Brigadier-General Thomas J Jackson, a professor of Virginia Military Institute, and his foot cavalry.
It was the first major battle of the American Civil War in the eastern theatre. The Union men afterwards knew it as First Bull Run, the Confederates as First Manassas. It was fought on 21 July 1861 by two armies of enthusiastic but very raw citizen-soldiers. Panic was the most common reaction to the first experience of close-range musketry and canister. Chaos was the outcome of the overly complex plans of opposing commanders.
The notable exception was ‘Virginia’s First Brigade’, commanded by Brigadier-General Thomas J Jackson, a professor from Virginia Military Institute who had formed his command at Harpers Ferry on 27 April. It was an amalgamation of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th, and 33rd Virginia Infantry Regiments and the Rockbridge County Artillery Battery. It was, in short, a brigade of Virginians from the lush Shenandoah Valley.
Jackson was austere, religious, serious-minded, and a tough disciplinarian. Under fire, he was courageous and cool-headed. Later, it would emerge that he was also a master of deception, rapid movement, and the sudden killer-blow. There was irony in that, for he and his men acquired a nickname at First Manassas that implied the very opposite: he became ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and they the ‘Stonewall’ Brigade.
Union commander McDowell had successfully executed a wide turning movement that looked set to collapse the Confederate left. The climax of the battle was fought on Henry House Hill, where the Union surge met an improvised Confederate line in serious danger of collapse. Jackson, skilled tactician that he was, had placed his brigade on the ‘military crest’, such that attacking Union troops saw it only when they breasted the ‘false crest’. Sheltered from enemy fire, Jackson’s Virginians achieved maximum shock effect as the Union regiments came over the top of the hill and were suddenly blasted by massed musket-volleys.
General Barnard Bee from South Carolina, commanding a faltering brigade of Deep South men from Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina, saw the Virginians and called out to his troops by way of encouragement, ‘Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!’
The Confederate line held. Fresh regiments joined the battle on the exposed right flank of the attacking columns. Panic spread through the Union ranks. Soon, mixed up with thousands of civilians who had arrived to watch the spectacle, the men of the Union Army were in flight to their entrenchments around Washington. They left behind them a newly formed legend: the Stonewall Brigade.
Jackson was rapidly promoted, but his brigade remained in his command as long as he lived (he was killed in a ‘friendly fire’ accident at Chancellorsville in May 1863). So the Stonewall Brigade participated in the famous Valley Campaign of March-June 1862, when Jackson moved with such speed and effect that he was able to inflict a succession of defeats on separate Union forces which together outnumbered him four-to-one. The Stonewall Brigade marched 400 miles in four weeks, including one extraordinary 57-mile march in 51 hours, earning itself a new nickname: ‘Jackson’s foot cavalry’.
The Stonewall Brigade served in the eastern theatre throughout the war, becoming part of General Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and participating in almost every one of its major battles. The American Civil War was characterised by frequent battles and horrendous casualties. In the eastern theatre in particular, the opposing Armies of the Potomac and of Northern Virginia clashed again and again in full-scale pitched battles in which as many as one in four of the combatants might become casualties.
The Stonewall Brigade was often in the thick of it. In the murderous fighting in the ‘Bloody Angle’ at Spotsylvania in May 1864, all but 200 of its men were killed, wounded, or
captured. The fate of the unit’s eight commanding officers tells its own story: three were killed in battle at the head of the Brigade, and one was seriously wounded. The Brigade had been constantly replenished with fresh recruits, but the Confederacy was exhausting its reserves of manpower by the summer of 1864, and the losses at Spotsylvania could not be made good. The survivors were reorganised into a single regiment, fighting as part of Brigadier-General William Terry’s brigade during the last year of the war, when they participated in the last Confederate invasion of the North – Jubal Early’s 1864 Valley Campaign.
Some 6,000 men served in the Stonewall Brigade during the Civil War. When the survivors surrendered with the rest of Lee’s army at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, there were only 219 left, none above the rank of captain.
Formed: 27 April 1861
Reformed into single regiment: May 1864
Surrendered and disbanded: 9 April 1865
Later reformed as: 1st Brigade ‘The Stonewall Brigade’, 29th Infantry Division (Light), Virginia Army National Guard.
Now: 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
Commanders: Brigadier-General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Brigadier-General Richard Garnett, Brigadier-General Charles Winder, Colonel William Baylor, Colonel Andrew Grigsby, Brigadier-General Elisha Paxton, Brigadier-General James Walker, Brigadier-General William Terry.
Battle honours: First Manassas, Valley Campaign 1862, Seven Days, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Valley Campaign 1864, Siege of Petersburg, Appomattox Campaign.