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TRUST JESUS TODAY
This is the speech for a presentation I will be doing on Stonewall Jackson at The Museum of The Confederacy in Sept.
First, I would like to begin by thanking (name here) for (his/her) most gracious invitation to participate in today’s panel. It is a real privilege to be counted among these very talented writers and I am honored to have this opportunity to speak to you.
Before I begin my formal presentation, I’d like to take a moment to provide a very brief background on myself, and the two books that I have written. Like many of you, I have always been a huge Civil War buff and ever since my first trip to Gettysburg at the age of six, the War Between the States has captivated my mind. Over the years, I have continued to study the subject and have never grown tired of it. Even today, I still feel the same sense of admiration for the boys in blue and gray as I did in 1978.
Since 2000, I have been blessed with a freelance writing position for Baseball-Almanac.com and specialize in studies recounting the history of America’s National Pastime. Deep down inside however, I always wanted to write something meaningful in regards to the Civil War. A few years ago, I added faith writing to my resume and began providing Christian based material for several religious publications. In 2004, I finally discovered the inspiration that I had been searching for in the form of the Ron Maxwell film “Gods and Generals.”
After viewing that movie and the breathtaking performance by actor Stephen Lang, the life (and death) of Stonewall Jackson stayed with me. In essence, it was his total faith and devotion to both God and country that literally touched my heart. I felt a strong calling to write about it.
Obviously, I was not original in this subject matter. Thus, Onward Christian Soldier is presented a little differently from other historical biographies. With such a revered character, it’s no surprise that there have been many brilliant studies on Thomas Jackson over the years. Most of them however, primarily spotlight his military service and strategic genius. My book recalls these events, but is ultimately focused on his religious awakening and it's affect on both his life and the lives of his men.
Initially, my intent was to write a single biography focusing on the spirituality of one of America's greatest Christian soldiers. However, as my own study of Thomas Jackson progressed, I discovered another legendary Confederate hero that shared an exceptionally similar life (and death) as "Stonewall." That man was General J.E.B. Stuart who also personified the devout servant to God and country. This became the basis for my second book, Christian Cavalier.
During my research for these books, I unexpectedly learned that both Jackson and Stuart (as well as many other Confederate heroes) do not receive the respect they deserve outside of the southern community. Unfortunately, many of those who have spoken out against Confederate history seldom take time to actually learn it. Many of them consider both Jackson and Stuart as nothing more than eccentric and bloodthirsty racists. This cannot be further from the truth and anyone who takes the time to study these men cannot help but be inspired by their devotion to their God, their country, and their cause.
General Robert E. Lee once said, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." This is the internal struggle that many soldiers face in fulfillment of their duty. All wars are dreadful, but civil wars are the worst of them all. Brother against brother, countrymen killing fellow countrymen, all of this weighed heavily on many soldier’s consciences, but many were able to mentally survive the struggle by finding comfort through their faith. Jackson and Stuart were no exception.
Therefore, my intention today is to present one of these extraordinary men, not only as a soldier, but a Christian Soldier who has left behind a legacy that, thanks to organizations like The Museum of the Confederacy, will be shared for generations to come. Most of the material I will be discussing today is covered in much more detail in my book, but I want to provide a glimpse this afternoon into the legacy of the one we call Stonewall.
Regarded as one of the more “godly heroes” in American military history, Thomas Jackson is still considered to be one of the most inspirational and eccentric of all the Confederacy’s leaders. One of the first things that struck me in regards to the life of this General, was the relentless tragedy that seemed to plague him throughout his entire life. When looking at his story, it is not merely the story of a brave General who gained an infamous nickname by standing like a “stonewall” in the face of total carnage. It is the story about his faith that enabled him to serve his post so bravely.
You see Jackson’s life story is filled with the kinds of heartache and hardships that would leave many of us questioning our own beliefs. It is a love story that is filled with sorrow, testimony, hope, and despair. It is a story that reaffirms the power of prayer, and teaches us that with faith, all things are possible. Ultimately, it is the story of a man who suffered greatly, but chose to embrace the Will of his Savior and a Call to Duty as the foundation for a legendary life.
Like many great men in American history, General Thomas Stonewall Jackson started from humble origins. Looking back, many would consider his childhood to be fraught with despair, yet it was the painful trials he faced early on, that helped shape his unwavering commitment to both his God and country.
