Please note that this is not an erotic story but rather a story of Civil War and Civil Rights. Please forgive me if you have come looking for titillation and found it not. This is a different kind of story but an adventure nevertheless.
General Jackson’s Unlikely Legacy.
It would, I suppose, be hard to discern the link between a peaceful English park full of happy revellers in the year 2012 and a tortured bl**dy battlefield in North America in 1861. It would take, in fact, the sort of mind used to connecting up apparently unrelated dots; the sort of mind that sees seemingly unconnected events as part of the great sweep of human history; the sort of mind that sees the evolution of human culture through a lens of change and relishes the delicious ironies of history and the meanings each culture places upon the myths and legacies of its heritage. It would take the mind of a historian and story teller; a mind rather like that that I have chanced to have been born with.
The whole crazy notion occurred to me just the other day when I attended the annual LGBT rights festival in a sun drenched park in the city of Hull in Northern England. My friends and I were just sitting around on the grass and drinking in the atmosphere and flying the T flag in LGBT. The crazy English weather had gone completely loopy on us. After seemingly weeks of intermittent rain we feared the worst but astonishingly the weekend dawned in glorious sunshine and by Sunday the temperature had climbed well into the thirties. All the weeks of rain had done was ensure a thick and verdant lawn of grass in the park; more luxurious than a deep pelted rug. We took our shoes off and gave our feet a treat.
There were over ten thousand people in the park for the festival we were told and it felt like it. It had cost just eight pounds for the two days of non stop entertainment, a remarkably reasonable price considering, and everybody seemed to have turned up to take advantage. A huge gathering of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders was inevitably going to be a colourful event. That wasn’t the whole story however. As I sat there sharing a bottle of wine and listening to the music from the main stage I became aware of other undercurrents and significances in the whole affair.
I think it was the police that got me thinking. Any big event like that was obviously going to require policing and there was a considerable police presence. This is not to say the police presence was in any way intrusive or unwelcome you understand. It was anything but in fact. I’ll come back to the police f***e later but let me say now that the Humberside Police authority has had to take some stick over the years but on this occasion they were absolutely wonderful; supportive, protective and extraordinarily in harmony with the festival. It was that that started me to think. It started me to think how much the world has moved on; how much things have changed. It started me to think about the evolution of society and the odd way that icons and legends of the past become metamorphosised into symbols of the present. By the odd and convoluted paths of my curious brain it started me to think about General Jackson. Let me try to explain.
In what I can only describe as a breathtaking example of the ironies of history, Thomas Jonathon Jackson was the great grandc***d of slaves! His great grandfather, John Jackson was an Irish protestant from County Londonderry in Ulster. In the 1740s John was living in London, England and was convicted of stealing £170. That was a substantial sum at the time and the theft of it a capital crime. John was exceedingly lucky to escape the hangman’s noose. Instead he was sentenced to seven years indenture in the American colonies. In other words he was being sent as a slave to North America. In 1749 he was transported aboard the prison ship Litchfield across the Atlantic, chained in a hold under conditions not dissimilar to those suffered by millions of unfortunate captive Africans sent to the New World as slaves.
It may have been a little less crowded aboard Litchfield than the average “blackbirder” for there were only 150 convicts aboard. There must have been also some mingling of the sexes for, while on passage, John met one Elizabeth Cummins who was also being transported for a similar sentence of indenture and by the time the ship made harbour in Annapolis Maryland, the two were hopelessly in love. It was a love that had to endure their many separations over the next years as they were moved around in servitude but endure it did and they married in 1755, moved west across the Blue Ridge Mountains to settle in Virginia and had eight c***dren.
There was no going home for John and Elizabeth of course and they embraced their new homeland completely. In 1775 civil conflict broke out in the American colonies largely over the constitutionality of certain taxes imposed upon the colonies by the British crown government on the other side of the Atlantic. This expanded into the Revolutionary War and John was an early recruit for the rebel f***es together with his two teenage sons.
This war lasted some eight years and of course would lead to the creation of an independent United States of America. The war does not really concern us here except in the precedents it would apparently establish for another conflict over eighty years later. It would seem for instance that it enshrined the rights of American states to rebel over what they considered to be unconstitutional interference with their own laws and to take up arms in defence of those rights. It also seemed to suggest a template for successful rebellion: the way by which a rebellion might prevail over a nation more powerful than itself. Most of all it seemed to establish a revolutionary principle; that men had the right to take up arms in defence of their freedom against tyranny. All these precedents would be raised as holy writ in another war eighty years later but, as we shall see, there were very fundamental differences between the two conflicts.
In any case John Jackson distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War, fighting at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 and rising to the rank of captain. After the war he served as an officer in the Virginia Militia. There was soldiering in the Jackson bl**dline. John’s second son, Edward also fought as a young soldier in the Revolutionary War and survived to father a number of c***dren himself. His third son was called Jonathon Jackson who proved no less fertile than his father and grandfather. His third c***d was Thomas Jonathon Jackson, the man we have come to see in this story.
Thomas’ father was an attorney in 1824 when he was born but Thomas barely ever knew him. His elder s****r, Elizabeth, and his father both died of typhoid fever in 1826 when he was just two years old. His mother Julia was pregnant at the time with her fourth c***d and she gave birth to a daughter, Laura-Ann, the day after her husband died. Julia with a newborn baby and two young c***dren to care for alone, was in a desperate situation and f***ed to sell the f****y property to pay off the f****y debts. But she was a tough lady and after moving into a one bed-roomed rented house she managed to support her young f****y for the next four years by sewing and teaching; two of the very few professions open to a widowed woman of her age. It would be pleasant to record that her struggle was successful but there is a streak of tragedy running along this f****y line and their misfortunes were by no means over.
In 1830 Julia’s luck seemed to have changed when she remarried, once again to an attorney, called Blake Woodson. It was however a disaster. For one thing Woodson despised his three stepc***dren and wanted nothing to do with them. Secondly the f****y continued to suffer financial worries. The worst catastrophe to strike was in 1831, when, married for only a year, Julia produced a son to her new husband. It cost Julia her life for she died shortly afterwards of complications from the c***dbirth. Woodson refused to accept responsibility for her three c***dren from her previous marriage and the three Jackson c***dren found themselves orphaned. It was not yet the end of woes for this ill fated f****y.
Thomas and Laura-Ann ended up at their Uncle Cummins Jackson’s grist mill in Lewis County, West Virginia, while Thomas’ elder b*****r Warren was sent to live with relatives on his mother’s side of the f****y. Warren continued the f****y penchant for tragedy by dying of tuberculosis in 1841 aged just twenty years. For Thomas and Laura-Ann, life at Jackson’s Mill seems to have been one of the few happy times of their c***dhood. Certainly it was the place for which Thomas held the greatest affection and was as close to being a home as he had ever known. Their sojourn at the mill lasted some four years before the two siblings were separated. Laura-Ann was sent to her mother’s relations and Thomas went to live with his Aunt Polly and her husband Isaac Brake on a farm some four miles from Clarksburg.
It was a miserable time for young Thomas. He was treated as a pariah in the f****y and suffered verbal and physical abuse. He stuck it out for over a year before doing something about it and what he did demonstrates possibly more than anything the nascent qualities that would come to characterise the man he would become. He ran away from the f****y but his cousin caught up with him in Clarksburg and admonished him to return to the Brake’s farm. He adopted the sullen resistance for which he would become famous and replied, “Maybe I ought to ma-am, but I am not going to.” Instead he turned around and, in a feat of determination and endurance that would become all too familiar to the veterans that served under him later, he walked the eighteen miles back, through rough country, to his Uncle’s mill. He was twelve years old!
Thomas remained at the Mill for the next seven years. They were seven years that forged the character of this young man. His uncle was not a particularly affectionate man, indeed he was very strict with Thomas, but nevertheless the young man looked up to him as his mentor and teacher. The f****y was strictly Presbyterian and Thomas was brought up in an evangelical zeal bordering on fanaticism which imprinted an unquestioning religious devotion in him. He herded sheep on his Uncle’s property and drove the ox teams to harvest the wheat and corn. His attendance at school was sporadic but he was taught by his uncle and educated himself from borrowed books that he would read by the light of burning pine knots late into the night. It was those burning pine knots and desire for education that would lead to one of the most curious, enigmatically illuminating episodes of his young life.
In common with most well to do landowners of his age in Virginia, Cummins Jackson owned slaves. It was with one of these slaves that Thomas made a startling and dangerous pact. In return for the pine knots that Thomas relied upon for his reading he agreed to teach the slave to read and write. This was entirely i*****l. Ever since Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Southampton County in 1831 it had been i*****l under Virginia law to teach literacy to any African slave, free black or mulatto. Educated black and coloured people were a threat to the very institution of slavery.
That Thomas chose to ignore this law illustrates the ambiguous attitudes he harboured towards slavery. On the one hand he personally found slavery disagreeable but his religious upbringing instilled an acceptance of it in him. It was an article of faith among the Presbyterian church of Virginia that the institution of slavery was ordained by God himself and that slavery was the rightful place of those people of African descent within a God fearing Christian society. Thomas believed this crap in the same way that over a century and a half later, the church would still believe that natural homosexual people were abominations in the eyes of God and thus accursed in the view of righteous Christians. The slave in the story here profited from Thomas’ tuition. Once he had achieved literacy he ran away via the “Underground Railroad” to freedom in Canada. Doubtless the preachers would denounce his heinous crime against God from the pulpit and point out the dangers of raising the black man above the desirable state of ignorance necessary for his subservience to the Christian white man.
In teaching the slave, Thomas seems to have found some sort of vocation for, in his later years at Jackson’s Mill, he became a school teacher in spite of his own indifferent education. In 1842 that education was just barely enough to gain Thomas entrance to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He was well behind the other students of course and started at the bottom of his class. That stubborn streak of determination in him however served him well and he became one of the hardest working students at the academy. He graduated in 1846, 17th out of 59 in his class and it was said of him that had he stayed another year he would have graduated first. One thing he never really learned very well at West Point was horsemanship. In spite of sharing a room with George Stoneman, who would later become a cavalry general in the Union Army of the Civil War, Thomas was an indifferent rider.
Nearly as soon as he had graduated and attained the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Ist United States Artillery Regiment, Thomas was sent away to war. The American Mexican War of 1846 to 1848 was a handy little business for the United States and one of the most profitable military endeavours ever carried out by its armed f***es. Victory in the war led to the acquisition of a vast region encompassing the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, a huge expansion in the territory of the United States, yet it seems oddly overlooked these days. Perhaps it has been quietly brushed under the carpet. It was after all a pretty aggressive land grab that comes perilously close to f***ed colonisation which sits uncomfortably with the United States’ anti colonial self imagery. It’s a bit of an embarrassment in other words that, however nicely you dress it up, the war was little more than a straightforward territorial conquest aimed at expanding the United States to the Pacific at the cost of a post colonial nation state on its south western borders. Just to sweeten its successful acquisition of this enormous swathe of land, in 1848, the very year that California became a part of the United States, a man called James W Marshall, a foreman working at the construction of a lumber mill at Sutter’s Mill near Coloma on the American River flowing from the Sierra Nevada mountains, discovered a shiny yellow metal in the tailrace of the mill and precipitated the great gold rush of 1849.
Young Lieutenant Jackson had a generally good war in 1846-8. He distinguished himself in combat but there are incidents which once again illustrate the maddeningly contradictory nature of this often baffling man. He rose to become Second Lieutenant in regular army rank but also obtained several brevet promotions (temporary ranks authorized by warrant on an officer usually for the duration of military campaigns but not affecting their permanent rank or seniority). He showed himself to be a thinking soldier during the assault on Chapultepec Castle by refusing to obey a command to withdraw his troops (an ironic display of stubbornness when viewed in retrospect!) on the grounds that withdrawal was more hazardous than continuing his outnumbered artillery duel with the enemy. In fact this was entirely the correct decision. He had disobeyed a bad order and a brigade was later able to exploit the advantage his stand had produced. In contrast however, during the assault on Mexico City, he was given an equally bad order to open fire on a civilian throng. This time his strength of character abandoned him and he obeyed in spite of his disagreement with the order. Thomas was always full of these bewildering contradictions.
