The Day “Thomas Jonathan” Became “Stonewall”
Exactly 142 years ago today, July 21, the names Bull Run and Manassas meant virtually nothing throughout the nation. By nightfall they had become immortal, as had another name, “Stonewall.” The first major engagement of the “Civil” War was now history.
The Federal commander was only 43 years old and only two months a brigadier general. A physically powerful man, Irvin McDowell was admired as an officer well-informed both in and out of his profession. He had been educated in France and West Point, and had distinguished himself in the Mexican War. He had served on the staff of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, actually a year older than the Federal Constitution over whose interpretation the two nations were doing battle. McDowell knew that the 30,000 troops under his command were mostly untrained, but the word was “go,” and away they went.
The Southerners were prepared, however. On May 8, only four companies of infantry and cavalry had been stationed at Manassas Junction. But before the month was out, another brigade had arrived, and on June 1 Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the hero of Sumter, assumed command of the entire Confederate forces in northeastern Virginia.
On July 17, the Federal troops pushed ten miles from Washington City to Fairfax Courthouse, where they paraded through town four abreast, with bands playing and flags waving. Already the Federals were clogging the roads out of the Federal capitol, and by the 18th were gathering along the heights of Centerville. Here the Confederate forces lay along an eight-mile stretch of Bull Run creek. Beauregard sent a message by telegraph to Richmond informing the Confederate president that his outposts had been attacked and requesting reinforcements “at the earliest possible instant and to every possible means.”
General Joseph Johnston immediately made plans to leave the Shenandoah Valley. He began moving his army thorough Ashby’s Gap to Piedmont, a station on the Manassas Gap line. Meanwhile, the bivouacs of the Union soldiers swarmed with visitors both during the 19th and 20th. Many of them had come out from Washington in carriages, and some of the women had even packed their fineries, knowing that there would be dancing at Fairfax Courthouse after the Yankees had driven the Southerners back to Richmond.
Johnston stepped off the train at Manassas, having eluded Union General Patterson without trouble. At 6:30 am on the 21st, Beauregard, directing action with Johnston’s approval, received a message that some 1,200 men were deployed in his front. Although he had prepared an offensive plan, he now knew that the Federals had taken the initiative away from him. Beauregard ordered T. J. Jackson’s brigade to take up such positions along Bull Run that he would able to reinforce either flank of the Confederate army.
As the Federal attackers seemed about to win the day, Jackson’s troops stood fast and helped turn the tide. Confederate general Bernard Bee is said to have exclaimed to his own troops: “Look! There stands Jackson like a stone wall!” The nickname stuck. Jackson’s fame was carried with it across the South and later the nation, and few would know him today by his real name—Thomas Jonathan. Ironically, it wasn’t as a “stone wall” but as a lightning bolt—a tactical genius and hard-striking offensive master—that Jackson achieved his greatness. In his Valley Campaign in 1862 he eluded, then defeated, superior Federal forces, and in August of the same year he marched entirely around the Union army of General John Pope, then stood on the defensive, luring Pope to the attack until the rest of the Confederate army could join in a crushing counterattack and victory at the Second Manassas.
142 years after the Battle of First Manassas it is fascinating to read Jackson’s own report:
About 4 in the morning I
received notice from General Longstreet that he needed a re-enforcement of
two regiments, which were accordingly ordered.
Lieut. Col. F. B. Jones, acting assistant adjutant-general; Lieut. T. G. Lee, aide-de-camp, and Lieut. A. S. Pendleton, brigade ordnance officer, and Capt. Thomas Marshall, volunteer aide, rendered valuable service. Cadets J. W. Thompson and N. W. Lee, also volunteer aides, merit special praise. Dr. Hunter H. McGuire has proved himself to be eminently qualified for his position—that of medical director of the brigade. Capt. Thomas L. Preston, though not of my command, rendered valuable service during the action.
Finally, in a letter to his wife dated July 23, 1861, Jackson, with characteristic humility, wrote:
My Precious Pet, Yesterday we fought a great battle and gained a great victory, for which all the glory is due to God alone. Although under a heavy fire for several continuous hours, I received only one wound, the breaking of the longest finger of my left hand; but the doctor says the finger can be saved. It was broken about midway between the hand and knuckle, the ball passing on the side next the forefinger. Had it struck the centre, I should have lost the finger. My horse was wounded, but not killed. Your coat got an ugly wound near the hip, but my servant, who is very handy, has so far repaired it that it doesn’t show very much. My preservation was entirely due, as was the glorious victory, to our God, to whom be all the honor, praise and glory. The battle was the hardest that I have ever been in, but not near so hot in its fire. I commanded the centre more particularly, though one of my regiments extended to the right for some distance. There were other commanders on my right and left. Whilst great credit is due to other parts of our gallant army, God made my brigade more instrumental than any other in repulsing the main attack. This is for your information only, say nothing about it. Let others speak praise, not myself.
Without doubt, Jackson’s most effective military quality was his decisiveness. Seeing opportunities quickly, he seized them at once and never hesitated to attack even superior forces if he saw the possibility of advantage. He may well have been, and some authorities consider him, the war’s most remarkable soldier.
In honor of this great soldier and Christian, perhaps you’d like to join me in a hearty rendition of “Stonewall Jackson’s Way”!
arms, men! pile on the rails,
July 21, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.