Born on January 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia, Thomas Jackson was the third child of Jonathan Jackson and Julia Beckwith Neale. His father was a popular and successful attorney, while his mother raised Thomas and his siblings, Elizabeth, Warren, and, later, Laura Ann. Their family was an extension of a rich and patriotic lineage that traced its roots back to the time of the Revolutionary War. Many relatives of the Jacksons were the proud owners of factories or mills, scattered from Virginia to Oregon. Their surname bore a crest of honor, and all that shared it took great pride in the accomplishments of their Presbyterian ancestors.
Benefiting from their father’s academic background, the Jackson children blossomed well and appeared to be living out the “American Dream” amidst the painted backdrop of the glorious South. Socially superior to many of their under-educated peers, blessings in the Jackson house abounded, and Jonathan’s financial gains as a practicing lawyer provided an elegant and comfortable lifestyle.
A caring and compassionate man, Jackson’s father was known for coming to the assistance of those less fortunate, and his charitable ways proved to be more satisfying than litigation. In helping to provide security for others though, Jonathan unknowingly spent his own family into financial stress. Eventually the bill collectors came looking for him, and his inability to pay weighed heavily on his shoulders. Unfortunately, things were headed from bad to worse as several unforeseen tragedies were about to deal devastating blows to this otherwise prospering family.
It’s no secret that in the days of Jackson’s childhood, the science of medicine was still very primitive. In fact, several of the common ailments that we experience today were no less than a death sentence during that time in history. Many diseases that have been long forgotten, or eradicated over the last century, were untreatable at the time, and the unfortunate victims who contracted them rarely survived.
In March of 1826, both Thomas’ father and sister Elizabeth, who was age six at the time, contracted a fatal case of typhoid fever. Adding to both the agony and irony of the situation, Julia gave birth to her fourth child, Laura Ann, the very next day after her husband had died.
Now a widow and mother of four, at the tender young age of twenty-eight, Thomas’ mother was left with extensive financial debt and the inability to support her family.
Desperate and rapidly falling into an impoverished state, she realized that her only choice to provide for her children was to remarry.
Unfortunately for the Jackson children, Julia’s judgment had been clouded by the overwhelming grief and guilt often experienced by widows who are left with few alternatives. As a result, her choice in a replacement for her beloved Jonathan fell well short of both a parent and a provider. Her new husband, Blake Woodson, not only disliked his stepchildren immensely, but was also financially unstable. The previous harmony of the Jackson household was almost immediately pushed aside by the arrival of their new stepfather. Still grieving the loss of their own father, the children’s once promising future was now bleak and void of hope.
In order to appease her newfound husband and provide a loving environment for her children, Julia made the ultimate sacrifice, and sent Thomas and Laura to live with Jonathan’s relatives in West Virginia, while Warren went to stay with Julia’s own kin. Despite the “loss” of his mother, her deep religious faith and the way in which she accepted her own fate would stay in Jackson’s memory for years to come.
During the Civil War, he would later recall her grace and tenderness often while on campaign, and confided in his chaplain that she was rarely absent in his thoughts. He often said that she was his inner strength, and that any man could be measured by the mother that raised him.
Brokenhearted, Julia passed away after suffering complications during childbirth, on December 4, 1831. Although her newborn, William Woodson, survived her death, Julia’s husband had little regard for his son’s half brothers or sister, and had no intention of reuniting the family. Thus, both Thomas and Laura spent the remaining years of their childhood nursing their emotional wounds in the custody of their parental uncles. Warren, however, was not as lucky, and later died of tuberculosis in 1841.
With no immediate family at the tender age of seventeen, Thomas took an unlikely position as a constable for the county. Acting as a minor sheriff, he was tasked with distributing warrants, collecting debts, and summoning witnesses for the local court.
After surviving an obscure bout of dyspepsia, himself, Jackson believed that the physical requirements of the job would help him maintain fitness. Following the death of his father, sister, and brother to disease, Thomas had become excessively health conscious, and his severe fear of contracting any illness would later result in obsessive compulsive behavior. Later his fears would be multiplied, as Jackson would lose his first wife and child as well as his second child to complications following childbirth.
Over the next two years, Thomas served his county well, and honed the meticulous habits that would later benefit him on the battlefield. Due to his reputation as a promising young member of the law enforcement community, the now nineteen-year-old was eventually offered a full government-funded scholarship at the nation’s most prestigious military academy. The nomination offered a tremendous opportunity for both a first-class education, as well as an honorable career in the United States Army. What more could an orphaned boy ask for? Without the slightest hesitation, Cadet Jackson immediately packed up his few belongings and headed straight for West Point.