Nevertheless he finished up the war with a fine reputation, reaching the brevet rank of major and having been awarded more brevet promotions than nearly any other officer in the army. He came to the notice of senior officers as a competent aggressive commander. One officer he met during this war would come to have profound consequences for Thomas in his later career. This was a tall handsome staff officer, of great charm and old fashioned courtesy, who also distinguished himself during the American Mexican war. His name was Robert Edward Lee.
Following the war there was a long period of peace and Thomas sought meaningful military employment. His teaching days at Jackson’s Mill were his guidance in this for, in 1851, he accepted a new teaching post at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia; the oldest state supported military college in the United States. He was to become a professor in Natural and Experimental Philosophy (whatever that meant) and an instructor in artillery. He produced very high quality work and indeed some of his teachings, encompassing as they do such essential military qualities of discipline, reconnaissance and tactical mobility, are still taught at the VMI. In spite of this he was an unpopular teacher known to his students as old “Tom Fool”. His lectures were delivered woodenly by rote memory with little illuminating explanation and he was a strict disciplinarian who lacked the ability to endear himself to his students or to inspire them. He was frequently lampooned by his students for his eccentricities and religious fervour and there was even an attempt to have him removed as a teacher by a group of alumni in 1856.
Despite his shortcomings as a teacher Thomas found personal happiness and stability in his life during his tenure at the Institute. It was not achieved without heartbreak however. In 1853 he married Elinor Junkin, the daughter of the president of Washington College in Lexington. They moved into an annex built on to the president’s own residence; a residence later occupied by Robert E Lee when he in turn became president of the college. The marriage was a very short one. The old Jackson f****y curse came back to haunt the newly wed couple for the following year Elinor gave birth to a stillborn son and then died an hour later from the haemorrhaging caused by the birth.
In 1857 Thomas married again. His new bride was Mary Anna Morrison from North Carolina whose father was the president of Davidson College. Mary was the great love of Thomas’ life. It is curiously endearing that this normally taciturn gruff man, not known for his displays of human emotion, found a tender side of him touched by his wife. His tender, affectionate letters to her still survive to give us an insight into the gentler feelings of this bewilderingly enigmatic man’s character. Inevitably however the ill fortune of the Jackson f****y rose again. Their first daughter. Mary Graham, was born in April 1858. She died a month later. They had a second daughter in 1862. This girl did survive infancy but Thomas never saw her grow up. She was less than a year old when he marched off to battle at a place called Chancellorsville.
Perhaps the most telling insights from this domestic interlude in Thomas’ life are illustrated by his relationship with the African-American population of Lexington. In a continuation of his earlier teaching of a slave at his Uncle’s mill, Thomas organised and ran a Sunday School in 1856 for black people at his Presbyterian church. He and his wife both taught at this school and it would seem that his teaching efforts here were far more appreciated than those at the Military Institute. Indeed he seems to have completely ignored the legality of teaching coloured people and he became revered among the African-Americans of Lexington both slaves and free blacks for his efforts to educate them. Doubtless he was motivated by religious zeal for he considered it a sacred duty to extend the word of the gospels to the coloured population. He considered the African race to be ignorant and that may sound racist (and it was racist) but it was also a statement of fact. Black people in Virginia in the 1850s were ignorant; deliberately so as education was consciously denied to them. To his great credit Thomas attempted to redress that shameful policy of denying education to black people and cared not that he contravened Virginia law in doing so. It is a major point in his favour that he was beloved and revered by the black people of Lexington for his championship of their betterment and all the more baffling that he would one day fight so hard and long to maintain the disgraceful institution that kept them enslaved.
Thomas and his f****y were wealthy enough to possess their own slaves. In fact they had six altogether and it is interesting to see how they came by them. They had a female slave called Hetty and her two teenage sons, George and Cyrus, which they obtained as wedding presents. It may shock us into dumbfounded silence now to think that a little over 150 years ago in America a human being could be given to somebody as a wedding present in the same way as we might now give a fish slice or a tea set but this was routine in the Southern States at that time. Then there was Albert. Albert actually begged Thomas to buy him and allow him to work toward his freedom. Thomas seems to have agreed to allow Albert to do this and Albert was hired out as a waiter in a Lexington Hotel and for functions at the VMI. Amy, who became the Jackson household’s cook and housekeeper (all the best cooks in the Southern States were slaves at this time and their contribution to Southern cuisine has been deep and long lasting), was another slave who asked Thomas to buy her from the auction block. Finally there was little Emma. Emma was six years old and had, what we would call today, a learning disability. Thomas doesn’t seem to have paid much if anything for her but took her off the hands of an aging widow and gave her to his wife as a coming home present. It is hard to see what use the household could have made of a very young handicapped c***d and the overwhelming feeling is that Thomas took the c***d in through compassion, almost as if he adopted her.
All of this begs the question as to just how Thomas regarded the institution of slavery; an institution which, after all, he would, by the machinations of fate, become a champion of. Dr James Robertson Jr of the Virginia Centre for Civil War Studies has summarised it by saying “Jackson neither apologized for nor spoke in favor of the practice of slavery. He probably opposed the institution. Yet in his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.” It is probably as close as we’re going to get to this complex man’s ambiguity towards the terrible injustice that he would be called upon to defend.
In 1859 Thomas bought a brick town house at 8 East Washington Street in Lexington. It was the only house he ever possessed but his tenure of it was to be short lived. Two years later war would break out and he would never return to the house. That same year of 1859 saw some of the opening reverberations of the convulsion that would tear the country apart. A fanatical abolitionist named John Brown led a madcap, ill-advised raid on an armoury at Harper’s Ferry at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers on the borders of Virginia and Maryland.
In spite of his martyrdom in the name of slave emancipation John Brown was hardly an exemplary example of a noble crusader. In fact he had forged a reputation as an advocate of v******e and cold bl**ded murder during the vicious conflict that had been convulsing the State of Kansas since 1854. To most Americans the first shots of the Civil War were fired in anger at Fort Sumter on April 12th 1861 but, in so called “Bleeding Kansas”, something as close to civil war as makes no difference had been raging for the best part of seven years between pro-slavery and emancipation militias prior to that date. Brown had shown himself to be equal to the ruthless nature of that bitter conflict most notably with the massacre of five unarmed men with broadswords at Pottawatomie in 1856. It is a further tarnish on his reputation that the first man murdered during the raid on Harper’s Ferry was not a white pro-slavery enemy but in fact a free black man called Hayward Shepherd who was a baggage handler on the east bound Baltimore and Ohio train approaching the town who was gunned down whilst trying to warn the passengers as Brown’s men attempted to stop the train.
The whole Harper’s Ferry affair was a misconceived almost farcical endeavour and after three days holed up under siege in the armoury Brown and his surviving followers finally surrendered to an assault by a company of U.S Marines. The same people keep running into each other through this story for the officer commanding this company was Thomas’ old mentor from the American-Mexican war: Robert E Lee. One of the lieutenants involved in the assault was one James Ewell Brown Stuart, later to become the most famous cavalry commander in the Confederate f***es of the Civil War.
Thomas’ role in this sorry affair was to command a small detachment of twenty one artillery cadets from the VMI and two howitzers at the subsequent trial and martyrdom of Brown at Charlestown. With tensions rising high, the state of Virginia had beefed up its military presence around the trial fearing outbreaks of unrest. Brown was hanged on the 2nd of December in 1859 and while Thomas (now a major) hardly had much in the way of a military command he could at least have boasted to be present at the lighting of the tinderbox that would plunge the nation into civil war just fifteen months later.
The final deed that pushed the country over the brink towards war came as a result of the presidential election in 1860. The Republican party had nominated a man riding on a platform opposed to the expansion of slavery beyond the institution’s southern heartland. It all sounded very like a move toward emancipation to the slave holding states of the American south and the new Republican candidate rapidly became their bête noir. The candidate was a previously little known politician from Kentucky. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
The country polarised around the election with the northern, non slave holding, states rallying to Lincoln’s banner and the southern states bitterly opposed to him and falling behind the Democratic candidate. It is incredible that in the latter part of the twentieth century the Democratic Party of the United States would become the champion of civil rights for African Americans and the overwhelming majority of people of African descent would vote Democrat. Yet in 1860 the Democratic Party was anything but its later metamorphosis. It was pro-slavery and ran its campaign with an unadulterated racism that would appal anybody today; waving banners depicting innocent looking white girls being pawed by grotesquely caricatured black men being encouraged by Lincoln. The world, as we shall see, changes.
Some parts change faster than others. After Lincoln was elected in 1860 the divisions in the country became profound and irreconcilable. On the 20th of December the State of South Carolina formally seceded from the Union. The States were United no longer. By the 1st February 1861 South Carolina had been joined by Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. On the 4th of February these seven sates declared themselves to be a separate sovereign nation; the Confederate States of America. After the opening rounds of conflict had been fired in anger at Fort Sumter they were joined by North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and, pertinently, Virginia. Thomas of course was a Virginian although ironically he came from the North West of Virginia; a region that would later secede from the rest of the state to align with the north and become the new state of West Virginia.
The eleven states that constituted the new Confederacy claimed their authority to rebel against the United States upon the precedent set by their forefathers in the Revolutionary War. They saw it as a new revolution in exactly the same way that the states of America had revolted eighty years ago to cast off the perceived tyranny of its masters. But the world had changed dramatically in those intervening eighty years. The revolution, the real revolution, had occurred not in the southern states but in the north; a revolution being mirrored across the Atlantic in America’s old masters, Great Britain. The southern rebellion of 1861 was not so much a revolutionary one but a reactionary backlash to a changing world. The north was the changing society; industrialising, becoming more urban, less controlled by a landed gentry. It was the society of railroads, telegraphs, industrial conurbations, new means of mass production and rapidly changing societal values. The south remained mired in an essentially agrarian economy dominated by wealthy landowners who ruled their fiefs in a way that would have been instantly recognisable to the aristocratic hierarchy who had lorded over the European lands that America had cast aside eighty years earlier, prior to the industrial revolution.
The Southern States never seemed to understand how the world had changed outside its blinkered little fantasy land of southern gentry lording it over their vast plantations. Ironically the major cash crop of their gentry’s wealth, cotton, had kick-started the new revolution in the textile mills of old England yet when they sent emissaries to England seeking recognition for their new Confederacy they found little sympathy among the new classes ruling the industrial towns of Lancashire for a country dedicated to an antiquated feudalism. They were a backwater; in a sense the last throw of the dice for feudal gentry in the western world. The world was changing and they were desperately trying to hold back the course of change and cling on to what they possessed.
The ruling hierarchy of the South did possess great wealth. Even while resisting the winds of industrial change sweeping the world they had nevertheless become rich from it. The mill towns consumed all the cotton they could send and the rich landowners fantasised that the world could not live without them. They also possessed the one thing that made all this wealth possible; the very workf***e that tended and harvested their great cotton plantations; slaves; some four million human beings held in bondage under the lash to pluck the cotton from the fields to maintain their masters’ lives of pampered luxury. Now the changing world was threatening to take their slaves away from them. This last bastion, of feudalism in America, stood up to declare that they would rather die than let such an outrage occur.
Of course the landed gentry of the South did a disproportionately small amount of the dying in the war they started. It was commonly said by the Confederate foot soldiers of the Civil War that it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. Wealth and slaves were held by a rich minority. In the 1860 census there were around 393,975 slaveholders in the Southern and Border States or about eight percent of the white population. Of these slaveholders 88% held less than 20 slaves and 50% held fewer than five. Less than one percent of all slaveholders (that’s around three to four thousand landowners) owned more than 200 slaves on their estates. Overwhelmingly the men who did the fighting and the dying for the cause of Southern slavery had never owned a slave in their lives and probably never would have done. For all the noble talk of State rights and freedoms the Civil War was a conflict perpetrated by the avarice of wealthy slave owners and paid for in bl**d by poor men fighting for a cause that didn’t belong to them.
