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A Man, a Soldier, a Christian (Part 2)
January 25, 2011
Yesterday I began a two-parter on the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. I got as far as the part about slavery and ended there. I can only cover this briefly today as this is an article primarily about his life and his faith, not about his view of slavery. So forgive my brevity.
Virginia was a slave state and through his life Jackson either owned or leased at least 8 slaves. He disliked slavery and thought that it would eventually die a natural death. But he felt that for a certain time God had decreed that a race would be slaves and that this was God’s will. End of story. If God decreed it, he wasn’t going to fight it. This somewhat hard-headed view was consistent with her personality. When Civil War came he didn’t fight for the South in order to protect slavery. The slaves he had he treated very well and loved dearly. All of his slaves had to be part of family devotions (which was illegal) and most of them seem to have become believers. His biographers think that his Sunday school for blacks actually grew out of family devotions which the slaves would attend and ask their friends to attend as well. So though he was not entirely opposed to slavery, he wanted all people, slave or free, to hear and respond to the gospel. And he was determined to make sure they all heard it.
And here’s the second lesson I’ve learned from his life: love. Jackson obeyed Romans 12:16. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” He was not too proud to work with the lowest of the low. He loved them as brothers and sisters and treated them with dignity. He was a man of his time, a person who could tolerate slavery even if he didn’t really like it. It is easy to portray him as some kind of a monster for having slaves. And yet we can’t deny his love for them, his desire to treat them well and to see them become brothers and sisters in Christ. This is probably the most difficult tension we find in his life: he owned people and yet he loved those people. It is easy to caricature slaveholders as moral monsters; the reality is not nearly so neat.
In 1852, Jackson fell in love. He suddenly began to notice a young lady in the community and was completely unaware of why this was. He went to a friend and said, “I don’t know what has changed me. I used to think her plain, but her face now seems to me all sweetness.” The friend laughed and told the shocked Jackson that he was in love. As he always did, he thought about this for a while, considered it and concluded that it must be true. And so he began to act in his own awkward way. In August of 1853 he married Eleanor Junkin or “Ellie” as he called her. He loved her dearly. Their marriage was a happy one but sadly it was also short. Eleanor became pregnant and carried the baby to full term. But the baby boy was stillborn and just an hour later Eleanor began to hemorrhage and she died as well. After just a year of marriage Jackson had his son and his wife taken from him. He had lost a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a wife, a son. The story is told that after Ellie’s funeral his friends couldn’t find him. One went to the cemetery and found Jackson lying on his wife’s grave, weeping and crying out for her.
And yet his faith remained. Shortly after this he wrote to his sister to tell her the news. He said:
I have been called to pass through the deep waters of affliction, but all has been satisfied. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord. It is his will that my dearest wife and child should not longer abide with me, as it is his holy will, I am perfectly reconciled to the sad bereavement, though I deeply mourn my loss. Oh the consolations of religion! I can willingly submit to anything if God strengthens me.
He called to mind the promise of Romans 8 and knew that somehow God would use even this for good.
It was three years later, (he was still teaching at Virginia Military Institute) in the summer of 1857, that Jackson married again. This time he married Anna Morrison, a woman he also came to love dearly. Once again, she was quickly pregnant and once again their daughter died very shortly after birth, though mother survived. Grief once again overwhelmed Jackson but once more he stood firm on God’s promises, consoling himself and his wife. It seemed like he would never know the end of loss.
And here is probably the greatest lesson from Jackson: He had total confidence in the will of God and the goodness of God. He knew the character of God and allowed that to be his starting point. He didn’t allow his pain to redraw the character of God so that God was shaped by pain and suffering. Instead, he knew and loved God and allowed God to speak, to comfort, to console him in pain. He studied God and walked with God in the good times so that his hope was firm in times of sorrow. Not only this, but he saw God’s sovereign hand in everything. Whether things went well or poorly, he saw God’s hand in it and willingly submitted himself.
And here our story takes a turn as Civil War comes to the land. Jackson was a Union man, one who wanted to see the United States remain together. But, as with so many people in that day, his first loyalty was to his state, not his country. When Virginia seceded, and when the North announced their intention to invade the South, Jackson knew that he had to stand for Virginia. He was first a Colonel in the Confederate Army, but he was soon promoted to General and given an important command over all of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Here he fought and won battle after battle in a campaign that is still studied today. It established Jackson as a brilliant military strategist, a brilliant general who relied on speed and surprise. His enemy did not know what to expect other than the unexpected. Always he would surprise them and almost always he would beat them.