Both shy and silent, Thomas slowly settled into his new surroundings. Although schoolwork was never one of his strengths, Jackson believed in himself, and others now believed in him too. Regardless of the enthusiasm he felt within, Thomas immediately found himself at a severe disadvantage. Many of his fellow cadets were well versed from previous training, and were far more experienced at the blackboard.
Struggling in most of his classes, his determination proved insufficient to compensate for his painful academic immaturity. Often criticized by his classmates, Jackson never questioned his own ability to be a good soldier. It was all he could do to pass the first examination, but deep down inside, he knew that both patience and perseverance would shape his future.
At that time, the curriculum at West Point was far from passive, and many of his classes included Algebra, Geometry, both Natural and Applied Physics, and History. Often working late into the night, Thomas spent countless hours outside the classroom, trying to grasp the lessons that were taught within it. Thankfully, his will to succeed and an outstanding work ethic enabled Jackson to slowly edge his way back into the intellectual company of his peers. By working twice as hard as those around him, he appreciated his rewards and pledged to never forget those who helped him to become both an officer and a gentleman.
Raised a non-confirmed Episcopalian, Jackson had joined the Presbyterian Church in the early 1850s and later became a deacon who generously donated one tenth of his earnings to the church. Eager to share his renewed faith with all people, Jackson started a Sunday school in Lexington for African Americans and proudly practiced civil disobedience while teaching black children the ways of salvation. Although he could not alter the social status of slaves, he committed himself to Christian decency and pledged to “assist the souls of those held in bondage.”
Despite his patriotic devotion as a career military man, Jackson maintained that his first duty was always that of a soldier in what he referred to as “The Army of the Lord”. After graduating 17th (out of 59) in his class at West Point, he served in the Mexican War before accepting a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute. Specializing in “Natural Physics” Jackson struggled as an instructor and was immensely unpopular with his students. His inability to connect, along with a humorless demeanor, soon branded Jackson as an unpopular faculty member, and one who was the target of many pranks. V.M.I. Superintendent Francis H. Smith later stated that, “As Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Major Jackson was not a success…His genius was in the Science and Art of War.”
Regardless of his failures at the blackboard, Jackson had already established the reputation as a brilliant field commander and was personally selected by General Robert E. Lee to command a company of VMI cadets in the newly established Confederate Army.
Distraught over the North’s impending invasion of the South, Jackson vehemently swore his allegiance to the Army of Northern Virginia and vowed to fight for God and country to the bitter end. Duty however, did not stifle his budding religious convictions and many members of his infamous brigade were later indoctrinated with their commander’s infectious faith. Despite the lack of readily available clergymen in the early Confederate Army, Jackson appointed a personal minister to his staff, and maintained daily prayer rituals whether in camp or on the march.
His Chaplain, the Reverend Tucker Lacy, routinely led the services, which were often attended by General Lee and his staff. As the courageous reputation of Jackson’s brigade continued to grow, so did their quest for salvation. Reverend Lacy’s energizing speeches quickly became a popular event for both saved and unsaved soldiers, who attended his sermons by the thousands. Jackson recalled one particular event that summarized the success of their ministry. He wrote:
It was a noble sight to see there those, who led our armies to victory and upon whom the eyes of the nation are turned with admiration and gratitude, melted in tears at the story of the cross and the exhibition of the love of God to the repenting and return sinner.
In retrospect, it was their dedication to faith that enabled both the “The Stonewall Brigade” and their commander to reach heights on the battlefield beyond those of ordinary men. By putting his trust in God, Jackson was able to inspire those under him to achieve victory in the face of defeat. With total confidence, he routinely bragged of their bravery saying, “Who could not conquer with such troops as these?”
Perhaps best known as “Stonewall”, Jackson earned his nickname at the First Battle of Manassas, after refusing to withdrawal his troops in the face of total carnage. After Brigadier General Barnard Bee informed him that his forces were being beaten back, Jackson replied, "Sir, we will give them the bayonet." Inspired by the bravery of his subordinate, General Bee immediately rallied the remnants of his brigade while shouting "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer." A devout believer in predestination, Jackson insisted that God had already determined his time on earth and that no spot on the battlefield was safer than the other. It was this unwavering conviction that enabled him to lead his troops into battle without the fear of death and inspire countless others to rally behind him.
