The Stonewall Brigade
One of the most famous battle units in American history, the Stonewall Brigade – trained and first led by Thomas J. Jackson - achieved a record for marching, fighting, and sacrifice rarely equaled in the annals of war. The organization is remarkable for remaining a potent fighting force until late in the War, despite severe attrition. Writers over the years have likened it to Caesar’s Tenth Legion, Charlemagne’s Paladins, and Napoleon’s Old Guard. The brigade’s original members were in the initial wave of volunteers who answered Virginia’s call to arms. All the soldiers in the unit were from the Shenandoah Valley and adjacent areas. In April of 1861, the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd Virginia Infantry Regiments, plus the Rockbridge Artillery Battery, were organized into a brigade.
Their commander was Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. His severe training program and ascetic standards of military discipline turned these raw but enthusiastic recruits into an effective military organization. The unit was Virginia’s First Brigade until July 21, 1861, when, at the Battle of First Manassas, it and its general received the nickname “Stonewall”. Barnard E. Bee made his immortal remark between 2:30 and 3:00 P.M., when, looking for more of his brigade to rally for the final phase of the battle. He probably said, “Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall; let’s go to his assistance… Rally behind the Virginians!”
Jackson left his regiments in the autumn for higher command, but the Stonewall Brigade remained under him, was always his favorite unit, and became the brigade on whom he called as a pacesetter both on the march and in combat. Richard B. Garnett followed Jackson as brigade commander. At Kernstown (25 Mar. ’62) the brigade, out of ammunition, broke under overwhelming enemy pressure and Garnett ordered a withdrawal to a new position. Although this order saved the brigade from complete destruction, Jackson relieved Garnett. Charles S. Winder, the next commander, was greeted with open hostility by the brigade, which believed Garnett had been relieved unjustly. In the brilliant Valley Campaign that followed Winder led his men 400 miles in four weeks, fought six engagements, and won their respect as a commander. The brigade’s mobility in the campaign (particularly a fifty-seven-mile march in fifty-one hours) earned it the title “Jackson’s foot cavalry.” Moving swiftly to the Peninsula, the brigade’s attack at Gaines’s Mill (27 June ’62) helped break the Federal right and give Lee one of his hardest-fought victories. At Cedar Mountain (9 Aug. ’62) the brigade was badly shot up and Winder killed. Jackson arrived in person to rally his old outfit and win the battle. In the 2nd Battle of Manassas the unit further distinguished itself in a series of costly action, from which it never fully recovered. On 30 Aug. The Virginians repulsed the attacks of their Federal counterpart, the Iron Brigade, and rallied for a counterattack. Its acting commander, Colonel William S.H. Baylor was killed and the brigade reduced to regimental strength. Temporarily under Lieutenant Colonel Andrew J. Grigsby, the Stonewall Brigade defended Lee’s left at Sharpsburg. The fighting around West Woods was so severe that Grigsby was commanding the division at the end of the day. (The brigade was in “Jackson’s Division”, which was commanded by J.R. Jones.)
Colonel Elisha F. Paxton, formerly of the 27th Virginia, moved from Jackson’s staff to head the brigade after Sharpsburg. His welcome was the same as Winder’s had been; the brigade favored the fighting, cursing, outspoken Grigsby whom, for unknown reasons, Jackson would not give the command. After Fredericksburg, however, Paxton was “accepted.” Although the brigade’s losses during 1862 had amounted to more than 1,200, their morale was still high. At Chancellorsville the brigade (now in “Trimble’s Division,” which was commanded by Colston) took part in Jackson’s envelopment. Posted as a separate brigade behind Stuart’s cavalry on the Confederate right (south) flank, the unit attacked along the Orange Plank Road the evening of 2 May ’63. Paxton was killed and more than 600 men out of the brigade’s 2,000 were killed or wounded. It was this same night that Jackson was mortally wounded. The exhausted brigade responded the next morning to Jeb Stuart’s exhortation: “Remember Stonewall Jackson!” and resumed the attack. Hearing of this action, the wounded Jackson said, “The men of the Brigade will be, some day, proud to say to their children ‘I was one of the Stonewall Brigade.’” Then he added, “The name ‘Stonewall’ ought to be attached wholly to the men of the Brigade, and not to me; for it was their steadfast heroism which earned it at First Manassas.” On May 30, 1863, following Jackson’s death, the Confederate War Department officially designated the unit as the Stonewall Brigade. It was the only large command in the Southern armies to have a sanctioned nickname.
