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General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson:
Life of a Resolute Soldier in Lexington

Stonewall JacksonAt Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the following words are inscribed over the archway of the Barracks: "You may be whatever you resolve to be." This maxim, simple but true, held special significance for Thomas Jackson who taught at the Institute in Lexington for 10 years in the mid-1800s. If anyone lived by the words in which he believed, it was this modest professor who—from humble beginnings—diligently pursued his goals and accomplished much in his brief but heroic life. During the Civil War he rose to prominence, becoming the icon General "Stonewall" Jackson, a great military leader and an inspiration to the Confederacy.

Thomas Jackson was born in Clarksburg, Virginia (today a part of West Virginia) on January 21, 1824. As an orphaned child with little opportunities for a formal education, Jackson was grateful for his appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1842. Though not a successful student initially, Jackson worked extremely hard and acquired many words of wisdom by which to live that kept him going throughout his days of academic struggle, and even in the years beyond. In his first semester at West Point, of the 122 students in his class, Jackson ranked 62nd in mathematics and 88th in French. But by the time he graduated in 1846, Jackson had finished 17th place in his class overall.

Barracks at VMI
Following his graduation, Jackson fought in the Mexican War. Commissioned second lieutenant of artillery, he was promoted twice during the war, holding the rank of Brevet Major at the war's end in 1848. But his success in leading other men on the battlefield did not wholly transfer to his teaching career at VMI that began in 1851. The shy, taciturn professor did not find an easy role as instructor of "Natural and Experimental Philosophy" (Physics). Jackson's students considered his method of teaching eccentric and they did not relate well to their pedantic professor. However, in teaching artillery tactics to the cadets, Jackson excelled with the Cadet Battery on the parade ground in front of the Barracks.

In 1853 Jackson married Elinor Junkin, but a year later she died giving birth to their stillborn son. Heartbroken, Jackson grieved over this loss for many years. He did not find happiness again until 1857 when he married Mary Anna Morrison. The couple faced their first tragedy when a daughter born to them in 1858 died a month later. Early in the next year, the Jacksons moved into the only home that Thomas would own, a brick town house within walking distance from the campus where he taught. The couple lived here quietly and contentedly for two years, tending to their garden and involving themselves in church and community activities.

Jackson home
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Jackson left his home in Lexington, his cadets under his command. Commissioned a colonel in the Confederacy, he was soon promoted to brigadier general and proved to be a stalwart leader during the Battle of First Manassas where he acquired the sobriquet "Stonewall Jackson." By the end of 1861, Jackson was promoted to major general. During the next year, he received recognition for his successes in the Valley Campaign, the Battle of Second Manassas, the capturing of the fortress at Harpers Ferry, the Battle of Antietam, and finally in the Battle of Fredericksburg. On the battlefield, Jackson had emerged as a master strategist of battle tactics. And in his personal life, Jackson celebrated the birth of his daughter Julia Laura in November 1862. But again, happiness would not endure. By the next year, "Stonewall" Jackson would make his final charge at the Battle of Chancellorsville. For on the evening of May 2, 1863 Jackson was accidentally shot by one of his soldiers. Though his severely wounded left arm was amputated, he died of pneumonia eight days later.

Jackson's body was brought to Lexington on May 14 where it lay in state in the classroom at VMI where he had taught. In honor of their former commander, all day from sunrise to sunset, the students fired salutes from the Cadet Battery. The next day, Jackson was buried at the cemetery in Lexington that was later named in honor of the fallen Confederate hero. General Robert E. Lee had lost his "right arm" of the Confederate Army; there would be no other soldier to replace him.

"Stonewall" Jackson had accomplished much in his 39 years before his untimely death. Through persistence and perseverance, he earned respect from his fellow man and also earned his place in history as a legendary figure of the Civil War. Though Jackson had been ridiculed during his lifetime for his unique personal habits, he had also been admired for his dedication to duty, his unwavering religious beliefs, and for his resolute spirit. Jackson believed deeply in the causes that he supported, and truly understood the maxims by which he lived. Thus, he transcended the commonplace by embodying these very words:

You may be whatever you resolve to be. Determine to be something in the world, and you will be something. "I cannot" never accomplished anything; "I will try" has wrought wonders.

- Reverend Joel Hawes


Top: Image of "Stonewall" Jackson by Mathew Brady, courtesy of the National Archives. Middle: VMI Barracks and parade ground, with Jackson statue and four of the six cannon of the Cadet Battery, photo by DLO. Bottom: Home of Thomas and Mary Jackson, photo by CNO.


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