It is a little vague how Thomas, who possessed at best an ambiguous attitude to the institution of slavery, would come to fight in the armies defending it. It is probable that he simply became part of the Confederate army because he was a Virginian and served in a Virginian military academy. Certainly his old friend and mentor Robert E Lee joined for that very reason; a loyalty to his own state and Robert was even less sound on the institution of slavery than Thomas. In fact Robert found the whole notion of slavery disagreeable and immoral and had in fact freed all his own f****y’s slaves prior to the outbreak of war. The two greatest champions of slavery were in fact two men who, at the very best, possessed a distasteful tolerance of it.
After the opening salvos of the war had been sounded at Fort Sumter on the 12th of April 1861 Thomas had just fifteen days to put his affairs in order before once again marching off to war. He provided for his f****y and his slaves, said a last farewell to his house on East Washington Street (he would never live there again), kissed his beloved Mary and then, on the orders of Governor John Letcher, travelled to Harper’s Ferry to take command and to raise a brigade. This brigade, consisting of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd Virginia Infantry Regiments, was Thomas’ greatest creation and would rise to become the most famous and decorated infantry brigade in the entire Confederate army. It was largely recruited from men in and around the Shenandoah Valley, the very theatre of war where both it and Thomas would forge their greatest triumphs and reputation. It was also the brigade that would one day carry Thomas’ most famous name into battle but, in the spring and early summer of 1861, Thomas had yet to acquire that name. That name was to become attached to him at the end of the third week in July in the first great battle of the Civil War.
There are two rivers called Bull Run in the United States of America. One is a fast flowing river up in Oregon but the one everybody has heard of rises in the Bull Run Mountains of Loudon County in Virginia. It’s not much of a river to tell the truth and were it not for the events of 1861 and 1862 it would have remained happily obscure. It’s only some thirty odd miles long before it flows into the Occoquan River which in its turn is a tributary of the Potomac. By the time Bull Run draws near the city of Manassas it’s little more than a wide sluggish creek but across this river was fought the first major land battle of the American Civil War.
The battle is called “First Battle of Bull Run but that’s only its name on the Union side of the conflict. To the confused exasperation of any historian studying the American Civil War, battles were often given different names on opposite sides of the conflict. Thus the battle the Confederates called “Shiloh” was the “Battle of Pittsburgh Landing” to the Union and the battle the Union called “Antietam” was named “Sharpsburg” on the Confederate side. Thus the two battles of Bull Run were called First and Second Manassas in the Confederate South. Manassas wasn’t any more significant than the Bull Run river in fact. It’s a small city of just short of 38,000 people today but back in 1861 it was little more than a railway junction.
It’s worth taking a look in more detail at this battle because it was not only Thomas’ first battle of the war (he had been involved in a few skirmishes prior to this) but it is also the place where he acquired his name. Before Bull Run he was virtually an unknown; a man without a name. After Bull Run he had one of the most famous nicknames in American history; a name that would become part of the American language. How he actually acquired that name is still a matter of controversy to this day however and the word he bequeathed to the national lexicon is still tainted by the contradictory nature of it.
As any American high school student who didn’t actually fall into complete u*********sness during his school history lessons will tell you, the first Battle of Bull Run was a crushing Confederate victory. It wasn’t meant to be that way. Brigadier General Irwin Mcdowell’s Union Army of North Eastern Virginia was, at 35,000 strong, the largest field army ever gathered together in the history of North America to that point. It was substantially larger than the 22,000 men that General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (there’s a name to conjure with!) could field against him in the Confederate Army of the Potomac. Moreover the Union had a further 18,000 men under Major General Robert Patterson to pin down Joseph E Johnston’s 12,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley. Had these f***es been even remotely handled with competence the great Southern rebellion could have been over barely as soon as it had begun.
But it wasn’t! The whole campaign went tits up before hardly a shot had been fired in anger. Patterson fannied about in the Shenandoah Valley like an old hen and utterly failed to engage Johnston’s army with the result that Johnston was able to place his entire command on railway trains and rush them eastwards to reinf***e Beauregard. They would still never have arrived in time for the battle had McDowell got his arse into gear and made anything like a decent pace towards Bull Run. He was reluctant to commit to battle because he feared his troops were too green. President Lincoln urged him on by pointing out correctly that the Confederate troops facing him were just as green as his own were. It didn’t seem to spur him on the greater effort. Instead he dithered about and crept up to the battlefield at a speed that would have shamed a stranded turtle. Just to compound his tardiness he then started having vapours about his communications and duly despatched five thousand men from his army to cover his rear! In essence Union bungling had reduced a massive superiority in numbers to something approaching parity before the battle had even begun.
For all that, McDowell’s attack on the Bull Run river came within a whisker of success. Military bungling was by no means confined to the Union command. In spite of his long forewarning of the impending assault Beauregard completely misread McDowell’s intentions. He concentrated the bulk of his army along the river covering the approaches to the fords and bridges on the right flank of the battlefield certain that McDowell would wish to capture the railroads concentrated in that part of the battlefield. Instead McDowell launched his attack several miles upstream. Ten thousand Union soldiers battered into around four and a half thousand surprised rebels and pushed them back. Some Confederate troops broke and ran. For a critical period it seemed as if McDowell was on the verge of a resounding success.
The whole Union logistic train had been swollen by hundreds of prominent citizens, Senators, Congressmen, newspaper reporters, and anybody with the wherewithal to hire a carriage in Washington, had come to witness the battle as if war was some kind of bizarre spectator sport. This retinue of useless mouths were sending jubilant telegraphs back to the capital predicting impending victory. Nobody had yet heard of Thomas Jackson.
Thomas was a relatively late arrival at the battle. He didn’t actually take up a position with his brigade until around noon by which time the Confederate f***es were fighting a series of increasingly desperate delaying actions against heavy union attacks. The rebels were attempting to regroup on a hill topped by the house of an aging, bedridden widow called Judith Henry who was sadly killed when a cannonball demolished her bedroom. It was on this focal hill that Thomas deployed his men and it was on this hill where he won his name.
What exactly happened has never been decided one way or another to anybody’s satisfaction and the only man that could have given a conclusive answer died shortly after in the battle. Thomas had positioned his brigade and 13 field guns on the reverse slope of the hill. It was a clever deployment for each time his guns fired they rolled back down the reverse slope with the recoil and could be reloaded in safety from cover. Also they were in range of the Union’s guns and, for once, the short range nullified the inherent advantage of the Union’s superior rifled cannon over the Confederate smooth bore pieces. In fact most of the Union rounds were flying harmlessly over the rebel’s heads. Thomas was a bit of an expert when it came to positioning his artillery.
In any case, having planted himself just where he wanted to be, Thomas was damned if he was going to move. It was his same stubborn refusal to back out of a position that we first saw at Chapultepec in 1847. It was this obstinacy; this refusal to budge an inch that earned him his title. The man who gave it to him was a certain Confederate Brigadier General Barnard Elliot Bee.
Just how and why Bee gave him the name is distinctly open to question however. The story that became popularised; the one that made such heroic reading in the Richmond Enquirer after the battle, shows Thomas as the hero of the day whose stubborn resistance inspired the faltering Confederate line to hold fast in the face of the Union assault. In this version Bee is supposed to have pointed to Thomas and his brigade on Henry Hill and shouted, “"There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!" All stirring stuff no doubt and just the kind of thing the Southern public wanted to hear. However there is an alternative account that is quite different. In this version Bee was not admiring Thomas’’ heroic stand but becoming increasingly frustrated by Thomas’ refusal to move from his position to come to the aid of Bee’s own f***es. He therefore shouted "Look at Jackson standing there like a damned stone wall!" We don’t know which story is true and Bee himself can shed no light on the matter for he was killed shortly after.
Now whichever of those stories you accept (and I have my own opinion as to which is the more believable) it nevertheless is the incident that gave Thomas his name. He would be “Stonewall” Jackson forever more and a new word had entered the American vocabulary. The word itself however is tainted in subtle ways by the manner in which it was coined. To “stonewall” came to mean to stubbornly resist; obstinately refuse to budge or to cooperate. It has the additional flavour however of meaning to refuse to move in a bad cause; to resist change: a reactionary obstinacy of an old guard in defiance of needful progress. In view of later events I shall come to describe this meaning to the word is deliciously ironic.
Certainly Bull Run was a confused affair and it was one of Thomas’s regiments that eventually turned the course of the battle in a typically muddled way. The 33rd Virginia regiment attacked a pair of Union guns under the command of an artillery commander called Griffin. In these early days of the war the uniforms on each side had not yet become standardised and the 33rd wore blue uniforms causing the Union troops to mistake them for their own until they were on top of them and had over-run the guns. The 33rd then fell on the flank of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Thomas, seeing the opportunity flung two more of his regiments into the fray. After bitter fighting the last Union troops were f***ed off Henry Hill by four o’clock in the afternoon and the battle had turned decisively in favour of the Confederacy. Beauregard ordered his entire line forward and the Union front collapsed. The retreat over the Bull Run river turned into a rout and the Washington notables were scrabbling for every horse and wagon they could lay hands on to flee back to the capital.
In many respects the Confederate victory at Bull Run was a national tragedy. The legacy of the battle would have profound consequences. Its boost to Southern morale was immediate and enormous and led to the fondly held belief in the superiority of Southern arms over their Northern opponents. It was a misguided belief for the North drew a different lesson from the battle. It hardened Northern resolve and fostered a determination to start to take the war seriously; to mobilise its full resources of manpower and massive industrial output to prosecute all out war. In that respect it was a tragedy for the South, for that determination to bring the full might of Northern resources to bear would lead to the ruination and ravaging of the Southern homelands. Had the South lost the battle perhaps it would have been spared the disasters which would befall it and for an outcome that would have been the same in any case. There was a further tragedy of course. Had the Confederacy lost the battle decisively the whole war might have come to an end there and then. The nation might have been spared the years of bl**dletting to come and the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men.
Although dwarfed by the carnage to come over the next few years, the butcher’s bill at Bull Run was, up until then, the bl**diest battle yet fought on American soil. 847 men lost their lives on both sides and another 4,031 men were wounded, captured or listed as missing. Apart from a new name Thomas himself carried away a souvenir of the battle. It was a curiosity of Thomas that he would raise his hand high in the midst of battle. Some thought it an eccentricity; others thought it an impeachment to the Almighty. It was also a pretty silly thing to do. He was struck in the hand by a Union bullet which carried away some of the bone in one finger. He refused point blank to have the finger amputated.
If it was at Bull Run where Thomas earned his name it was in the Shenandoah Valley where he won his reputation. Newly promoted to Major General, Thomas was ordered to take command of the Valley District with his headquarters at Winchester. In the spring of 1862 the valley was threatened by a Union army under the command of Major General Nathaniel P Banks. The Shenandoah Valley suited Thomas and his men down to the ground. Many of his veterans indeed came from the valley and they knew its terrain intimately. Moreover Thomas had never lost that steely determination on the march he had learned when hiking back to his uncle’s mill when he was twelve years old. His men covered ground at a remarkable pace; crossing mountains and passes and forever turning up where least expected by the bewildered Union troops.
It was Thomas at his brilliant best. Old “Tom Fool” no longer, he demonstrated all the wile and cunning of a fox; running rings around his opponents in a campaign that is still hailed as a classic to this day. His army never numbered more than 17,000 men yet, apart from a minor setback at Kernstown, he outmanoeuvred, out thought and outfought a Union f***e of 60,000 men winning five battles in the space of 48 days. Nathaniel Banks was outclassed.
For all Thomas’ brilliance in the Shenandoah Valley, the theatre was essentially a sideshow. The real crisis in the late spring and early summer of 1862 was looming to the east where an enormous union army, assembled and trained by General George B McClellan, was threatening to break out from the Virginia peninsular and march on the Confederate capital of Richmond itself. On the last day of May and the first of June an inconclusive battle called the Battle of Seven Pines was fought on this peninsular. Although it was the largest battle in the eastern theatre up until this point and cost a total of 11,000 casualties between the two sides, little was decided.