Courage however, could not hide his obvious distaste for war and regardless of victory; Jackson remained committed to ending the conflict as soon as possible. Preaching a harsh philosophy of swift and total destruction, Jackson believed that the sooner an enemy force was destroyed - the less lives would ultimately be lost. He referred to this action as “the black flag” and reminded his officers that regardless of their orders, duty was theirs – the consequences were God’s.
During the Shenandoah Campaign of 1862, Jackson repeatedly proved himself to be a brilliant strategist, but still found time to hold Bible study and hymnal sessions with the senior officers of his brigade. Despite being an “academic”, he resisted the urge to glorify war and routinely quoted “battle accounts” taken from the Bible in place of his own reports. Always eager to share his relationship with the Father, Jackson wrote letter after letter urging his countryman (and women) to actively seek repentance. One letter, written to his sister, summarized his faith:
You wish to know how to come to God; so as to have your sins forgiven, and to receive "the inheritance which is incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away." Now my dear sister the way is plain: the savior says in Mark XVI chapter, 16th verse "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." But you may ask what is it to believe. To explain this I will quote from an able theologian, and devoted servant of God. To believe in the sense in which the word is used here, "is feeling and acting as if there were a God, a Heaven, a Hell; as if we were sinners and must die; as if we deserve eternal death, and were in danger of it. And in view of all, casting our eternal interests on the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. To do this is to be a Christian."
Always a teacher, Jackson dedicated almost every waking moment (that did not require his military service) to educating the uneducated, uplifting the downtrodden and introducing those around him to the glory of God. His popularity with the troops also enabled him to reach them in ways that other men could not and he was often found praying with the wounded at their bedside. After a series of tremendous victories, the Confederacy appeared to be well on it’s way to declaring independence. However, the fortunes of war would quickly turn in the Union’s favor after the sudden and accidental death of the General they called “Stonewall.”
On May 2, 1863, during the battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson’s own men accidentally fired upon him resulting in three wounds and an amputated arm. Initially, he looked to make a full recovery, but he later developed an incurable case of pneumonia. After a few days, it was a foregone conclusion that death was drawing near.
Upon hearing his prognosis, Jackson replied that he had always wanted to die on a Sunday and that, "It will be infinite gain to be translated to Heaven." He then asked his wife to pray for him but to always use the petition of “Thy Will Be Done.” In the end, he clearly accepted his fate as part of God’s divine plan and resolved to spend his last hours before delirium set in, reading from the Bible.
A few moments before he died he cried out, "Order A. P. Hill to prepare for action!" Then a smile of sweetness spread over his face, and he quietly spoke his last words saying, "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”; and then, without pain or the least sign of struggle, his spirit passed from this earth back to the God who gave it.
As word spread throughout the South of General Jackson’s untimely and tragic death, many supporters of the Confederacy fell into hopelessness. No one, most of all his own men, believed that anyone could ever replace him. Even today, many historians credit the death of Stonewall as the key turning point in the War Between the States. No other commander had ever been able to push his men to such heights on the battlefield, and many of the engagements that followed his death might have been won, were it not for his absence.
Perhaps the most decisive of all battles, Gettysburg has long been debated as the definitive victory for the Union. During an interview on CSPAN in 2001, noted Civil War expert Shelby Foote stated that he believed if Jackson had lived, he definitely would have taken Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg. That victory alone determined the high ground, the outcome of the battle, and ultimately, the war.
The memorials that followed were grand affairs, befitting a man of Jackson’s immense popularity and reverence. Viewed by hundreds of military and civilian mourners, each ceremony that led up to his interment became a national event. In accordance with military tradition, Thomas’ casket was draped in a Confederate flag, adorned by six mourning plumes, and drawn by four white horses. An honor guard comprised of V.M.I. cadets accompanied the hearse. As he was laid to rest, the entire country struggled to deal with their sorrow as the army struggled to deal with the loss of the one General Lee referred to as his “Right Arm.” Unfortunately, neither was ever truly able to recover.
Much more than just a general, Thomas Jackson was a true believer, who lived everyday for the glory of God. In the end, perhaps this Christian soldier’s biggest victory was not in defeating his foes on the battlefield, but in convincing others to surrender their lives to the Lord. His is a story that reminds us what it means to be a Christian. More importantly, his is a story that should never be forgotten.
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