Stonewall: West Virginia’s Legendary General

“He has lost his left arm, but I my right.”

Robert E. Lee

Julia settled into her new home along the James River & Kanawha Turnpike and prayed she had done the right thing. She had moved 100 miles from her home and her children to a small isolated community with her new husband. Her thoughts strayed to how different her life had been just 5 years ago. Her Jonathan was still alive, and they were living together comfortably with their three beautiful children. But then the fever came and took her little Elizabeth and Jonathan too, leaving her broken-hearted with two small sons and a new baby to care for. Julia told herself that she had tried her best, selling off what she could to put food on the table.

For four years she had struggled to feed her babies – that was until Mr. Blake Woodson came along and asked for her hand in marriage. She had little choice. She married him, little knowing he would never be fond of her children, and that she would have to send them away. The fact that they were with family was the only thing that kept her this far away. She could only hope for a better life for her children. She prayed earnestly for her Warren, her Laura, and her Thomas, in the hopes that they would one day accomplish mighty feats and live a far grander life than she. 

This is the story of an old family grist mill, a small town along the James River & Kanawha Turnpike, and perhaps the state’s most famous war general. 

Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born on a brisk winter day in January of 1824 in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). His parents, Jonathan Jackson, an attorney, and Julia Beckwith Neale, lived a quiet comfortable life for eight years. As the year 1826 approached, the Jackson family excitedly anticipated the new year which would turn their family of 5 into a family of 6. Unfortunately, that year held more difficulties than they had ever imagined, for Jonathan would not live to see the birth of his baby daughter.

It was in that year of 1826 that Typhoid spread across the city claiming lives on a daily basis, and the Jackson family was not immune to the suffering. Elizabeth, the oldest of the Jackson children, fell ill first and passed away with her brother Thomas by her bedside on March 6, 1826. Twenty days later, Jonathan Jackson died from the same affliction; he passed one day before the birth of this daughter Laura.

As the fever took its toll, Julia found herself in a daunting situation: her husband and daughter had died, leaving her with two young sons and a newborn baby girl for which to care. Times were hard, and for four years, she struggled to provide for her family. She sold the family possessions just so she could pay her debts and feed her family. But she couldn’t continue like that forever, and so in 1830, she married Blake Woodson.

Woodson was an attorney, and although his support helped provide for the small Jackson family, there were still financial difficulties. These difficulties, along with the fact that Woodson was not keen on his small step-children, led to the three siblings being sent to live with other relatives. Meanwhile, Blake and Julia moved to a new home along the James River & Kanawha Turnpike near the present-day town of Ansted, West Virginia. But their marriage did not last long as Julia gave birth to a son in 1831 and died due to complications. She was buried in an unmarked grave. As the three Jackson children were separated among relatives, Thomas and Laura remained together. They found a new home at a Lewis County grist mill owned by their Uncle, Cummins Jackson.

The Jackson Family built their first gristmill in the 18th century along the West Fork of the Monongahela River. This first mill was built by Edward Jackson, Thomas’s grandfather. The mill was eventually moved by Cummins Jackson, to the other side of the stream to more secure ground. After a large fire, another mill was erected in 1837 along with a sawmill and a 150-foot long dam that helped power the mills. The mills were operated by the Jackson family and several slaves.

It was here at this successful family operation that Thomas Jackson spent twelve years of his childhood. He helped around the farm and mill tending sheep, driving oxen, and harvesting wheat, grain, and corn. Largely, self-taught, Thomas learned to read and write. Dedicated to his own education, he would burn pine knots at night so that he would have enough light to read.

As the story is told, young Thomas once promised a slave reading lessons in exchange for these treasured pine knots. Despite the fact that teaching slaves to read was against Virginia law, Thomas Jackson followed through on his promise. Ever the teacher, he eventually went on to teach for the school at Jackson’s Mill.

In 1842, at the age of 18, Thomas Jonathan Jackson entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. At first arrival, he struggled as he was ill-prepared for the course load. He had a hard time and was even occasionally ridiculed for his poor background and the fact that he was older than most of the first-year cadets at the academy. Nevertheless, Thomas worked and studied hard graduating 17th in his class of 59 students. 

Thomas saw his first action during the Mexican-American War in 1846.  He was at the Battles of Contreras, Chapultepec, and Mexico City, and was also involved in the Siege of Veracruz. In 1851, Thomas Jackson retired from the army, moved to Lexington, Virginia, and became a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. He taught his young students natural and experimental philosophy in addition to artillery.

Jackson, himself, was an interesting figure. He stood at an unusual 6 feet tall, had brown hair, large hands and feet, and penetrating pale blue eyes. He was known as having several idiosyncrasies. He was a hypochondriac, always of the belief that something was wrong with him. It is said that he believed that his extremities were of differing lengths, a fact about which he was self-conscious. And so, in the classroom, he often held one arm above him constantly in the belief that it would balance his uneven body.

Jackson spent a decade teaching and living in Lexington. He was married, widowed, and remarried during that time. But Thomas Jackson’s teaching career came to an end in 1861 when civil war broke out among the United States. Jackson was soon to embark on a path that would ultimately lead to legendary fame.

         When Virginia seceded from the Union, Jackson remained loyal to his state. He donned the Confederate grays and led hundreds of men into battle all over the eastern United States. As a general, he fought at the First and Second Battles of Bull Run, Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. It was at Bull Run after Jackson urged his men into a position to close a gap in the Confederate line that he earned his famous nickname. After watching Jackson’s gallant stand, Confederate General Barnard Bee reportedly said, “Look men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall.” 

Stonewall. The nickname stuck and was soon repeated all over the south as he was praised for his actions on the battlefield. He was soon seen by many as one of the most accomplished soldiers in the world.

But tragedy befell the Confederate army after the Battle at Chancellorsville. Stonewall Jackson and several of his men were mistaken as Union cavalry by a North Carolina regiment who opened fire amidst the night darkness. Jackson was hit by three bullets, two in his left arm and one in his right hand. He was taken to a field hospital where doctors discovered the extent of the damage. The bone below his left shoulder was shattered, and therefore, the arm was amputated. Jackson was then transferred to another field hospital where he died from pneumonia on May 10, 1863.

The nation as a whole was shocked to hear of Stonewall Jackson’s death, as was General Robert E. Lee who had relied heavily on the brilliant military tactics of General Jackson. Lee wrote saying, “Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm, but I my right.”

General Stonewall Jackson is one of the most well-known generals of the Civil War. To this day, his tactics are still studied as he is often regarded as one of the most gifted tactical officers in US history. 

Many people know stories of Stonewall Jackson and his role in the Civil War, but few know of his heritage and his West Virginia roots. Although he died just two months before the birth of the new state, his ties to the land remain the same. Today, there are numerous landmarks across the state that tell the story of this remarkable general.

In Clarksburg, two graves, those of Jonathan and Elizabeth Jackson, tell the tale of a fatal affiliation and the heartache of one strong mother. Her story is completed at Westlake Cemetery in Ansted, West Virginia, where a once-unmarked grave now stands in tribute to the mother of Stonewall Jackson. And in Lewis County, an old grist mill still stands as a gateway to another time when a young orphan boy once called that place his home. 

I encourage you to visit these places on your own to enjoy and learn more about West Virginia history. Travel to Clarksburg or Ansted to see the Jackson family graves, and make your way to Jackson’s Mill for a spectacular walk through time. Explore and learn and let me know what interesting stories you discover. 

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