James Walker Court Martial

Stonewall Jackson at VMI.
Dispute with Cadet James A. Walker, 1852

The Confrontation
In May 1852, a classroom confrontation between Major Jackson and  Cadet James A. Walker (later Brigadier General, CSA) led to the expulsion of Walker and subsequently to Walker issuing Jackson a challenge to a duel. At issue was Walker's behavior while solving a problem in Jackson's Natural Philosophy class. VMI convened a court martial, at which Cadet Walker stood accused of disobeying an order and conduct disrespectful to his superior officer.

The Trial
Excerpt from Major Jackson's testimony

Major T. J. Jackson, a witness on the part of the prosecution was called, duly sworn & deposed as follows:

On or about the 4 May 1852 while the accused was attending recitation in the Department of Nat. Phil. at the Virginia Military Institute, I sent him to the board to find the hour angle of the sun. His result was not obtained in a manner satisfactory to me. I sent him to his seat, he asked me in what his error consisted. I considered his manner disrespectful. I sent Mr. Blankenship to the board and gave him the explanation of finding the time of day. Having examined the new edition I saw that I could not reasonably expect from the accused the demonstration given in the old edition which I had studied. Some time after I saw my error I sent the accused to the board & gave him the same proposition as before and during his recitation gave him the explanation for finding the time of day. He appeared to object to the investigation & wished to know whether such explanation was reqd. of him. I told him he was not expected to understand the subject but that it was my duty to explain it to him. I said this in what I considered a conciliatory tone. I considered his conduct disrespectful. Previously to the section's leaving the recitation room he said to me that my conduct must change or his must. I believe he asked permission to speak before this. He wished to continue talking, but I did not wish him to do so & told him so. I told him that all I required of him was that he should behave himself.

The next day he returned to the Section room in the Department of Nat. Philosophy. Mr. Whitney, a member of his section, asked me to give an explanation of the method of finding the time of day. I did so, and then sent several members to the board and called on Mr. Blankenship to give that method. Subsequently I called on Mr. Walker to do the same. He stated that he did not know how to do it & being informed by me that I had explained the method to him the previous day, he said that I had attempted to do so. I told him that I did explain it but that he might not have understood it. I said this in what I considered a conciliating tone. He again stated that I had attempted to explain it, and that I did not ask him whether he understood it or not. I considered his manner improper. I considered it insolent. I called his attention to his manner being improper & as he continued to talk, I ordered him to stop---he disobeyed the order saying he would stop talking if I would stop, or words to that effect. I again ordered him to stop, saying Silence, Mr. Walker, or words to that effect, in an imperative & authoritative tone. He again disobeyed the order & said he would stop talking if I would stop, or words to that effect. After I had given the last order I sent him to his seat. I subsequently reminded him of his assertion of the previous day--that his conduct must change or that mine must. I told him that mine would not change. In reply I understood him to say that he had said that he did not intend to change his. After some reflection I ordered him to his quarters under arrest.

Excerpt from Cadet Walker's testimony

Major Jackson is a stranger amongst us & brings from the field of his late brilliant achievements many singular and eccentric notions. With a rigidity of adherence to the letter of his instructions known only to the veteran, he unites a mind suspicious by nature, a temper made irritable by sickness and suffering; and a tone imperative by long habit of commanding. He is one too who is very likely to misconstrue the motive and conduct of those with whom he has to deal....It has been these peculiarities of his nature combined with his acknowledged rule of conforming his treatment to the conduct of the cadet which has led to the present unhappy misunderstanding with myself.

First he entirely misconstrued my conduct; then all my expressions of the most polite deference instead of convincing him of his error only served as new fuel to the flame. Next he conformed his manner to his misconstruction of mine & his language becomes angry, imperative & harsh if not insulting.

The Outcome
Walker, a first classman just a few weeks short of graduation, was found guilty of disrespect. He was dismissed, and refused his right to appeal. While under confinement, Walker asked another cadet to deliver a note to Jackson demanding a duel. Of course, no duel took place; Jackson maintained his usual routine and Walker was sent home. Superintendent Francis H. Smith wrote the following to Walker's father on May 17:

"It is my unpleasant duty to inform you that in consequence of the insubordinate conduct of your son to the Professor of Natural Philosophy, it was necessary to bring his case before a Court Martial, and the result of their action has been his dismissal....This morning he called at my office and in terms in the highest degree disrespectful and insulting to the Supt., declined to take any appeal....I would advise you to come up at once and take him home as I have reason to believe he may involve himself in serious difficulty."

After the Civil War, General Walker was granted an honorary degree by the VMI Board of Visitors.