THE OLD SOUTH
Stonewall Jackson, VMI’s Most Embattled Professor
Before he led the armies of the Confederacy, Stonewall Jackson was one of the strangest professors to ever teach at the Virginia Military Institute.
The course Jackson taught at VMI, “Natural and Experimental Philosophy,” was brutally difficult.
It had been brutally difficult when he took it in 1845 at West Point, where it was loathed and feared by most of the cadet corps, which included some of the brightest math and engineering students in the country. Jackson’s VMI course used exactly the same texts, some of them written by William H. C. Bartlett, his old professor. The subjects included a dizzying array of the most difficult scientific and mathematical concepts of the day: electricity, magnetics (including electromagnetism and electrodynamics), acoustics, optics (reflection and refraction of light, microscopes and telescopes), analytical mechanics, the motion of celestial bodies, and astronomy.
Unlike most of his fellow West Point cadets, Jackson actually liked the course and had done well in it, placing eleventh of 62 in his class. This was despite the fact that his previous schooling in rural western Virginia had given him little preparation for such advanced work, and had placed him at a huge disadvantage against classmates such as Philadelphia-raised George McClellan, the future Union general, who had spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania before he even arrived at West Point. Jackson was an exceptional math and science student; the dreaded Bartlett was one of his favorite professors.
The other subject he taught at VMI was something he knew a great deal about, too: artillery. Each day between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. he would drill cadets in the transportation, deployment, and firing of mobile field artillery consisting of four six-pounder smoothbores and two twelve-pounder howitzers. In place of horses, underclassmen would pull the field pieces around the drill ground. Most of this was straight mechanical drill. The “tactical” side of artillery—its use on a battlefield—was something Jackson was not called upon to explain.
He was the most peculiar of teachers. According to the many accounts left by his former students, he did not really teach at all. Instead, he would assign what were considered to be extremely difficult lessons, and then listen to “recitations” of those lessons by cadets at the blackboard, correcting them as they went along. “At the appointed time [Jackson] ‘heard’ them, and this was about all of it,” recalled one former cadet. “Discussions in the class-room were unknown, and even explanations were infrequent . . . The text was the one great thing which he came to ‘hear,’ and we came to ‘say,’ if we could, and most of us commonly couldn’t, when the said text was Bartlett’s Course of Natural Philosophy, in three of the toughest volumes this scribe ever attacked—‘Mechanics,’ ’Optics and Acoustics,’ and ‘Spherical Astronomy.’”
Jackson’s behavior in the classroom seemed as peculiar as it did everywhere else. “When questioning the cadets,” wrote future Confederate general James H. Lane, one of his students, “he had a peculiar way of grasping his lead pencil, with his thumb on the end towards the cadets, and when a mistake was made, he would say ‘rather the reverse’ and flip his thumb back on the pencil.” When befuddled cadets asked him to explain some point, Jackson’s answer—devoid of imagination or technique—was simply to recite back to them the exact words of the text, which he had committed to memory and then rehearsed for several hours in darkness. Though this did nothing to help impart knowledge to his charges, some were impressed anyway by his command of the subject.
“In the section room he would sit perfectly erect and motionless,” recalled cadet James McCabe, “listening with grave attention and exhibiting the great powers of his wonderful memory, which was, I think, the most remarkable that ever came under my observation.” But Jackson’s power of recall offered little help to students who had trouble understanding his course. When one cadet insisted, after hearing Jackson explain a problem twice in exactly the same way, that he still did not understand it, Jackson ordered him to leave the section room. The result was that, while the brightest students managed to master the course, those in the middle and at the bottom were often left on their own to flounder, and sometimes to fail.
To make matters worse, Jackson placed great value on regurgitating every last detail of the assigned texts. When, in response to Jackson’s question “What are the three simple machines?” a cadet answered, “The inclined plane, the lever, and the wheel,” Jackson replied, ”No, sir. The lever, the wheel, and the inclined plane.” That was exactly as they were listed in the textbook, and that was how Jackson wanted it. No amount of student outrage or protest could dislodge him from this position. His course managed to be both dreadfully dull and appallingly difficult, with few light moments. When the students begged him to give them a separate session to help them review for a test, Jackson met them in his classroom in the dark, where, according to one cadet, he “sat in front of us on his platform, and with closed eyes questioned us over many pages of a complicated study.”
Whenever Jackson did manage to make what one student termed “an ironical remark,” he would hasten to qualify his expression by adding, “Not meaning exactly what I say,” even though the meaning was plain to everyone. The expression soon became a byword around the barracks. Such remarks made Jackson seem to be what he was not: stupid, or uncomprehending. Cadets would call him Old Tom Jackson while pointing, significantly, to their heads and saying that “he was not quite right there.”
In the cloistered world of VMI, most of which was contained within a single building, the shortcomings of the man cadets called Old Jack, Tom Fool, Old Hickory, and Square Box (in reference to his large feet) were on intimate display. By the end of his first year it had become common knowledge that the grave, taciturn major was, if not completely inept, at the very least the worst teacher at the institute. If there was anyone who thought otherwise, he left no historical record. Even Colonel Francis H. Smith, VMI’s superintendent and the man who both hired Jackson and kept him in his job, acknowledged his failure. “As a Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Major Jackson was not a success,” Smith wrote later, after his most illustrious faculty member’s rise to world fame. “He had not the qualifications needed for so important a chair. He was no teacher, and he lacked the tact required in getting along with his classes. He was a brave man, a conscientious man, and a good man, but he was no professor.”