There was one very significant change on the Confederate side however. The Confederate Army of Virginia’s commander Joseph E Johnston, was riding on his horse around dusk on the first day of the battle when he was struck in the shoulder by a bullet and almost immediately after by a shell fragment that hit him in the chest. He fell from his horse severely wounded and was evacuated to Richmond. In the fighting the following day Johnston’s replacement, Major General G. W Smith proved to be indecisive and unimpressive. The day after the battle therefore President Jefferson Davis decided to replace him. The man he sent to take command was none other than Thomas’ old friend and mentor from the Mexican American war, Robert Edward Lee.
To begin with, Lee’s new appointment was not popular with the troops or the public in Richmond. He was perceived to be an overly cautious and timid commander nicknamed “Granny Lee” by his men. A more inaccurate assessment of his fighting character would be hard to imagine. Lee set about immediately in shoring up the defences around Richmond, digging a massive network of entrenchments. For this he was ridiculed by the public and press as “Excavating Lee” or the “King of Spades”.
Certainly Lee did not appear to be of great martial calibre. He was a conservative, rather mild sort of man, always impeccably dressed, of courteous and genteel manner, dignified and kindly. He was a charming and affable, if reserved sort of gentleman. He was just the kind of man you would have liked to have had as a dinner guest but these qualities hardly seemed to fit him for the role of a fighting general facing the crisis of early summer 1862 when McClellan seemed poised to swoop down on Richmond and crush the Confederacy for good. This outward facade was an illusion however. Beneath his well mannered exterior Lee was a cunning and aggressive fighter with the instincts of a gambler willing to risk all on the toss of a dice. He was, without question, the best general in the entire Confederate army.
His opponent in the peninsular was an entirely different character. McClellan was feisty and belligerent sounding with an ego a mile wide and given to self aggrandizement; revelling in his reputation as the “Napoleon of the North”. To give him his due, the well trained and equipped Union Army of the Potomac was virtually entirely his creation. But having forged this formidable weapon he would prove in combat to be the least suitable man to wield it. He was a nervous old hen on a battlefield, cautious to and beyond the point of timidity; continuously failing to exploit his own numerical superiority and, believing always that he was outnumbered, bleating incessantly for reinf***ements he didn’t need. Against Lee he was out of his depth.
Lee, facing a far more numerous enemy, did need reinf***ements and the most significant f***e available to him in his defence of Richmond was away in the Shenandoah Valley. Lee recalled it to the eastern front and Thomas brought his army eastwards to the peninsular. With that act, one of military history’s great double acts was brought into being.
It is an often seen common thread throughout military history where a great commander has a brilliant and dynamic subordinate; a sort of sword held in the clenched fist of the commander to be unleashed and allowed to rampage at the decisive moment; Eisenhower had his Patton, Slim had his Wingate, Marlborough his Prinz Eugen, Guderian his Rommel and so on. Of course later in this same war came another famous duo; the devastating combination of Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. In this way Thomas was Robert Lee’s sword; the man he could rely on to land the decisive coup on the battlefield. Of course the analogy shouldn’t be taken too far. Lee also possessed the services of General James Longstreet whose role in Lee’s successes are often underestimated. Longstreet was of a more defensive mindset than Thomas’ daring offensive instincts and it is often said that Jackson was Lee’s hammer and Longstreet his anvil. This is another analogy that can be over emphasised for sometimes, most notably at the Second Battle of Bull Run, the roles were reversed. Also, in James Ewell Brown Stuart, Lee possessed one of the most outstanding cavalry commanders of the war.
Nevertheless there was, it has to be said, a very special relationship between Thomas and his superior officer. Lee, in spite of his tactical brilliance, was prone to certain faults. One of those faults came from one of the very qualities that made him such an agreeably pleasant companion. His orders were frequently so courteously and deferentially phrased that his subordinates often took them to be suggestions rather than direct commands and failed in consequence to carry them out. With Thomas, Lee had no such problem. There was a deep, almost telepathic understanding between the two men and Lee would come to refer to Thomas as his right hand. Whenever Lee wanted somebody to perform the outrageously audacious, Thomas was the man he called upon to perform the task.
On the face of it, two men of more different character would be hard to imagine. Lee was a courteous, genteel man of great charm, suave and impeccably mannered. Thomas was a gruff eccentric not known for his social graces to put it mildly. He is even suspected by some psychologists of suffering from Asperger’s syndrome and certainly some of his peculiarities are eye opening. He was known for instance to fall asl**p with food still in his mouth and carried a life long conviction that one of his arms was longer than the other! The story that Thomas sucked lemons continuously to relieve his dyspepsia is almost certainly untrue however. For one thing lemons were hard to come by in the war ravaged economy of the Confederate States. Thomas regarded them as a treat for he loved all kinds of fruit, particularly peaches.
Even the physical appearance of the two men was in sharp contrast. Lee was invariably well turned out, wearing his dress uniforms with quiet dignity and studied grace. Thomas on the other hand looked little different from any other bedraggled member of his army in tattered old uniform and battered old boots. Lee looked every inch the gentleman, Thomas looked like a tramp. There is a lovely story that illustrates Thomas’ dress sense. Just before the Battle of Fredericksburg the dashing cavalry officer, J.E.B Stuart, presented Thomas with a fine new General’s coat he had had made at the best tailors in Richmond. Thomas’ old coat was threadbare and lacking buttons but he liked it and at first didn’t want to wear the new coat. His staff insisted on him wearing it to dinner however and he gruffly agreed with great reluctance. In the event half the army turned out to see him dressed in his new finery, so unusual was the sight. Thomas was so embarrassed by the whole affair that he refused to wear the coat for months afterwards.
In spite of their apparent differences there was nevertheless a deep mutual respect between the two men. Thomas was the one man who could share Robert Lee’s visionary battlefield concepts. Alone among his subordinates Thomas was the commander to whom Lee could give deliberately non detailed orders and expect him to carry out his wishes completely. It was a deadly combination and the bane of nearly every Union commander that faced it.
There is one other similarity I must mention. Lee’s own attitude toward slavery, the very institution for which the South fought to defend, was every bit as ambiguous as Thomas’ was. Robert’s own wife and daughter ran an i*****l school for slaves on their Arlington plantation and Lee himself abhorred slavery although, in common with Thomas, regarded it as a condition ordained by God. His own views can be read in a letter he wrote to his wife in 1856, long before the war. “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.” Lee himself liberated his own slaves and was a spokesmen for the cause of freeing black slaves and enlisting them in the Confederate army late in the war when ever growing Northern numerical superiority threatened to overwhelm the reeling Confederacy. It is a supreme irony therefore that, among all the Generals in the Confederate army, the two men who fought the hardest and most effectively to maintain the odious institution of slavery were the two men with the greatest moral misgivings concerning it.
For all that the relationship between Thomas and Robert would flourish into a great partnership, it got off to a slow start. About the best thing that Thomas did in the peninsular campaign was to turn up at all. His shifting of his army from the Shenandoah Valley to join Lee facing McClellan was a triumph of logistics and his surprise arrival in front of the Union armies caused even more vapours than usual to consume General McClellan with doubt and finally convinced him, erroneously, that the Confederate f***es outnumbered him heavily. Lee, sensing his opponent’s timidity and knowing he could not win a battle of attrition against the larger Union army, demonstrated that gambler’s nerve he would come to be famous for. He swung over to the offensive, leaving his defences of Richmond relatively weak in order to concentrate his f***es against the weak points in McClellan’s flank. So began the battle known as the “Seven Days Battle”.
Thomas was not at his best in this battle. It is likely he was exhausted from the exertions of his Valley campaign and further wilted by his feat in moving his army east in such a hurry. Whatever the reason, his performance at Seven Days was quite poor. His troops fought well enough but Thomas himself seemed uncharacteristically lethargic and hesitant. Lee’s overall plan was complex and required the close cooperation and adherence of his junior officers. He didn’t get it and Thomas, on this occasion, must bear some of the blame for that. As a result Lee failed to gain the victory he had hoped for.
It was nevertheless a victory of sorts. It’s an old adage in war that the battle lost is the battle you think you have lost. McClellan’s troops fought well and absorbed pretty much everything the Confederate armies threw at them. Seven Days was an appalling bl**dbath for both sides but on the butcher’s slab the Union army came out ahead of the game inflicting over 20,000 casualties including 3,494 killed, 15,758 wounded and 952 captured or missing as against their own losses of 1,734 dead, 8,062 wounded and 6,053 captured or missing. They did not lose the Battle of Seven Days. The battle was lost in the mind of General George McClellan. Convinced to the end that he was holding out against overwhelming Confederate superiority when in fact his army heavily outnumbered their opponents he ordered a retreat until his army was safely back across the James River. Richmond was safe and the Confederate jubilation was enormous. Robert Lee was no longer “Granny Lee” but “Marse Robert” and would be until the end of his days. Only the most sober of judges would have thoughtfully noted that his strategic victory had been obtained at the cost of terrible casualties; casualties the smaller pool of manpower available to the Confederacy could ill afford in any protracted war with the North.
After the Seven Days battle Lee reorganised his army into two major wings; one under Longstreet and the other under Thomas. It was a combination that would serve him well during the hot and bl**dy days of the summer of 1862. With McClellan neutralised and retreating from the peninsular Lee turned his attention North to the Union Army of Virginia under the command of Major General John Pope standing between him and the Union capital of Washington. The Northern Virginia Campaign was a brilliant campaign for Lee and his army. In early August, at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Thomas met his old foe, Nathaniel Banks, once more and beat him... again.
Lee concentrated both his wings together and pushed forward toward the Rappahannock River sending his brilliant cavalry commander, J.E.B Stuart to raid into the Union rear. The raids revealed the reinf***ement of Pope and McClellan’s armies to over 130,000 men, more than twice the size of the Confederate army. It also revealed the weakness in Pope’s right flank which Lee exploited, pushing him back on the Rappahannock River where the two armies skirmished for a few days towards the end of August. It was here that Lee pulled off one of those audacious gambles for which he would become famous, dividing his army and sending half of it under Stuart and Thomas to turn Pope’s flank once more. Thomas fulfilled his commanding officer’s faith in him admirably, striking deep to over-run the Union supply depot of Manassas Junction and causing Pope to abandon his defensive line of the Rappahannock and fall back toward Manassas. Lee then contrived to reunite the two wings of his army and marched them to face Pope close to where the whole bl**dy war might be said to have really started in earnest on the Bull Run River.
The Second Battle of Bull Run was, in some ways, an even greater disaster for the Union than the first although in the event not as great a disaster as it might have been. With McClellan neutralised in the peninsular Lee had been able to rush Major General Hill’s f***e of 12,000 men to reinf***e Thomas’ wing of the Confederate army. It was this wing that bore the brunt of the early part of the battle and Thomas’ old Brigade now forever more the “Stonewall” brigade were in the thick of the fighting around Brawner’s Farm on the 28th of August. Thomas held an advantage in this early part of the battle but was unable to press home his localised superiority and by the following day had fallen back on the defensive around a feature known as Stony Ridge. Here he faced the full fury of the Union assault and here he stood throughout that critical day until Longstreet came up on his right flank this time to play the hammer to Thomas’ anvil. Battered against Thomas’ obdurate defence and now reeling from Longstreet’s counter attack the Union assault collapsed and, by late afternoon on the 30th of August, the Union army was retreating abjectly back towards Centreville.
Pope had lost some 10,000 men killed and wounded from his army of 62,000 but at least his withdrawal was less chaotic than the Union retreat after the first battle of Bull Run. Lee had pulled off another memorable victory but it was a victory tempered by his own casualties; some 1,300 dead and another 7,000 wounded from his smaller f***e of 50,000 men. Moreover he had failed in one important regard. Pope’s army was not destroyed. The public in Washington were having the vapours once more and there was something approaching panic in the capital but Pope’s army was still intact. It was battered and bruised from its mauling on the Bull Run river but it was still larger than Lee’s own depleted army and still a formidable f***e to be reckoned with. Add to that McClellan’s f***es, which that General had disgracefully failed to use in support of Pope, and Lee still faced overwhelming odds.