Yet he was completely oblivious to his own greatness. He knew the men were willing to follow him, but he had no ego. A deep humility marked his life and is one of the traits all his friends mentioned after his death. Even his horse knew his humility. Wherever Jackson went, men would be excited to see him and would begin to clap and yell and whoop. Jackson would always respond with embarrassment or discomfort, hurrying away. After a while his horse, whenever it heard the cheering, would just take off in a gallop. There’s a great story from this time. After that battle at Manassas, the battle where he became Stonewall Jackson, the people of Lexington were waiting for news. They knew the battle had been fought and they had heard that Jackson played a pivotal role. A few days after the battle a letter from Jackson showed up addressed to Pastor White. People were excited. Finally they would know the truth of what happened; they’d get a description of the battle from the man himself. The pastor opened the letter to read a very short note that essentially said, “I apologize, but I was busy the other day and didn’t get a chance to give my offering to the church. So here it is. Please use this to fund the colored Sunday School.” And that was it. There was no way anyone would learn of his accomplishments from the man himself. And any time a person would commend Jackson, he was always sure to point all praise and glory to God.
One final lesson. Jackson was a man of prayer. He prayed all the time. He would pray before battles and during battles, often holding his hands up in prayer, asking God to bless and protect his men. He would rise in the night, even when he had had very little sleep and he would pray. The lesson is that you’re never too busy to pray. He would go to services held by his chaplains and pray with them. He prayed with his wife and prayed over his daughter. He never grew tired of prayer and always saw the need for it. He was a true prayer warrior who would do nothing, make no important decision, without taking it before God. He had a right assessment of both himself and God and knew the utter importance of being on his knees.
Again, he and Anna had a deep love for one another and his letters to his bride reveal a great affection, one that’s almost uncomfortable and embarrassing. It makes you hope that your love letters never get made public. But he loved her and was proud of her. They spent only a few weeks together through the two years of war from 1861 to 1863, though there was time enough for Anna to become pregnant and late in 1862 Julia was born. Julia would be the first and only of Jackson’s children to live past childhood and to outlive her father.
In May of 1863 Jackson and his troops performed what is known as his greatest march and his greatest military feat. In a battle at Chancellorsville he sprang an ultimate surprise on the Union forces and systematically destroyed a force much larger than his own. And yet it was in this battle that he was terribly wounded. In the confusion of the battle his own men fired on him, hitting him with three bullets. He was rushed to a field hospital where his arm was amputated. For a few days he was healthy and strong, recovering well. But, as was so often the case in the Civil War, a secondary infection set in and he developed a serious case of pneumonia. Within days he was laboring to breathe and experiencing great pain. Doctors did all they could and concluded that there was no hope—he would die.
Anna rushed to his side to be with him in his final days. As hope turned to a harsh reality, and as Jackson became aware that he would soon die, his faith didn’t diminish at all. In fact, it seemed to grow and mature. His confidence in God was absolutely unshaken. “I thank God,” he said, “if it is his will, that I am ready to go. I am not afraid to die.” In one of his final acts he asked the chaplain of his army to promote better Lord’s Day observance among the troops and worked to make sure more chaplains were assigned to his units.
Eight days after he was wounded, his condition worsened and the doctors told Anna that her husband was going to die that day. Anna said to him, “Do you know the doctors say you must very soon be in Heaven? Do you not feel willing to acquiesce in God’s allotment, if he wills you to go today?” His answer was just a whisper. “I prefer it.” Then in a louder voice, to be sure he was heard, he said, “I prefer it!” He drifted off to sleep. A few minutes later he recovered consciousness and said, “It is the Lord’s day. My wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.”
His life had been marked with suffering, but always it had been others who suffered or died. But this time it was Jackson who was burning with fever, who suffered great pain, who could barely catch a breath. And he was content. He rested in God’s love, in God’s promises. He had fought the fight, and now he would finish it well.
In his final moments, as his life slipped away, Jackson seemed to replay his life in reverse. “Push up the columns!” he said. “Hasten the columns! Pendleton, you take charge of that! Where’s Pendleton?” He saw himself marching beside his army once again, winning all of those victories, enduring all of those tiring marches. And then he was a boy again, back in Jackson’s Mill with his best friend Joe, looking across the water to his little refuge, his little lean-to, his little place of refuge. “Let us cross the river,” he said, “and rest under the shade of the trees.”
With a last breath, Tom Jackson went home at last.
Want to know more about Jackson? Go to this article and look to the final paragraph.