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Mark Powell’s Palmetto Past & Present: The South Carolinian Who Gave ‘Stonewall’ Jackson His Name

Snarky? Or sincere?

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It is fitting South Carolina’s Confederate Memorial Day holiday fell on May 10 this year. Because at 3:15 p.m., exactly 160 years ago today, one of the greatest soldiers in American history whispered, “let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

With that, general Thomas Jonathon Jackson slipped out of the mortal realm and into legend. 

Regardless of which side your family fought on in that saddest of all wars – or your views of the conflict today – this much is beyond dispute: Jackson was an authentic military genius. Even his enemies conceded as much. I have in my collection of Civil War memorabilia a letter written by a Yankee soldier in the 17th Connecticut Infantry which reads as follows, “The Rebs all seem to be much depressed in spirits on account of Stonewall Jackson’s death. They have lost one good general.”

Jackson’s reputation on the battlefield was so ferocious that the words “Stonewall Jackson is here” were said to have been worth an extra division to the outmanned Southerners because of the fear it struck in Federal hearts.

It was a South Carolinian who gave Jackson this famous, fear-inspiring nickname. But was he being sincere or snarky when he said it?

Here is how it happened …

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Born in what is now West Virginia, to his classmates at West Point (and to the cadets he later taught at Virginia Military Institute), Jackson was known by the nickname “Old Jack.” And history might have remembered him that way – prior to a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July 1861, that is.

The first major battle of the War Between the States was in full swing. Northerners, who named battles after nearby rivers and streams, called it Bull Run. To Southerners, who favored naming battles after the nearest town, it was dubbed Manassas. Whichever name you prefer, it was being waged in northern Virginia, about thirty miles from Washington, D.C. – and it was not going well for the boys from Dixie.

The Northerners attacked early that morning and pushed the Southerners back. If the Confederacy were defeated here, the war would have been over – and the new five-month-old nation would have been snuffed out in the cradle. Both sides were playing for the highest of stakes.

Jackson, a colonel commanding the 1st Virginia Brigade, had stretched his command out along vital Henry House Hill, the South’s last line of defense. A bullet had already hit the middle finger on his left hand and broken the bone; Jackson stayed in the saddle with a handkerchief wrapped around it. He instinctively knew the decisive moment was at hand.

The Confederate line crumbled like pie crust as the Rebels fell back to Henry Hill – which is where Bernard Elliott Bee Jr. enters our story.

(Click to View)

Bernard Bee (Don Troiani)

The 37-year-old Charleston native was an interesting figure. Educated at West Point, he fought with such gallantry during the Mexican War that South Carolina’s legislature presented him with a special sword. He stayed in the army and bounced around between commands out West. Posted in the remote Dakota Territory when South Carolina seceded, he made the long trip home to side with his native state.

On that blistering hot Sunday in 1861, Bee stood on Henry Hill as a brigadier general leading the Third Brigade. His command had rushed by rail from Harper’s Ferry (now in West Virginia) and had been fighting all day. And Bee was not in a good mood.

Irked that Jackson’s Virginians had not come to the aid of his men, Bee was not shy in voicing his displeasure. With his troops retreating toward Jackson’s position, he rode up and cried, “They are beating us back!” Jackson, a no-nonsense Presbyterian with the stern demeanor of an Old Testament prophet, grimly replied “then we will give them the bayonet.”

To put it in modern terms, Jackson was in it to win it.

Bee galloped back to his men and shouted, “Look! There stands Jackson like a stonewall. Rally behind the Virginians!”

(Click to View)

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (David Bendann)

That was the moment everything changed. The Southern line held – miraculously. A ferocious counterattack was launched that resulted in a retreat – and then a rout. By nightfall, the shattered Union army was literally running back to Washington (one terrified Union soldier reportedly didn’t stop running till he reached Pennsylvania).

Jackson was the man of the hour. He was now “Stonewall” Jackson and his brigade had been rechristened the “Stonewall Brigade.”

But a question lingered: What exactly did Bee mean with the “Stonewall” reference? Was he being complimentary or sarcastic? Was he praising Jackson … or criticizing him?

Bee’s adjutant, who was there, claimed the phrase “stands like a stone wall” was a snide putdown – not praise for Jackson’s determined resistance. He claimed Bee was complaining that Jackson stayed frozen in place instead of coming to his aid.

We’ll never know Bee’s true meaning because he took a Union artillery shell to the stomach shortly after uttering his famous phrase – and died the following day. His intentions went to the grave with him.

Jackson would follow him into death twenty-two months later, but not prior to playing an integral role in several major Confederate victories including Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. It was during this latter battle – after completing one of the most brilliant flanking maneuvers in military history – that Jackson was inadvertently shot in the arm by one of his own men. He died of complications from pneumonia eight days later.

Whatever Bee meant by it, the “Stonewall” nickname stuck. We’re still using it 160 years later.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.

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3 comments

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The Colonel Top fan May 11, 2023 at 9:40 am

You’re close but 75 for the test score. Bee was one of three commanders (Bee, Bartow and Evans) who attacked the Union forces (Burnside) on Matthew Hill. Evans led the attack at 0600 and wound up in position north of the Stone house perpendicular to Sudley Spring Road. Shortly there after Bee and Bartow joined him but by 1100, the three “brigades” had not advanced and were now being forced back and ultimately routed. As Bee “maneuvered” (they were actually in a disorganized retreat) his unit to the rear and east of Jackson, they did converse but the conversation is recorded to have been “Sir, they are driving us” to which Jackson responded “sir, we will give them the bayonet”.
Unmentioned is none other than our own Wade Hampton whose Enfield equipped “legion” laid such devastating rifle fire on the pursuing Union forces that they delayed their approach long enough to allow Jackson time to reorganize to meet them. In the point blank melee that ensued, Jackson destroyed the Union forces, capturing cannon and personnel. For the record there were very few bayonet wounds…
As Jackson’s force is repulsing the Union force, Bee has regained control of his unit and tells them , “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” Using the full quote refutes the revisionist historian attempt to suggest it was a slight or dig at Jackson. Bee would be killed later in the day.

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rhovis Top fan May 12, 2023 at 6:14 am

Thanks for sharing

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David Sweatt May 12, 2023 at 1:34 pm

I love the detail on heroes!

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