To conclude the Virginia campaign Lee sent Thomas to try and destroy the remnants of Pope’s army at the Battle of Chantilly at the beginning of September by cutting their line of retreat. It was a bit of an inconclusive affair that added something over 2,000 casualties to the overall butcher’s bill on both sides. Thomas failed to cut off Pope’s Army of Virginia and it retreated safely back to be absorbed into McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The Confederate army declared themselves to be the tactical victors since at the end of the day they held the battlefield but in reality nothing much was changed. There was still a powerful Union army across the Potomac river between them and Washington.
The Virginia campaign and its tally of dazzling victories however had imbibed Lee’s Army of North Virginia with an almost sublime confidence in its superiority over its Union opponents. Lee, ever anxious to get at “those people” as he would always refer to his enemies as, rolled his gambler’s dice once more. In what can only be described as startling rashness he took his entire army north to invade the State of Maryland. Thomas was sent forward to attack the town of Harper’s Ferry where the Potomac River formed the border with Maryland.
McClellan countered this move by sending f***es to cut Thomas off from the main body of the Confederate army. It was a perfectly sound idea but unfortunately it was George McClellan attempting to execute it. McClellan’s dithering and incompetence doomed the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry. Thomas took the town at a ridiculously small cost and the entire garrison of nearly twelve and a half thousand men surrendered to him while the main body of the Union army failed utterly under McClellan’s nervous dabbling to do anything meaningful to prevent the disaster. There’s a famous story that when Thomas rode into the town to take the Union surrender a Union soldier saw him and remarked, “Boys, he isn’t much for looks, but if we’d had him we wouldn’t have been caught in this trap.”
But the battle at Harper’s Ferry was a sideshow. Bigger things were happening elsewhere. Lee always exploited his opponent’s timidity by dividing his army in their face and counting on them not to take advantage of his temporary weakness. But now he was facing an enormous Union army and his divided f***es were a liability. He sent an urgent message to Thomas, “Get your troops to Sharpsburg as quickly as possible.”
That Thomas was able to extricate the larger part of his army from Harper’s Ferry and march them to join Lee at Sharpsburg is as much a testimony to McClellan’s incompetence as to Lee or Thomas’ brilliance. He should never have let them get away with it. But he did and, on the 17th of September the two armies clashed near Sharpsburg in the most terrible battle of the war yet.
That battle is known in the North as the Battle of Antietam or as the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South. Whatever it was called it was a horrible affair. There were a total of 23,000 casualties between the two sides in a single day; 3,654 of them dead. It is the bl**diest single day in American military history. The Union army lost 25% of its strength and the Confederates some 31%. It was an appalling bl**dbath. For the South it could have been worse. It should have been worse. McClellan had Lee’s heavily outnumbered army at his mercy and with it the hopes of the Confederacy. You can’t help thinking that had Ulysses S Grant been in charge of the Army of the Potomac he would have finished the whole damned business there and then. But he wasn’t.
Lee conducted the battle with defensive brilliance helped by McClellan’s continual failure to commit his f***es to an all out effort to break the Confederate line. McClellan’s piecemeal attacks just ratcheted up the final tally of bl**dletting and failed utterly to destroy Lee’s army. By the end of the day both sides were exhausted and the whole awful business had come to an indecisive draw. Lee however was the first to withdraw and the Union could at least claim a tacit victory. It wasn’t much of a victory. McClellan’s performance had been pretty much wretched. He had allowed Lee to escape with his army intact to live and fight again to the loss of the lives of more tens of thousands of men to come.
Nevertheless, such as it was, the bl**dbath at Antietam can be counted at least a turning point in the war. A little bit of the lustre had come off Lee’s invincible reputation and his invasion of Maryland was at an end. There were reverses too in other theatres with the end of Confederate offensives in Kentucky and Mississippi. The tide was beginning to swing against the Confederacy.
In this moment one Union leader at least took a decisive blow at Confederate hopes and aspirations. Until the early fall of 1862, it had been possible to delude oneself that the war was still something to do with the nebulous issues of individual States’ rights against the principles of national unity. It was still possible to believe that if the South was unable to achieve complete separation from the North there was nevertheless the chance that somehow the North and South would yet come to peace terms that allowed the South back into the Union but with its own institutions more or less intact. On the 22nd of September 1862, just five days after the charnel house of Antietam, with a stroke of his pen, President Lincoln dashed all those delusions to dust.
In a lesson we should not forget throughout this narrative it was the very intransigent stubborn resistance of the South to change that eventually precipitated that very change it feared. Lincoln had long juggled a balancing act between those radicals in the North who demanded complete freedom for the South’s millions of slaves and the moderates who yet argued that slavery could be kept intact in the South in some modified form if that was what was required to restore the Union. But war tends to polarise attitudes and radicalise them. Opinion was hardening in the North and turning decisively against such moderate viewpoints. It seemed that the terrible sacrifices of the war would be meaningless if the South were merely reabsorbed into the Union with little change from the pre-war situation. The shedding of bl**d demands its own price in retribution and the more stubbornly the South fought the winds of change the more the clamour grew in the North for that very change. The indivisibility of the Union seemed a poor reason to throw away your life in the slaughter house of Antietam but freedom, freedom for the millions of oppressed; that was a noble cause indeed. On the 22nd of September therefore, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that said that from hereon and forever more the institution of slavery was abolished within the Union. The slaves were free.
It cannot be underestimated how decisive this proclamation was. In a single stroke it crystallised the conflict down to its basic tenet. The South was fighting to maintain millions of men, women and c***dren in odious bondage. The North was fighting to free them. It was a knife thrust to the delusions of Southern racism. With that one single document Lincoln captured the moral high ground and would never relinquish it.
The South had long held a fantasy that its newly declared State of independence would be recognised by other sovereign nations. In reality there was only one nation of importance to this wishful thinking; Great Britain. With the South being slowly strangled to death by Union blockade the recognition of Britain could have been decisive. In the mid nineteenth century Britain was a global superpower with the greatest navy on the planet. She alone could have broken the naval blockade of the South and her industrial resources were more than enough to make up the shortfall in the South’s own woefully inadequate industrial capacity. The North, already bleeding in its war with the South, would have been most reluctant to take on this power as well. So the South had wooed Britain assiduously with a view to attaining that nation’s recognition but it was a seduction in cloud cuckoo land. They were sending representatives of landed Southern gentry to persuade British aristocrats of the nobility of their cause and fancying that they found some sympathy there. But British aristocracy was itself outmoded in the changing course of the world and Britain had evolved a long way from the nation of country gentlemen and peasant classes the South fondly believed it to be. It was an industrialised nation with a rapidly changing political landscape. The South was talking to the wrong people.
Any lingering hope of British recognition was crushed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Britain might have had some sympathy for a country fighting for independence against an oppressive neighbour but when the principle upon which that independence was based was a right to keep slaves then the South was going to find short shrift indeed. Britain herself had abolished slavery in 1833 and now regarded the suppression of slavery as its own personal moral crusade. By declaring the Union the mortal enemy of slavery Lincoln had made any British recognition of the pro-slavery South a political impossibility. The South was on its own.
Antietam had one other major consequence. It was the beginning of the end of George B McClellan’s military career. From the 17th of September to the 26th of October, as Lee extricated his tattered army from Maryland and retreated back across the Potomac River McClellan did essentially damn all to prevent it. To President Lincoln, long frustrated and disillusioned by his overly cautious commander of the Army of the Potomac, it was the final straw. On November 7th he relieved McClellan of his command. Lee and Thomas would have new opponents to face.
The new opponent they were to face was hardly any better at his job than their last one however. Major General Ambrose E Burnside was pretty incompetent even by the high standards currently being set by the Union command of the Army of the Potomac. In fact his only real legacy of his brief tenure in command was his mutton chop whiskers by way of which he bequeathed the word “sideburns” to the English language. Other than that he was every bit as cautious as his friend McClellan, a poor administrator of his army, stubborn to the point of mule headedness and entirely lacking in imagination.
In late November and early December of 1862, this ill suited general, like other Union generals before him, conceived the idea of snatching a crossing across the Rappahannock River and dashing down on the Confederate capital of Richmond without having to fight Lee at all. Unfortunately there was nothing “dashing” about Ambrose Burnside! His bungling and hopelessly tardy advance allowed Lee all the time in the world to concentrate his f***es and meet him on the Rappahannock. There, around the town of Fredericksburg, on the 10th and 11th of December, Lee inflicted a defeat on the Army of the Potomac that, in terms of casualties suffered, was one of the most lopsided of the whole of the war in the Eastern theatre.
Heavily outnumbered as usual, Lee fought a defensive battle from strong positions. In such types of battle the advantage always resides with the defence and Lee’s army resisted every bull headed frontal assault the Union army could throw against it. It was a terrible affair from the Union point of view. Burnside kept throwing his men away in straight assaults upon strong defensive position with a lack of vision that is almost breathtaking. Time after time his men were mown down in droves. By the time he finally gave up his obstinate and futile assaults and retired back across the Rappahannock, the Army of the Potomac had suffered nearly 13,000 casualties, of which nearly 1,300 were dead, some 9,600 wounded and a further 1,760 odd either missing or taken prisoner. Fredericksburg, in the words of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, “was not a battle. It was a butchery.” and the terrible carnage caused despair in the North and provoked President Lincoln to write “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.” The Confederate losses came to a little over a third of the Union’s total making it one of the cheapest victories Robert Lee ever enjoyed yet even he was sobered by the sight of the battlefield littered with the Union dead and crawling with its wounded to remark “It is well that war is so terrible... we should grow too fond of it.”
One of the few commanding officers to come out of the whole sorry episode on the Union side with any sort of credit to his name was the commander of the smallest division on the left flank of the Union army; a f***e of around 4,500 men under the command of Major general George G Meade, which achieved one of the only breakthroughs into Lee’s defensive line only for the opportunity to be squandered by the failure of his colleagues to support his gain. Meade was furious but he would have his day later in the war.... at Gettysburg.
Fredericksburg caused jubilation in the South and added further to Lee’s invincible reputation. Thomas came out well from the battle too and his own reputation enhanced. The victory was further sweetened by a triumph in his personal life. He was a new father. His new daughter Julia Lauren Jackson was born on the 23rd of November, just over two weeks before the battle. It was a pyrrhic victory. Thomas would only ever see his infant daughter once when Mary visited him in camp bringing their newborn c***d with her. Julia would later be another victim of the Jackson f****y curse for she died tragically young at the age of 26, the mother of two infant c***dren in 1889.
Following the carnage at Fredericksburg, both armies decamped into winter quarters but it was to be a long hard winter for the Confederacy and a heart breaking spring to follow. Lee’s army might well have been holding the Yankee juggernaut at bay in Virginia but elsewhere the war was going badly for the South. Beleaguered on every side by the Union’s “Anaconda” strategy the South was simply being strangled to death. Union blockade on the high seas had blocked the southern states from their overseas markets for the one commodity they had in abundance; cotton. The blockade was beginning to bite and real hardship and deprivation was starting to prevail.
Undoubtedly that deprivation fell hardest on the poorest people of the southern states. The wealthy plantation owners continued to produce cotton on their lands while the poorer white people around them simply starved. It was a rich man’s war but once again a poor man’s fight. Even in those states relatively untouched by war, crops lay un-harvested in the fields to rot, for the men folk were away at the front, dying for the rich man’s right to keep his slaves to make him richer yet by tending to his cotton. The hopelessly inadequate infrastructure of the South meant that even where there were commodities to be had they could rarely be transported to where they were needed. Inflation was rife and crippling. By the beginning of 1863 it took seven dollars to buy what a single dollar had bought before the war.