James A. Walker, Colonel of the 4th Virginia, was promoted to command the brigade. The veterans greeted this new commander with animosity also, and considered his stern disciplinary methods to be unnecessary. At Stephenson’s Depot (15 June ’63) the brigade foiled Hooker’s attempt to turn Lee’s left flank; in a spirited counterattack it captured six Federal regiments. In the Gettysburg campaign, as part of Johnson’s division, the brigade arrived with Ewell’s corps at the end of the first day’s fighting (1 July). The next two days it took part in the hard frontal assaults against Culp’s Hill. In the Wilderness the brigade fought along the Orange Courthouse Turnpike for two bloody days. A week later, at Spotsylvania, it was on the left of the critical salient remembered as the “Bloody Angle.” In the attack of Hancock’s II (US) Corps all but 200 men of the brigade were killed or were among the 6,080 captured. Johnson, the division commander, and Walker, who was seriously wounded, were among the prisoners. This ended the existence of the brigade as a unit. Its surviving members were consolidated into one regiment.
In Terry’s brigade of Gordon’s division the regiment fought under Early in the “Second Valley Campaign.” They were prominent in the battle of the Monocasy (9 July ’64), routing Lew Wallace’s meager defenders and opening the road to Washington. When capture of the capital proved beyond Early’s resources the survivors of the old Stonewall Brigade finally gave up their hopes of ultimate Southern victory. Discouragement deepened as Sheridan proceeded to destroy Early’s army. They rejoined Lee for the final futile efforts around Petersburg and fought the Army of Northern Virginia’s rear-guard action to Appomattox.
Over 6,000 men served in the Stonewall Brigade during the course of the War. At Appomattox, after 39 engagements, only 210 ragged and footsore soldiers were left – none above the rank of captain.
The original Stonewall Brigade had a makeup and personality unique among Confederate units. Two of every three of its members were farmers, blacksmiths, masons, or machinists. An unusually high percentage of non-English, foreign-born men were in the ranks; Irish and Scotch-Irish were the largest ethnic group. Few slaveholders were members of the brigade. In addition, the five regiments were typically a family affair, with numerous companies consisting of fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, and cousins.
The brigade came to possess a combination of Jackson’s iron discipline and a feeling of confidence gained from repeated successes. It was always an independent-minded unit; a brigade that was outstanding and knew it.
“I wish all Yankees were in hell,” said a tired, lean member of the Stonewall Brigade. “I don’t, “ said another, “because Old Jack would have us standing picket at the gate before night and in there before morning.”
Ordered to take command of Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson was reluctant to leave the Brigade. When he did so, he gave a farewell address at the request of his troops. Rising in his stirrups before the troops, he yelled: "In the Army of the Shenandoah you were the First Brigade! In the Army of the Potomac you were the First Brigade! In the Second Corps of the army you are the First Brigade! You are the First Brigade in the affection of your general, and I hope by your future deeds and bearing you will be handed down as the First Brigade in this our Second War of Independence. Farewell!"
Stonewall Jackson was noted for the rapid movements of his “foot cavalry”. One struggling veteran was heard to avow that Jackson was bound to have been a better general than Moses. It took Moses forty years to lead the Israelites through the wilderness and Old Jack would have double-quicked them through it in three days !
Stonewall Jackson instantly corrected an officer’s reference to his men as “poor devils”, stating that they were “suffering angels”.
The Stonewall Brigade once defended a railroad cut against a bayonet charge by the 52nd New York Infantry Regiment. The Brigade exhausted all ammunition then threw rocks. The major of the New York unit bravely led their charge and was forcing the Brigade back until Jeb Stuart’s cavalry arrived and saved the day for the Southerners. In Stuart’s attack the major fell with a severe wound and was left on the field when his men retreated. Jackson immediately sent his surgeons to care for the Federal officer and do all they could for him. The news of Jackson’s kind treatment shortly reached the New Yorkers and you can bet other Union troops were amazed to hear the 52nd shouting, “Three cheers for Stonewall Jackson !”
In July, 1891, when the impressive statue of Stonewall Jackson was dedicated over his grave, 30,000 people gathered in Lexington, Virginia. On the day before the dedication, survivors of the Stonewall Brigade, dressed in faded and tattered gray uniforms, were the center of attention in the town. That night when citizens of the town wanted to ensure the old soldiers comfortable lodging, a diligent search of homes and hotels yielded not one of the men. Near midnight the Brigade was found, huddled in blankets around Jackson's statue in the cemetery. Urged to leave the damp ground and partake of the town's hospitality, none of the men stirred. Finally one said, "Thank you sirs, but we've slept around him many a night on the battlefield, and we want to bivouac once more with Old Jack." And they did. The next day, 21 July, was the thirtieth anniversary of the memorable battle where Thomas Jonathan Jackson became forever "Stonewall". The day began with a procession featuring a brand-new Confederate battle flag made especially for the occasion. When the graveside ceremonies ended, the Stonewall Brigade fell into ranks and marched slowly to the cemetery gate. There one of the veterans paused and gazed around at the land he had defended with the general. When his eyes reached Jackson's grave, he removed his hat and shouted in a choking voice, "Goodbye, old man, goodbye! We've done all we can for you!"
Taken from SIDELIGHTS AND LIGHTER SIDES OF THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES: A Feast of History in Small Bites Cooked Up by Ralph Green, Past Commander-in-Chief Sons of Confederate Veterans. Used with permission.