Stonewall Jackson and VMI
On May 15, 1863, the funeral of one of the great military leaders of the South was held in Lexington, and hundreds came to pay him tribute. In the short span of two years, 1861 to 1863, Thomas Jonathan Jackson had risen to fame in the South and had become the immortal Stonewall." In this brief interval he had captured the respect and admiration of the people of the Confederacy and of soldiers from both sides of the North-South conflict.
The Virginia Military Institute prizes the distinct kinship it has with the life of Lieutenant General Jackson. It was in Lexington that he made his home and at VMI that he spent the years before the Civil War, years of instructing cadets in the classroom and drilling them in the field. It was at VMI that his personal qualities and code of living made such an imprint that his influence exists to this day.
At VMI one cannot escape the memory of Stonewall Jackson nor forget those things for which he stood. On the west side of the cadet barracks overlooking the parade ground-larger now, but still the same ground on which Jackson drilled cadets, stands Sir Moses Ezekiel's bronze statue of Jackson, depicting him as he surveyed his army just before the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was May 2, 1863, the day of his greatest triumph and also of the wound that proved to be fatal. As Jackson looked about, he saw many former cadets and VMI associates in command positions with the army, and his words at that moment, addressed to his cavalry leader, Colonel Thomas T. Munford, VMI class of 1852, are inscribed upon the base of the statue: "The Institute will be heard from today."
Appropriately flanking the statue are the four six-pounder guns of the old cadet battery used by Jackson in artillery instruction at VMI. Near these same guns he stood at First Manassass when he won his nickname. The guns are a reminder that although Jackson became a great exponent of the war movement, he was primarily a master artillerist.
To the rear of the Jackson statue, across the wide road which circles the parade ground, is the principal entrance into the cadet barracks, an archway with the words "Stonewall Jackson" lettered over it. Each time a new cadet leaves the barracks through that arch, he salutes the statue of Jackson. Cadets entering the arch see inscribed in bronze letters the maxima Jackson wrote in a composition book in which he made notes during his own cadet days at West Point: "You may be whatever you resolve to be."
VMI's assembly hall is the Jackson Memorial Hall, and the Institute's museum houses a handsome collection of Jackson memorabilia. Among the items displayed in the museum are the uniform he wore as a member of the VMI faculty, the forage cap he wore during the major part of the war, his field desk and camp stool, the bullet-pierced raincoat he wore the night of his accidental wounding, and other items from his pre-war days.
Also in the museum is the mounted hide of his famed war horse, Little Sorrel. Jackson obtained the sorrel gelding shortly after the war began and was riding him at First Manassas when General Barnard E. Bee made the statement that gave Jackson his lasting nickname. He rode Little Sorrel throughout the Valley campaign and was astride the little horse when he received his fatal wound.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born January 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia, now in West Virginia. He was graduated from the Unites States Military Academy at West Point on July 1, 1846, with the commission of brevet second lieutenant of artillery. The young lieutenant immediately reported for duty with the First Artillery and was soon assigned to Magurder's Light Battery, then serving in Mexico. Fourteen months later he had risen to the rank of brevet major of artillery and had established his reputation as a soldier.
At this time, in the Valley of Virginia, the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute was considering a new appointment to its faculty, and in the school year 1850-51 the Board began an active search for a suitable person to fill the chair of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, or physics as it is called today. It was not surprising when associates of the young Major Jackson, who had been commended highly for bravery in the Mexican War, were quick to point out his qualifications to the VMI Board.
In early February 1851, the then superintendent of VMI, Colonel Francis H. Smith, write to Major Jackson offering him the position at the Institute. Jackson at this time was stationed with the First Regiment, U.S. Artillery, at Fort Meade, near Tampa Bay, Florida. He accepted the appointment and reported to the Institute on August 13, 1851, in the days when cadetship at VMI was year-around.
Jackson was twenty-seven when he came to VMI. The Institute, even younger, was only in its twelfth year, and over the next ten years of Jackson's active faculty status they struggled and developed together.
In addition to his teaching duties at VMI, Jackson served as instructor in artillery tactics and had an integral part on the military training of all cadets. The cadet battery, made especially for VMI in 1848, was used by Jackson for artillery instruction, and though mounted drill was not established at VMI until 1919, it is recorded that three months after his arrival at the Institute he developed a plan for a battery of horsedrawn artillery.