The prices were ruinous and climbing higher every day as well. In the latter part of 1862 the wages of unskilled labourers in the South had increased by 55% since the beginning of the war but the prices on most commodities had increased by 300%. Salt was the only way to preserve meat in these days before refrigeration. Before the war it had cost two dollars a bag. By late 1862, it cost sixty. The basic staple of bread was climbing to ridiculous prices as well. For all the cotton of its agrarian economy the South seemed incapable of feeding itself. In the North many men were away from their fields as well but the ever increasing mechanisation of agriculture there was more than compensating for the loss and an agricultural revolution was increasing the yield of grain dramatically. The North was the bread basket of America. The South was starving. Confederate Generals were accosted on the streets of Richmond by emaciated women and their starving c***dren begging them to send their men folk home to tend their fields and, even in Lee’s army, desertion was increasing daily as men left their units to return home to take care of their suffering families.
In the armies themselves, deprivation was acute. The Confederate armies contrasted markedly from their Northern enemies. Northern troops were for the most part well fed, well clothed and superbly equipped from the fruits of the North’s booming economy. The men under Lee’s command looked like a host of beggars, half starved with their uniforms in tatters and carrying antiquated weapons. Many of them marched barefoot. The long hard marches of 1862 had reduced their footwear to shreds and there were not enough new boots to go round even after the jubilant victors of Fredericksburg had stripped their fallen enemies of their shiny Northern footwear. The men themselves were hungry and hollow cheeked given to begging for bread at the homes of rich plantation owners or foraging in the woods for small game and berries.
If all this was not enough then the string of disasters overtaking the Confederacy in the Western theatre was threatening the very life of the South by the spring of 1863. In April of that year the largest city in the South, New Orleans, had fallen to the Union and most of the Mississippi River was under the control of the North. By May a powerful Union army was converging on Vicksburg and threatening to cut the Confederacy in half. By the end of May this army was under the command of a terrifying new enemy; Ulysses Grant.
Had circumstances determined otherwise you have the feeling that Thomas might have found some kindred identification with Ulysses Grant. Grant was possessed of the same somewhat taciturn and reserved nature as Thomas himself. He was another man who had little time for the trappings of military finery for he habitually wore a tattered old Infantry smock rather than a grand General’s uniform. He was a gruff man in common with Thomas and self effacing with none of the self serving egotism of many of his contemporaries. He got on with his job with the minimum amount of fuss and words and there was a certain humility about him.
It may have been a humility born from his awareness of his one great personal weakness; a weakness for the bottle. He was what we might call today a functioning alcoholic. He was a binge drinker. He might stay dry for months on end but once he had the taste for alcohol could go on benders that might last for days. In 1854 in fact he had been compelled to resign from the army for d***kenness and even after his reinstatement in 1861 the slur of “d***kard” stayed attached to his name. Many of the old guard of Union high command were derisive about him and he was frequently underestimated. Ironically enough, before the war, Grant had been a slave owner and favoured the pro-slavery policy of the Democratic Party. During the war however he was to become slavery’s most aggressive and deadliest opponent.
For all his failings there is no doubt that Grant was the best General in the Union ranks. He was the fighting general the North had so long lacked and he was possessed of a ruthless aggressive determination. He was the exponent of the principle of total war; an iron willed resolve to carry the war deep into the enemy heartland to break its will to resist. Alone among Union generals he was the one man who never worried about what the enemy was going to do to him but instead focussed upon what he intended to do to the enemy. President Lincoln had found what he was looking for in Ulysses Grant and, when his peers accused Grant of d***kenness, he would famously demand to know what brand of whisky the general favoured so that he might have a crate sent to all his other commanders in the hope that some of Grant’s fighting spirit might thus be inspired in them.
But in May of 1863 Grant was still far away at the siege of Vicksburg and, amid all the woes and disasters of the war in general, Robert Lee had one last miracle to perform on the Eastern Front and it was a miracle that would see Thomas’ finest hour. New disaster was looming in front of Lee. An enormous combined army of over 133,000 men was massing for yet another thrust at Richmond. Lee had barely 60,000 men in his depleted Army of North Virginia. It seemed the Union juggernaut was about to sweep his tattered veterans aside at last. The Union army had yet another new commander as well. Ambrose Burnside was gone in disgrace. The new commander had a belligerent sounding name; Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker.
There’s an old story from military history. It tells of the time when Napoleon was being treated to a eulogy about the brilliance and martial qualities of a junior commander by one of his Marshalls eager to promote the officer to a position of higher responsibility. Napoleon listened impatiently to a long description of the young officer’s tactical prowess, his fighting spirit and his sterling officer qualities. Eventually he interrupted the diatribe with a wave of his hand, “Yes, yes,” he demanded “But is he LUCKY?”
It was a telling point. Most great Generals in history have been blessed by luck and fortuitous happenchance can do wonders for one’s reputation as a brilliant military commander. It has to be said therefore that, for all his great qualities, until the middle of 1863, Robert E Lee was a lucky general. He was particularly lucky in the calibre of the opponents he had to face. It was certainly no bad thing for his own reputation of brilliance to be opposed by such incompetent generals as Pope, McClellan and Burnside and in May 1863 his luck was to continue with the appointment of Joseph Hooker as the commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Hooker’s sobriquet of “Fighting Joe” was an ill begotten title if ever there was one. It wasn’t Hooker’s fault to be fair. During the peninsular campaign in 1862 a newspaper dispatch from a journalist in the field read “Fighting—Joe Hooker attacks rebels” but, when received by the paper in New York, a typographical error omitted the hyphen and he became “Fighting Joe Hooker”, a nickname he was embarrassed by ever after. He wasn’t that bad a general to give him his due and certainly no worse than many of his contemporaries in the Union army. His reputation however was ill served by his personal life for he was a hard drinking, gambling ladies man and his headquarters during the war became notorious as the kind of place few respectable men and no respectable woman would care to be seen in. The train of loose women that followed his headquarters around were of such ill repute that it is even suggested that the term “hooker” for a prostitute derives from his name although some etymologists dispute this.
Whatever Joe Hooker was, he was no match for Robert E Lee. He should have been. With the 133,000 men directly under his command facing Lee’s half starved ragged army of just over 60,000 and a further 25,000 under Major General John Sedgwick to attack Jubal Early’s f***e of 12,000 near Fredericksburg he possessed overwhelming superiority in numbers. By any sober analysis it should have been the end of Lee’s rag tag army. But when the armies clashed near the village of Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County, Virginia he proved to be every bit as timid as George McClellan had ever been.
To be fair to Hooker his timidity was a legacy of the terrible Union casualties at Fredericksburg. Hooker had never intended to fight an aggressive offensive; the bl**dbath at Fredericksburg had convinced him of the folly of that. Instead he intended to fight a defensive battle; luring the aggressive Lee into attacking him when the massively superior firepower of his much larger army could inflict intolerable casualties on the battered Confederate veterans. To that end he took up a perfectly sound position on elevated ground with a free field of fire across open country; the kind of position it would have been suicidal to assault. Then, inexplicably, bafflingly, he lost his nerve.
Why this happened has been a matter of conjecture ever since. It is argued that he feared for his flanks and thus drew back from his open position to one in which he felt more secure. To the right of the battlefield was a vast tract of nearly impenetrable scrubby forest called simply the Wilderness. With this great expanse of supposedly un-negotiable terrain covering his right flank Hooker felt safer. It was an illusion. It gave Lee his chance.
Robert Lee was always brilliant at sensing weakness or timidity in his opponents and ruthlessly exploiting it. At the Battle of Chancellorsville he pulled off his most audacious gamble ever; a ruse so bold and reckless it takes the breath away. He didn’t so much ignore the rulebook as tear it up and blow it out of the muzzle of a cannon. It is never considered a wise move to divide your army in two in the face of the enemy. To do so in the face of an enemy two and half times your size it is tantamount to suicide. Yet that is exactly what Lee did. He split his army in half and sent one wing of it on a long looping march to the west deep into the Wilderness leaving barely half his number to face the full might of the huge Union army in front. It was madness, crazy, and if he’d been facing any half way decent general with an iota of offensive spirit then that might have been the end of the Confederate dream right there and then. You feel that Ulysses Grant would have crushed him in an instance. But he wasn’t facing Ulysses Grant. He was up against Joseph Hooker and he had an ace up his sleeve....Thomas Jonathon Jackson.
Fighting Joe Hooker might have considered the Wilderness to be impassable but it was just an inconvenience to Thomas’ battle hardened veterans. His long, concealed, flanking move around the right wing of the huge Union army was Thomas at his very best; the crowning glory of his military career and when his men emerged from the Wilderness in a howling attack deep into the Union right flank it was one of the biggest shocks of the war. Within an hour the whole Union right was in a shambles. Lee launched a general attack to assist the assault. Even with his right crumbling to Thomas’ swinging attack Hooker still possessed massive numerical superiority but he had lost the initiative and with it the command of events. By the next day, the 3rd May 1863, his own army was split in two and he was falling back desperately. Lee even had enough time to turn around and deal with John Sedgwick’s 25,000 strong f***e before turning his attention back to Hooker. But Fighting Joe had had enough. By May 6th he had retreated back across the Rappahannock River and leaving Lee in victorious command of the battlefield.
It was the Army of Virginia’s finest hour, Robert E Lee’s greatest triumph and Thomas Jackson’s most brilliant achievement. Between them they had pulled off the most extraordinary victory against overwhelmingly lopsided odds. The South was jubilant as the church bells rang out in Richmond. The North once more felt the bitter despair of defeat against Lee’s army. That army had pulled off the incredible.
But the victory came at a price and it was a terrible one. Of Hooker’s 133,000 men some 17, 197 fell on the battlefield at Chancellorsville (1,106 dead, 9,672 wounded and 5,919 missing or taken prisoner.) It was a dreadful loss and greater casualties than in Lee’s army. But Lee’s army was so much smaller and its casualty toll therefore a far greater percentage of its numbers. The Army of Virginia lost 13,303 men on the field that day (1,665 dead, 9,081 wounded and 2,018 missing or taken prisoner.) nearly a quarter of its entire strength. It was a price that the South with its smaller reserves of manpower could ill afford to lose. Numbered among that figure was one very significant casualty....Thomas Jonathon Jackson.
In one of the bitterest ironies of this whole tale Thomas did not fall to the bullets of the enemy he had fought so long and hard against. He was cut down by his own men at the very hour of his greatest triumph. Just after dark, after his corps had just shattered the Union right flank on May 2nd Thomas and his staff were returning into their own camp on horseback when they were mistaken for a Union f***e by members of the 18th North Carolina Infantry Regiment. Before anybody could sort the mistake out several volleys of musket fire had been unleashed. Several members of Thomas’ staff and several horses were killed. Thomas himself was struck by three bullets; one in his right hand and two in his left arm.
On a modern battlefield today with combat trauma emergency practices, fast casualty evacuation and modern surgical techniques available at the foreground of the battle front it is overwhelmingly likely that Thomas would have been saved. But this was 1863. He was only very slowly evacuated from the battlefield that damp cold night as Union artillery fire disrupted efforts to bring him to safety. He was even dropped from his stretcher at one point. By the time he came before a doctor he was in a bad way. Dr Hunter McGuire had only one surgical recourse to save Thomas. He amputated Thomas’ left arm. It was a desperate measure too late. Thomas was moved to the office of the 740 acre plantation of one Thomas C Chandler to face his final battle.
For the next eight days Thomas lingered on in that office but pneumonia had already taken grip in his chest. For eight days he passed in and out of consciousness and delirium; occasionally barking orders to imaginary men or calling the name of God and his beloved Mary. On the 10th of May at the end, the very end, he opened his eyes one last time and said the strangest thing. In a suddenly calm voice, and looking serenely into a distance only he could see, he said, “Let us cross over the river, and shelter in the shade of the trees.” And then he died. He was just 39 years old.
Robert Lee was devastated by the death of Thomas. On the night he heard of his death he turned to his cook and said, “William, I have lost my right arm. I’m bleeding at the heart.” It was the lamentation of a man that had lost not only a good friend but possibly the only man that could have yet won Robert the war. Until now Robert had won victory after victory against often hopelessly lopsided odds with the audaciousness of his gambler’s instinct. Robert was always a gambler but Thomas had been the ace up his sleeve. Without him Robert would have a very poor hand of cards indeed.
