There are many heroes of the faith or soldiers of the cross that we can call to memory, who have made a great impact on us and stood out as examples of faith.
When I lived in England, I read about the Reformers and Puritans, whose godly lives were a great encouragement to me. I was raised in the southern United States and there have been many men there too, both theologians and laymen, who are godly examples.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson was one such man whom I have greatly admired. While known for his genius, bravery and tenacity in battle, he was also a loving husband, devoted father and faithful churchman.
Thomas was born one bitterly cold night, on 21 January 1824, to Jonathan and Julia Jackson in Clarksburg, Virginia. Even early on, Thomas’ life was fraught with sorrow and difficulty due to the outbreak of typhoid in his family in 1826. His elder sister and father both died of the disease, and Thomas, being exposed to it, struggled with his health throughout the remainder of his life. His mother gave birth to her fourth child the day after her husband died. She died when Thomas was seven and that grief was very hard to bear, even into adulthood. She had been a godly example and his solace as a youngster. After her death, Thomas was placed in the care of his father’s uncle at Jackson’s Mill.
For the remainder of his youth, Jackson grew up at Jackson’s Mill and learned many useful skills as he worked the land with his family. While his uncle was not the best role model, Thomas did learn self-discipline and a devotion to duty, which marked him through the rest of his life.
From 1842 to 1846, Jackson attended West Point, the military academy of the United States, and graduated 17th in his class of 59 graduates. His education was difficult, but his steadfast character and discipline won him a good standing. He was made brevet second lieutenant in the US Artillery and sent, in 1846, to war in Mexico. While there, he was promoted three times and served with distinction in several battles, including the siege of Chapultepec.
During that battle, he was in charge of a battery assaulting the castle and taking heavy fire. The enemy’s withering fire killed all the horses in his battery and disabled one of his guns. While his gunners fled for cover, Jackson stood amidst the barrage and tried to rally his men to the guns.
At one interval, a cannonball rolled between his legs, but he remained unmoved and continued to encourage his men. A couple of the gunners helped him and returned fire. Jackson received reinforcements shortly after and continued to hold the ground, which may have proved a turning point in the battle.
After the close of the Mexican-American War, Jackson didn’t remain long in the army. He resigned in 1851 to become a professor at Virginia military college (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia. While he was a brilliant tactician, his skill at teaching was limited. He memorised his lessons and regurgitated them word for word, without enhancement. He became known for his awkward behaviour and rigidity, earning him the nicknames ‘Old Jack’ and ‘Old Hickory’. However, he did gain his students’ respect for his devotion to duty, compassion and sincerity.
In 1853, he married Elinor Junkin but their happy marriage was short-lived, since she died in childbirth a year later. Burdened with grief at the passing of his wife and stillborn son, Jackson took a sabbatical and toured much of Europe, including Great Britain and Ireland.
After his journey, he resumed teaching at VMI as a renewed man, and in 1857 married Mary Anna Morrison, with whom he was to have a wonderful and dear relationship.
But, just as married life for the Jacksons began, the United States was approaching the outbreak of civil war. Tensions between the North and South were coming to a head over states’ rights and slavery. Things quickly got out of hand with the revolt of John Brown. Financed by wealthy men from the North, Brown ravaged the territory of Kansas in an attempt to free slaves. He and his men also took over the arsenal Harper’s Ferry in 1859, in their attempt to initiate a slave revolt in the South.
Brown and his followers were captured and Jackson was ordered to command a contingent of cadets to keep order at the hanging of John Brown (where he prayed for Brown’s salvation).
Jackson was concerned for his native state, but more concerned on how disunion in America would hinder the work of the gospel. He would rather the South stay in the union, but also he would not let the North take over the South by force.
South Carolina was the first state to secede (20 December 1860) and, by February 1861, six other states had joined her. On 17 April, Virginia voted for secession and Jackson, with solemnity, volunteered his sword for the defence of his native state. He was given command of a brigade, made up of his cadets and men of the northern valley of Virginia. He was promoted from Colonel to Brigadier General within the first months of the war.
Jackson’s reputation and fame grew during one momentous battle. It was Sunday 21 July 1861. Jackson and his brigade were sent to engage Union troops at Manassas Junction, about 30 miles south of Washington DC.
The day was going against the Confederates and Jackson was ordered to provide reinforcements to the Confederates’ left. As his men waited under the cover of trees, just below the reverse crest of Henry House Hill, wave upon wave of retreating Confederates met them and told them that all was lost.
Jackson, unwavering, carefully ordered his men to position themselves on the edge of the woods overlooking the battlefield. As they waited in this position for three hours, amidst the thunderous onslaught of cannon fire, his men watched as Jackson calmly rode up and down the lines encouraging them with no sign of panic or fear.
The Union forces soon began to advance up the hill and General Barnard Bee, whom Jackson had been sent to reinforce, rode up and said, ‘General, they are beating us back!’
Jackson replied with sternness and resolve, ‘Sir, we will give them the bayonet’.
Bee then rode back to his men and said, ‘Look, men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer! Rally behind the Virginians!’
After holding his ground, Jackson ordered his men to give one volley and then charge with bayonet ‘yelling like Furies’. This charge took the field and routed the Union army. So the Confederates won the battle and Jackson received his famous nickname, ‘Stonewall’.
Thomas Jackson continued to lead his armies in victory from 1861–1863. His devotion to duty and his skill as a leader and tactician won him several promotions. He was loved by his soldiers and feared by his enemies.
Then one fateful night, on 2 May 1863, as Jackson was reconnoitring at the Battle of Chancellorsville with members of his staff, he was fired upon by Confederate troops from North Carolina, mistaking them for Union troops. He was struck with three bullets and had to have his left arm amputated. Though he quickly recovered from the operation, pneumonia set in and he was sent to a field hospital at Guiney Station.
His wife joined him and read to him his favourite portions of Scripture, especially Romans 8:28: ‘And we know that, for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose’.
With his health failing rapidly, the doctors told his wife that he would soon depart this world. Then on Sunday 10 May 1863, with his wife and close staff members around him, Jackson uttered his final words, ‘Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees’, and was gathered to his Saviour.
The entire South mourned his death and he was buried in stately honour in Lexington, next to his first wife and stillborn son.
Stonewall Jackson was a man of deep character and great faith in his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He left a great legacy. He was a member of the Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Virginia, and served as a deacon. He also taught a catechism class for slaves and was greatly interested in their well-being, even while he was at war.
When he was at West Point, he wrote a book of maxims, which he sought to keep for the rest of his life. His relationship with his wife Anna was profound and he always sought to point her to Christ.
He was admired for his bravery on the battlefield and his leadership skills, pointing to his faith in God’s providence. Jackson also encouraged and stimulated a Christian revival in the Confederate army.
He is definitely a man worth emulating, and his courage and faith have often encouraged me. As one of his former cadets, Thomas M. Boyd, wrote: ‘His fame is as lasting as the solid stones of his native hills … and yet there is for him a purer, nobler record — his quiet Christian walk in life, his right words, his faithful, manly bearing, his victory over self, his known devotion to the word of truth. He was indeed a soldier of the cross’ (J. Steven Wilkins, All things for good, p.1).
The author served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is now a Christian writer residing in the USA