As a professor, Jackson was strict and often stern in his discipline. He was never a popular professor, but no faculty member possessed a higher degree of respect from the cadets for unbending integrity and fearlessness in the discharge of one's duty. It is said "exact as the multiplication table and full of things military as an arsenal."
Jackson was exacting in demands he made upon the cadets, and no less so in demands made upon himself.
A popular Jackson story at VMI is that of an incident that typified the character of the young officer. The story concerns an appointment between Jackson and the VMI superintendent who had advised the major that he wanted to see him in his office. Jackson arrived at the precise hour of the appointment, but the superintendent, remembering something he had to do, asked Jackson to be seated and to remain until he returned. Detained longer on his errand than he had anticipated, the superintendent remembered quite late that Major Jackson was waiting, but he presumed Jackson had waited a reasonable time and then gone home. Coming into his office the next morning, the superintendent found Jackson still waiting, sitting upright in the same chair where he had been seated the evening before. Jackson had interpreted the superintendent's polite request that he remain seated as an order-and Major Jackson never disobeyed an order.
Jackson was a man of perfect truth and sincerity, and so sensitive about misrepresentation that it is told he walked a mile and a half through rain one night to correct a statement about an incident which had occurred between two cadets. He had represented the incident as taking place on the lawn when, as a matter of fact, it had occurred on the porch. Though this seems to be an exaggerated effort to keep in line with perfect truth, it was characteristic of the young officer.
At VMI, Jackson taught his classes with the same directness with which he thought and acted, and though he was severely criticized for his manner, the superintendent and others saw his worth. He never wavered in his character, in his devoutness to church, in his dependability, faith, and resolution. These qualities overshadowed any professorial deficiencies and set a mark that even the young cadets recognized as the potential of greatness.
As he became a part of VMI, Jackson also became a part of the community. He married in Lexington and established in the town the only home he ever maintained.
It was in Lexington that Jackson selected his church affiliation and actively began the practice of his Christian principles. He became a member of the Presbyterian church and, later, a deacon in that church. He started a Negro Sunday School which he taught himself-and if his pupils were not on time, they didn't get in. He took his duties seriously and conscientiously tithed his money.
Two years before the Civil War, the cadets at VMI had an indication of what was to come in the growing differences between North and South. Abolitionist John Brown, who had been captured after his raid on Harpers Ferry, had been found guilty of conspiring to commit treason and had been sentenced to be hanged December 2, 1859. There was fear there might be another uprising to aid his escape, and the aid of the VMI cadets was sought by the governor of Virginia. Jackson moved a contingent of cadets to Harpers Ferry where they helped to maintain order in the days before and following Brown's execution. Fifteen months later, Jackson moved the entire cadet corps out of Lexington. War had come, and he was never to return to VMI alive.
In early April 1861, the unrest among the people of the community provoked several incidents, one of which resulted in one of Jackson's rare public speeches.
One Saturday afternoon attempts were made to raise two flags in Lexington, one for secession and one for staying with the Union, and among citizens assembled on the streets there was strong feeling. Being a free afternoon for cadets, many were in the town and were thrown in contact with persons whose sentiments differed greatly from that of the VMI corps in general. Excitement increased when an extremist drew a revolver and knife on a squad of cadets, and though the difficulty was quelled by onlookers who intervened, word spread quickly to barracks that a group of cadets was in danger. At the barracks, the already aroused cadets, with rifles in hand, began to run toward the town but were instantly headed off by the VMI superintendent who ordered their return to the barracks. There the corps was assembled, and the superintendent urged Jackson to speak to the cadets.
"Military men make short speeches," he said, "and as for myself I am no hand at speaking anyhow. The time for war has not yet come, but it will come and that soon; and when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard."
With the final outbreak of hostilities between North and South, the cadets were ordered to Richmond to serve as drill instructors for Confederate recruits. Under Jackson's command, the cadets left VMI on April 21, 1861, and in Richmond reported to Confederate headquarters at Camp Lee. There, Jackson was commissioned a colonel in the Confederacy and, leaving the cadets at Camp Lee, moved on to active military service with the Southern forces.
From this point, his military victories, his tactics, and his strategy are history. From Manassas to Chancellorsville where he was fatally wounded, Jackson, who had advanced to the rank of lieutenant general, was practically faultless. His battles have been studied almost the world over, and his tactics have become text for many a soldier.