Yet even while Robert and the South grieved for Thomas, his final victory had enthralled and bewitched the Confederacy with exultation; a giddy renewal of faith and hope so intoxicating that it would lead the South to madness. Chancellorsville was such a stunning victory in the dark days of 1863 that it was like a shining beacon; a sudden uprising of exhilaration among the people of the South as if some hallucinatory d**g had invested the South with an illusion of invincibility. Riding the way of this popular self delusion Robert Lee would embark on his greatest gamble yet and march the South to disaster.
Even President Davies was carried away by the illusionary exultation of the moment although it has to be said that he at least kept some grasp on reality. The victory at Chancellorsville seemed to offer some respite from the inexorable tide of war turning against the South. Davies saw the possibility of using this respite to shore up the Confederacy’s crumbling frontiers. Particularly he wanted to take advantage of the breathing space gained in Virginia with the defeat of Hooker’s army to transfer some of the Virginia veterans westward in an attempt to stave off the gathering momentum of Ulysses Grant’s relentless offensive. Robert Lee had other ideas.
The person in fact that seems to have been the most intoxicated by Robert Lee’s remarkable victory at Chancellorsville was Robert himself. Robert Lee had a dream and it was such a seductive one; such a bewitchingly fantastic one that even the sober head of President Davies was carried away with the madness of it. It was madness, suicidal even, but in the aura of post Chancellorsville invincibility it felt as if Robert could do anything.
For it was not only the South that was suffering. The North too was feeling the heartbreak of war. It was not suffering the same economic meltdown that the South was experiencing but the dreadful defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville had caused a crisis of confidence in the North and the mounting toll of casualties was draining its martial resolve. For the first time there was a serious peace movement; a growing coalition of parties demanding an end to the war. President Lincoln’s hold on power was looking more and more tenuous. The peace movement was ironically beginning to coalesce around Robert’s old opponent George McClellan. The next year, 1864, was an election year in the North. McClellan was already being mentioned as the possible Democratic candidate to run against Lincoln on a platform of negotiated peace. Perhaps, just perhaps, one more dreadful setback could raise the clamour for peace in the North to a rising howl and drag the North to the negotiating table.
To that end Robert proposed to do something quite fantastic. There would be no resting on the laurels of Chancellorsville; no interlude to shore up the eroding defences of the Confederacy. The army of Virginia would not dig in on the defensive. On the contrary it would go over to the offensive! With a final gambler’s throw of the dice Robert proposed to invade the North; to take his tattered and threadbare army deep into the State of Pennsylvania! His starving men had picked the state of Virginia clean with their foraging but they could live off the land in the fat counties of the North and its endless booty and then deal the army of the Potomac one last great blow to lend credence to the calls for honourable peace in the North. At Chancellorsville Robert’s weary veterans had achieved the incredible. Now he was asking them to do the impossible.
It was impossible of course. The Army of the Potomac was battered and bruised but still intact, hungry for revenge and it still outnumbered Robert’s starving army. And now it would be fighting on its own turf, surrounded by a friendly population whilst Robert’s foot worn men would be far from home and deep in hostile territory. There was more too. By the 28th of June “Fighting Joe” Hooker was gone. The man who replaced him at the head of the Northern Army of the Potomac was the only man to have come out of the debacles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville with any personal credit; George Gordon Meade, a far more dangerous opponent. The Army of the Potomac’s pride was hurting. It was spoiling for a fight.
There doesn’t seem to have been much sense of an overall plan to Robert’s invasion of the North; just some vague notion of replenishing his army’s supplies and looking for the opportunity to deal his opponents that decisive blow. Neither did the Union army have much in the way of a tactical plan to bring Lee’s army to battle. It was typical therefore of this somewhat muddled campaign that, when the two armies did finally clash in battle, it was almost entirely by accident.
There was a small town in Adam’s County Pennsylvania; a very small town. Even today the town can boast only about seven and a half thousand inhabitants. In 1863 there were probably less than 500 buildings in the whole place. It would hardly seem like a significant strategic prize yet it had one vital asset; the carrot that lured Robert’s men into disaster. It possessed tanneries and, more important still, shoemakers. Half of Robert’s army was marching barefoot by now. There were tens of thousands of pairs of boots in that little town’s warehouses. It was such a prize that Robert despatched a f***e to seize the town. This f***e ran into a significant Union f***e and so it was reinf***ed. The Union f***e was then in turn reinf***ed and both armies fed more and more men into the standoff until both armies were drawn up outside the town in their entirety and, from the 1st to the 3rd of July 1863, a mighty battle took place; the decisive battle of the Civil War. To any long suffering gentleman who has suffered a day accompanying his lady companion around a footwear sale it may seem incredible but that battle, possibly the most important of the American Civil war and one of the most important in history, was fought over a pair of shoes! The name of the town? It was called Gettysburg.
I think the world knows by now what happened at Gettysburg. It was the turning point of the Civil War. Perhaps had Thomas still been alive and well in command of one of Robert’s wings at the battle then it might have had a different outcome. But he wasn’t and Robert was plagued throughout the battle with subordinates who seemed unable to grasp or follow his orders. Meade fought a skilful defensive battle but it was a bl**dy affair. The Union army of 91,921 men suffered 23,055 casualties (3,155 dead, 14,531 wounded and 5,369 captured or missing). Robert’s army suffered equally with 23, 231 casualties (4,708 dead, 12,693 wounded and 5,830 captured or missing.). But Robert had started the battle with over 22,000 less men (71,699). The butcher’s bill accounted for nearly a third of his entire army and still Meade’s numbers exceeded his by over 22,000.
It was the end and by nightfall on the 3rd of July Robert was faced with the reality of it. He knew at last that he could no longer win. With a resignation bordering on despair he turned his bleeding army around and marched them back.... all the way to Old Virginia. The dream was over.
It was the turning point of the war. After Gettysburg, the days of dazzling Confederate victories and daring offensives were over. From thereon there was only a long litany of suffering and defeat. Almost as soon as the guns fell silent at Gettysburg there came more crushing news with the fall of Vicksburg in the west. Ulysses Grant had just cut the Confederacy in two. By October this new and frighteningly remorseless general had taken command of all the armies in the west and the following year, as a newly promoted Lieutenant General, he took over the command of all Union armies as General in Chief.
With Grant in charge of the Union armies’ conduct of the war there was no longer any possible doubt in the final outcome. There were to be no more romantic adventures, no more wily coups and dazzling manoeuvres on the battlefield; just a relentless, unceasing war of attrition. It was a war the South could never win. Robert Lee did all that his dwindling resources allowed him to do. He fought Grant to a standstill in the Battle of the Wilderness and even gave him a bl**dy nose at Cold Harbour but he was soon to learn that, unlike other Union general before him, Grant was not a man to retreat after a setback. He was the exponent of a new age of total war. His only response to resistance was to redouble his offensive efforts, grinding down his enemy in a numbers game that the greater manpower and resources available to him would surely give him mastery in.
And Grant had his own answer to Thomas Jackson; the brilliant and volatile William Tecumseh Sherman. This was the general that Ulysses Grant had left in charge of the western theatre when he himself went east to confront Robert Lee. In the spring of 1864 Grant unleashed Sherman, let him break loose from his own supply lines and go rampaging off through the State of Georgia with 98,000 men, burning and destroying everything in his path; carrying the pain of war deep into the very heart of the Confederacy. By September the city of Atlanta had fallen to this scything attack and by the end of December Sherman had sliced straight through the Confederate heartland and stood on the coast at Savannah and yet he was not finished yet. In the new year he proceeded north to ravage the States of South and North Carolina tearing the very vitals out of the Confederacy and coming up towards Richmond from the south even as Grant ground mercilessly forward on the last beleaguered refuge of the rebellion from the North.
It was the twilight days of the Confederacy and there could only be one ending. There was even in these last fantastic days a sense of unreality in the crumbling South. In nothing more was this illustrated than the call in the last weeks of the war for the South to redress its imbalance in military personnel by arming its black slaves! Of course there were increasing numbers of black soldiers in the armies of the Union but for the Confederacy to contemplate arming the very people it was fighting to keep in servitude suggests a level of fantasy bordering on insanity; an insanity born of desperation as if anybody could truly imagine the black man fighting for the cause of his own slavery!
By the 3rd of April 1865 it was nearly all done. During the night of the 2nd and 3rd the last Confederate f***es and Government officials evacuated Richmond. On the morning of the 3rd the first Union soldiers walked into the fallen Confederate capital and found half of it in flames. The Army of Virginia retired westwards dwindling all the time as its veterans finally gave up the cause and deserted in their droves. By the 9th of April there were less than 35,000 diehards still with Robert Lee around the little village of Appomattox Court House. There were calls from the fanatics for a glorious final stand; a sort of dramatic Gotterdammerung of the fallen South. To his credit, Robert Lee shook his head. The killing had gone on too long. “There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant,” he said “And I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
The two men met in the parlour of Wilmer McClean’s house in Appomattox Court House at midday on April 9th 1865 and to a neutral observer it would almost seem as if they were representatives of different ages. Robert Lee was some fading vision of the impeccable Southern gentleman in his best dress uniform and ceremonial sword and sat at an ornate marble table; an image of the aging fantasy of Southern nobility. Ulysses Grant brought a new more frightening age of total modern war into the parlour, stumping in dressed in his customary battered old infantry tunic and muddy boots and planting his worn britches down at a plain wooden table. In this modest parlour Robert Lee formally surrendered the Army of Virginia to his Northern counterpart before riding back to his army to inform them. The Confederate army marched up to the Union lines to lay down their weapons on the morning of the 12th of April. Some 27,000 men lay down their arms to full military honours by the Union soldiers receiving them. Though their cause had been a bad one there was no doubting the bravery and endurance of these fighting men and the respect shown to them in defeat by their former adversaries was an acknowledgement of that fact and a first step towards the healing of the rift that had torn their nation apart. The guns had fallen silent at last.
It wasn’t quite the end of course. Many Confederate f***es were still in the field and it was well into June before the last of them gave themselves up. Indeed the last Confederate military unit to surrender was the warship CSS Shenandoah which finally gave itself up not to the Union navy but to the Royal Navy of Great Britain in Liverpool in November 1865. Nevertheless, with the surrender of Robert Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House, the war was effectively over. The old age was ended. A new one was about to begin.
There came, in time, to be a sort of myth that grew up around the South’s resistance in the Civil War; a romantic kind of fable to it. It was known as the “Lost Cause” as if the South had fought ultimately against hopeless odds in the name of something noble and an ideal that was to be swamped by the new age that overran its aged fantasy of genteel nobility. In this myth the figures of Robert Lee and Thomas Jackson loom large almost as if they were some romantic knights defending the older age of gentlemen against the vulgar new excesses of industrialisation.
It is a myth. Let there be no question about it. However bravely or tenaciously the South fought, it fought in defence of a terrible evil and, whatever one may feel about the age that followed its defeat, it was nevertheless a good thing for humankind that it lost. For the best thing to happen as a result of the South’s defeat in the Civil War was the release from odious servile bondage of some four million human beings. It matters not that both Robert Lee and Thomas Jackson were themselves less than committed proponents of slavery; their efforts in the Civil War nevertheless championed that despicable institution and while they yet fought on they held the shackles firmly to the ankles of the African American. The new age was many things that were frightening but it was also a new age of growing freedom. The Civil War was a resistance against that movement towards freedom. It was “Stonewalling” in fact.
Of course the newly liberated African Americans were to learn all too soon that “freedom” is a very conditional state. It would be yet a long hard battle ahead for freedom for the former slaves to mean the same thing that it meant to their former masters. A century after the guns fell silent at Appomattox Court House African Americans were still struggling to obtain equal rights under American law. Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Alabama in 1956 and in 1963 Martin Luther King would tell a rapturous crowd in Washington that he had a dream. It was a good dream. It would still take long years to realise. On the 20th of January 2009 a black American man would be inaugurated as the President of the nation which had once held his race in slavery. It was a dream unthinkable to the field hands in the Southern cotton belt in the years before the Civil War but it had come to pass.
