson was asked why he rode with one arm in the air, he explained that his blood was out of balance and he had to shift it to the other sides of his body. Think about the utter insanity in that statement for a moment; this guy thought ht was like an hourglass or one of those sand timers used in board games.
Through all of his quirks, Jackson was successful and was one of the most feared generals of the entire war. In 1863, he and Robert E. Lee had just defeated the Union Army at a place called Chancellorsville, Virginia. After the battle, Jackson rode into the woods to scout and was fired upon by his men. Jackson’s arm was nearly severed in the accidental attack, and it was later amputated at a field hospital. True to Jackson’s personality, his arm was buried in the backyard of the hospital with full military honors. The rest of Jackson laid in bed for a week before dying from complications of the wounds received. Indeed the weirdest and most successful southern General, Stonewall Jackson died leaving a legacy of battlefield quirkiness, and battlefield brilliance all rolled into one package.