In the middle of a field on the grounds of an old Civil War battlefield is a small grave. No person is buried there—only an arm.
It is the arm of Stonewall Jackson, a towering figure of the American Civil War and perhaps one of the most iconic personalities of American history. How his arm got separated from the rest of him, to lie by itself in this lonely place, is a tale all its own, but the more interesting story is about the man himself. He is a paradox: a steely-eyed warrior on the one hand and a Christian gentleman on the other.
A Stone Wall
Some think his story starts with the first great land battle of the Civil War called the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. There were those who believed the whole contest between North and South would be decided in this one epic battle; the loser would be sent packing, and the war would end in a day. Politicians and their ladies rode out in their carriages from Washington, DC, to sit on the hillsides and watch the rebels get whipped.
And at first it did not go well for the South. The Union forces of the North nearly flanked the Confederate soldiers. Just as the South was about to be overwhelmed, there arrived on the battlefield an obscure Confederate general, Thomas J. Jackson, who formed his Virginia brigade in a defensive line on the crest of the hill the North was attacking. A fellow commander from a nearby brigade that had been mauled by the Northern attack cried, “Look at Jackson’s brigade. It stands like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians. “
And rally they did. The Northern thrust slowed, then faltered, and then retreated in disarray. And thus did Thomas Jackson enter the history books and become known thereafter as Stonewall Jackson. A monument commemorating Jackson’s resolute stand can be seen on that battlefield today.
Stonewall went on to become one of the most famous generals of the Civil War and was often General Lee’s right-hand man. He won battle after battle. He drove his men hard and sometimes marched them all day and all night only to go directly into battle when morning came. But his men loved him. It was not because he was loveable. Quite the contrary. He was stern and unsmiling. He communicated little with either his lieutenants or his soldiers and kept his battle plans to himself until the last minute. Often he would sit on a fence along the roadside as his troops filed by while he sucked on a lemon in the mistaken belief it would settle his dyspeptic stomach.
In battle he was fearless, taking risk after risk and always coming out on top. The North called him a blue-eyed killer. And thus his career went until the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 when Stonewall and his arm parted company.
Here is the paradox. Stonewall Jackson did not begin as a killer nor did he die as one.
The Christian Gentleman
He was born in poverty in what is now West Virginia and was orphaned at an early age. His early life was a struggle to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Although he attended school here and there as he was shifted among relatives, he was mostly self-taught. He once made a deal with one of his uncle’s slaves to provide him with pitch pine knots in exchange for reading lessons. Jackson would stay up all night reading by the light of the flaming pine knots, and even though it was against the law, he taught the slave to both read and write.
By a stroke of good luck, he was accepted as a cadet in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and after commissioning fought in the Mexican-American War. Following the war, he taught at the Virginia Military Academy in Lexington, Virginia. He lived a pious life devoting many hours to scripture study and prayer. He was a member of a local Presbyterian Church where he taught Sunday school classes for blacks, both bond and free. Then came the Civil War and the end of his comfortable life.
Jackson was well on his way to becoming the hero of the Battle of Chancellorsville when tragedy struck. He and Lee divided their force in the face of the enemy (a military no-no), and while Lee and his half of the army held the North in place, Jackson and his half of the army hiked miles, unseen, around to the enemy’s rear and attacked from behind. It was a rout. Near dusk, Jackson and his lieutenants rode out in front of a very confused frontline to determine the new position of the routed Northern forces. When he returned in darkness, his own men, who mistakenly thought he was the enemy, fired upon him. Two bullets struck him in the left arm and one in the right hand. In a field hospital, a doctor amputated his left arm and his chaplain buried it in a nearby field where it still rests today and has become somewhat of a shrine.
Over the next couple of days, Jackson was transported further to the rear by horse-drawn carriage over rutted roads. By then he had developed pneumonia and was drifting in and out of consciousness. Though suffering greatly, in his lucid moments he sought to comfort those attending him, including his wife. During moments of delirium, he called out military orders, but as he grew weaker he became more spiritual. One Sunday morning, both he and his doctors realized he could not last the day. “It is the Lord’s Day,” he said. “My wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on a Sunday.” At the end, he said quietly, and with expression, as if relieved, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”
How is it that we are supposed to remember Stonewall Jackson? There are two monuments to guide us. One is on the Bull Run battlefield at the spot where Jackson stood like a stone wall, and the other is an hour’s drive away in a white, clapboard farm house where he died, called Guinea Station not far off today’s Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Virginia.
At the first we remember him as a skilled and fervent warrior whose exuberance for battle caused the death of thousands but furthered the cause in which he believed. At the second we are prompted to remember the more peaceful Jackson who prepared to meet his Maker with a prayer on his lips, his soul apparently at rest. Personally, I think the death scene in a barren farmhouse in an out-of-the-way place symbolizes him best.
It is not that this artifact of history has no bearing on our own lives. There are those of us in almost every ward and branch in Zion who have had to confront the horrors of war and by participating in armed conflict have caused much harm to others. Evil exists in the world and sometimes must be confronted, but it is not to be relished or sought after.
Perhaps General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army said it best when—watching the Battle of Fredericksburg unfold with its cannons bombing and flags waving—exclaimed, “It is well war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” After all, there is a Guinea Station for all of us someday where we would want to have sweet memories of a life well lived and the drums of war are long gone.
Today, Stonewall Jackson’s body (sans his left arm) lies in a peaceful cemetery in Lexington, Virginia (not far from Southern Virginia University) where now and again you can see lemons lying in the grass next to his tombstone—left there by admirers.