That long slow march towards freedom and equal rights is mirrored in many other segments of society. Women had their own long struggle for equality in the face of male Stonewalling to endure for instance and always the movement has been in the direction of a new age of liberty against the obdurate resistance of an older rearguard of reactionism. And that brings me, finally, to the segment of the population represented at the Gay Pride festival I attended. The people at that festival have their own tale of struggle against the old order for their rights and freedom and their own defining moment of when that struggle had its focal beginning. It all comes down to a name and, in one of the most curious ironies of this whole story, the name is one that was born by Thomas Jackson.
The Jackson name is of course a famous one in American history and culture. There is a state park named for him in West Virginia, a facility at the West Virginia University named in his honour and even a United States submarine named after him. His famous nickname has entered the American vocabulary as we have noticed and has been used countless times to name everything from streets to campaign posters. Of all the odd places to bear his name however the last one you would imagine would be a sleazy little pub in Greenwich Village, New York City.
The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village is something of a tourist attraction and indeed a designated National Historic Landmark these days but in 1969 it was a dive. It was run by the local mafia back then and probably owed its continued existence largely to bribes paid to corrupt members of the New York Police Department. It was a seedy little back street dump pretty much shunned by the more fashionable or respectable among New York society. But it was a popular dump. It was popular because it happened to be a gay bar.
The 1960s was an era of immense social change and a new feeling of liberation among the youth generation of the time. The winds of change were blowing strongly with the Black Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement and the culture of change and freedom among the young generation that had grown up since the Second World War. But gay rights were still well under the radar being promoted by only a few small activist groups. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence in the vast majority of American States and was regarded as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. It was still a criminal offence to be gay in New York City in the summer of 1969 and anybody discovered as gay faced prosecution, public humiliation, the loss of their jobs and social ostracism. Harassment of gays was routine and widespread. Well to do gay people kept to close knit circles and exclusive and very private clubs. The clientele of the Stonewall Inn were not well to do.
The gays, lesbians and transgendered people who frequented the Stonewall were among the most socially outcast and discriminated people in America. Most of them were poor; some indeed were homeless. They weren’t the gay elite of the theatres along Broadway and the chic coffee houses of the better quarters of the city. They were mostly solidly at the bottom of the social ladder. They hung out at the Stonewall because there was pretty much no place else for them to go.
But they were a colourful crowd; gays, lesbians, drag queens, transgenders; a real pot pourri of the underclass of the gay world. It was an ethnically mixed crowd as well. Bars in New York were still pretty segregated according to race in 1969 but in the Stonewall you’d have found whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and everything else in between. Outcast even from their own ethnic societies there was no racial discrimination among the clientele at the Stonewall. The pub was a last haven for people with nowhere else to go. And then, on the 28th of June 1969, the police decided to raid the joint.
Perhaps the mob that ran the place hadn’t paid their protection money that month. Whatever the reason, it was nothing unusual for the police department to raid gay bars. Indeed the mayor of the city was on somewhat of a personal crusade against the gay community at the time; determined to drive the queers and perverts off the streets. For the police department the raid on the Stonewall promised to be just another evening of routine fag bashing. Gays never fought back. Go down the joint, beat a few fags up with your Billy club, sling them in the back of the wagon, haul ‘em off downtown to the station and still have time for a few beers with the boys afterwards. It was nice easy work when you could get it. On the 28th of June 1969 however it all went horribly wrong.
Greenwich village was perhaps the worst place the police could have decided to have a showdown with the gay community. Since the end of World War One it had been possessed of a sizeable gay community and it was, in 1969, already a cauldron of political activism, dynamic youth culture and social change. Add to that mix the fact that the gay clientele of the Stonewall had nothing left to lose and the place was a tinderbox ready to explode.
Nobody quite knows exactly what was the spark that ignited the explosion. There were about 200 people in the bar that night. The police had followed standard procedure by infiltrating two undercover policemen and two undercover policewomen into the bar earlier to gather visual evidence and then, at 1.30 a.m. the doors were flung open and eight officers and detectives of the “Public Morals Squad” (there’s a name that tells you everything about the prevalent public attitude at the time!) strode in to announce that the place was raided. The music was switched off , the lights turned on and everything came to a sullen halt. The police used the phone in the bar to call support from the 6th Precinct police f***e and the inevitable “Paddy” wagons for the anticipated haul of arrests.
The clientele were ordered into lines as per standard procedure. All the men were ordered to produce their identification while all the women in the bar were taken in small groups to the ladies’ bathroom to check their gender. Any body found to be cross dressing was to be immediately arrested. Faced with these humiliations the clientele proceeded from sullen resentment through to hostility and downright defiance. Inflaming the situation was the attitude of certain members of the police who were touching female members of the bar’s clientele inappropriately on the pretext of determining whether they were “real women” or not. As tension mounted many women refused to accompany officers to the bathroom and the men were refusing to produce their identification.
In the face of this growing hostility the detective in charge decided on the unwise policy of transporting the lot of them in the paddy wagons to the station and booking every man Jack, woman Jill and those that didn’t fit either category. This was a logistical problem. Not only were the police having to find transport for up to 150 arrested people but also for the bar’s substantial haul of confis**ted booze which amounted to some 28 cases of beer and a considerable volume of hard liquor. To compound the growing problems, the Paddy wagons were some 15 minutes late on the scene while tension mounted all the time.
The police began forcing the clientele outside and, as the Paddy wagons finally arrived, a crowd began to gather on the sidewalk. To begin with it seems that there was little in the way of v******e but the police were heckled and mocked by the growing crowd ingeniously; as one observer put it, “wrists were limp, hair was primped and reactions to the applause were classic.” I leave it to the imagination the kind of mockery a colourful group of typical gays is liable to subject a bunch of macho police constables to. Glowing with humiliation under this verbal assault the police began to lose their tempers and become more aggressive.
It was counter productive. Their aggression fuelled even greater mockery and was soon attracting the attention of people from several nearby bars. Pretty soon there were between five and six hundred people hooting with derision on the sidewalk and scuffles were beginning to break out. Some are well documented. One transgender victim being forcibly pushed into a Paddy wagon turned and hit one officer over the head with their handbag to the collective delight of the watching crowd. One particularly butch lesbian girl is said to have objected to her girlfriend’s arrest and taken four police officers on by herself, turning the air blue with her language and giving a damn good account of herself! Soon the paddy wagons were being pelted with coins and bottles. The police tried to clear the growing crowd only to be faced down by an elite f***e of drag queens forming a chorus line in the vanguard. As the police grew more violent the whole street erupted into a riot.
The officers still in the bar barricaded themselves inside as the mob outside attempted to storm the place in order to free those people in handcuffs still within. The windows were smashed in, a fire hydrant was used as a battering ram on the door and somebody even tried to torch the place. Hopelessly outnumbered by a furious crowd, the police called the mobile anti riot squad, the “Tactical Police f***e” or TPF, in to quell the disturbance. This body finally managed to break through and free their besieged colleagues in the Stonewall Inn but they were less than successful in clearing the streets.
Greenwich Village was just about the worst place imaginable for putting down a riot. It was a warren of back streets and side alleys. The TPF would form a phalanx and advance on the mocking crowd only for it to vanish and then, by means of the innumerable side alleys, reappear in its rear. Thomas Jackson would have been proud of the tactical dispositions of the crowd that night! f***ed with an impossible situation, the police retreated, leaving the street in the hands of the rioters. It was a deep humiliation. As one witness described, “The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been, because everybody else had rioted ... but the fairies were not supposed to riot ... no group had ever f***ed cops to retreat before, so the anger was just enormous. I mean, they wanted to kill.”
The police were further inflamed because the leading opposition in the crowd was the transgender element. They were forming kick lines in the manner of chorus girls and taunting the police with a rendering of the theme tune to the Howdy Doody show; “We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don't wear underwear/ We show our pubic hair" As the blushing police tried to clear this element they discovered that the “Stonewall Girls” had teeth. One eye witness later said, “All I could see about who was fighting was that it was transvestites and they were fighting furiously” The police were chased for blocks by angry crowds and by 4.00 a.m the street was nearly clear and an electric stunned silence descended on the Village with its shattered streets and burning trashcans.
The riots went on for three full nights and a change had come over the Village. Gays were walking openly hand in hand in blatant defiance. They could have been arrested for that three days earlier but the police now had their hands full just trying to avoid being run off the streets again. Graffiti began to appear everywhere; Gay Power, Drag Power, etc. Amazingly the Stonewall Bar was still open albeit in a somewhat battered condition. The New York press and the National press took interest and now the NYPD’s humiliation was on the front cover of papers around the world.
Finally some semblance of quiet descended on the streets of Greenwich Village but all who had been there and witnessed it knew that a watershed had been crossed. There was something new stirring in the air. The gay and transgender community had previously been among the most vilified and outcast segments of society, cowering in fear in the shadows. Now it was out in the open and defiant. Yes there was something new stirring. It was pride.
The Stonewall riots had been a spontaneous declaration; a laying down of the battle lines to define the coming conflict for gay rights. It was the defining moment when gay people said “Enough is enough. We are tired of rolling over in defeat at the hands of oppression. Now we will fight back.” It took the Stonewall riots to focus and organise the gay movement. Before the riots there were perhaps fifty or sixty small groups of advocates for gay rights in the whole of America. The year after there were fifteen hundred! And the year after that there were two thousand five hundred. Stonewall was the snowball that started the avalanche in the mountains.
And that all brings me, in some long convoluted manner, back to my Gay Pride festival on a hot summer’s day in a park in England some forty three years later. Sitting there in the glorious sunshine I could look around me and see for myself how the world had changed. There were police everywhere but now they were here to protect the gay people and they were involved almost on an intimate basis with the crowd at the festival. The police even entered a team into the rather silly Gay Olympics the festival had organised. The chief inspector in charge of policing the festival even got up on the stage (I swear this is the truth!), flanked by the head of the fire department, a drag queen, a gay man and a lesbian woman, to lead the crowd in performing the YMCA. It was hilarious!
Everywhere I looked about the evidence that the world had changed was apparent. Many of the sights would have been unthinkable before 1969. Not only were the gay people present perfectly comfortable in displaying their sexuality but the many straight people present as well were quite at ease about it too. The festival was a whole heap of fun and there was a large number of straight people there simply joining in the fun as well. It was even a f****y affair! There were k**s running everywhere! Before 1969 people were warned on television to keep their c***dren away from possible homosexuals. Here there were hundreds of them running about and having a great time. There were bouncy castles, fairground rides, lots of free toys and silly games for them to play. They thought it was great. Many were the k**s of straight families but a lot of lesbians had their c***dren in tow. That wasn’t all. I even saw a pair of gay men solemnly changing the baby’s nappy! Oh how the world had changed!
Of course it still hasn’t changed enough. There are still people battling against the tide of changing social values; being dragged screaming into the twenty first century and digging in their heels and trying to cling on to an outmoded past; Stonewalling in fact. Nor has the world changed uniformly. In many backward countries gay people are still persecuted and denied basic human rights. In some particularly retarded nations the “crime” of homosexuality still carries the death penalty to the shame of humanity at large. The battle still continues.
Yet on that summer’s day I had every reason to feel optimistic. I had every reason to raise my glass to the unlikely legacy of Thomas Stonewall Jackson and what his name has become. Stonewall is the rallying cry of a huge swathe of the people of this planet who are separated by their sexual and gender identities. Stonewall, by some strange twist of fate, has come to mean the opposite of that for which it once stood; the banner behind which an oppressed minority can stand up behind with pride. One wonders what Thomas would have made of it all.
In 1963 the Reverend Martin Luther King stood up and declared that he had a dream. Well I have a dream too. I dream that one day all people will stand proud and free together irrespective of their sexuality, gender, gender identity, race, colour or creed; hand in hand only as members of that extraordinary natural experiment the human species. That one day we will all look into the face of another human being and see only another fellow traveller in the adventure of life; our b*****r or our s****r and care not who they love and care for. That one day the question of your sexuality will be as irrelevant as the colour of your eyes and every human will finally be free of guilt and fear. When that happens, when that finally happens, then perhaps then we may all cross the river together and shelter in the shade of the trees.