But mere inability to impart knowledge was only the beginning of Jackson’s problems as a professor. One might expect that such a stern pedagogue would rule his classroom with an iron fist. But the reverse was true. Jackson was a poor disciplinarian whose classroom often seemed on the edge of complete chaos. While he sat, gimlet-eyed, watching one of the cadets recite, the other students, arrayed in a horseshoe curve behind Jackson, would often be in a full-scale battle, pelting one another with spitballs and other paper projectiles. Others cheated by taking crib sheets to the blackboard with them, concealing them from Jackson but not from the other students.
Former cadet Lane said he only saw Jackson attempt to catch one of them. “As he approached the guilty party,” wrote Lane, “his heavy, creaking boots betrayed him; the cadet slipped the paper up his sleeve . . . When Jackson reached him, he asked sharply ’What is that in your hand, Sir?’ The Cadet turned suddenly with a surprised look, opened his hand and said ‘a piece of chalk,’ at the same time displaying it. ‘Yes, a piece of chalk,’ responded Jackson, and there was a general laugh at ‘Old Jack’ as he returned, foiled, to his rostrum.”
Sometimes the cadets would truss a first-year student in a chair and balance the chair against the classroom door so that it would tip over when Jackson entered. Cadets would walk behind him, mimicking his step, as he walked with his long strides through campus, head down, looking straight ahead. According to one student, “from behind buildings and around corners he was saluted with cries and catcalls.” Almost invariably, one of them would draw a picture of outsized feet on the blackboard in Jackson’s section room. Sometimes there would be caricatures in which his body was swallowed up by his boots. Over a decade, his teaching often took place in an atmosphere of what one cadet called “wanton disrespect.”
Through all of this, Jackson never lost his temper or his dignity; rather, he took it all with a strange, almost distracted, imperturbability, as though he were too thick to understand what was really happening. “They played tricks on him, they made sport of him,” wrote D. H. Hill, a math professor at Lexington’s Washington College at the time. “They teased him, they persecuted him. All in vain. He turned neither to the right nor to the left, but went straight on in his own ways.” It should be noted that Jackson was not a complete pushover: he put many students on report, and placed some of them in arrest. Though he made fewer charges than the other teachers, he usually made them stick. Nor was Jackson universally despised. Though almost everyone agreed that he was a bad teacher, several of his students later wrote that they admired him for his record in the Mexican-American War, his strong sense of duty, and his Christian ethics.
Indeed, in 1858, Jackson’s seventh year at VMI, a cadet named Leigh Wilber Reid wrote a strikingly prescient poem about Jackson, saying that he saw “The stamp of genius on his brow, and he / With his wild glance and keen but quiet eye / Draws forth from secret sources, where they lie.” Reid had written poems about three other professors, all of them critical and derogatory.
Jackson fared better as an instructor of artillery, a subject he was far better at explaining. As one of his students later wrote, a change would come over him at the sound of the guns. “The grasp on the sabre would tighten; the quiet eyes would flash.” In fact, he taught the most intensive artillery course in the South and very likely the equal of courses at West Point. Over a decade he managed to impart considerable knowledge to several hundred students that would have a telling effect in the coming war. Scores of them would actually serve as artillerists under Jackson himself.
But here, too, he had trouble controlling his charges, who had far more freedom on the drill ground than in the section room to play pranks and otherwise disrupt the class. Cadets mimicked his commands, which he issued in drawn-out syllables in his high-pitched, mountain-inflected voice. They removed the linchpins so that the cannon wheels would fall away, sending the various pieces of the gun tumbling down the hill. Sometimes he caught them, and put them in arrest; often he did not. The trick, in any case, was repeated semester after semester. It became a sort of tradition. Another common prank was to spin the cannon in the direction of the major, causing him to leap out of the way.
Some of the tricks were not so harmless. Once a cadet dropped a brick from a third-story barracks window that barely missed Jackson. Jackson, striding forward as he always did and looking neither left nor right, took no notice of it, though as D. H. Hill said, “his escape was almost miraculous.” The perpetrator was never caught. When asked later why he did not try to find out who had done it, Jackson replied, “The truth is, I do not want to know that we have such a coward in the corps of cadets.”
His comment is a small revelation. Though his reaction might seem to be that of someone with strange physical habits who lacked connection with the real world about him, in fact he saw the act for what it was, and had a distinct, deliberate, and intelligent response to it. Jackson might seem opaque, out of touch, or just bizarrely insensitive to pranks or disrespect, but everything we know about him suggests that none of that was true. As his later wartime record would show, Jackson was extremely competent in the many skills required of a commanding general. He was highly perceptive and exquisitely sensitive to everything around him. His correspondence, much of which survives, is that of an incisive and articulate observer. Appearances and nicknames notwithstanding, he was nobody’s fool.
Unfortunately, he never wrote to his sister or to friends to tell them the stories of his struggles at VMI. We can only assume that he was, as you would expect him to be, mortified by his own inability to keep his charges under control.
His sensitivity to this problem came out in his first sharp disagreement with his boss, VMI superintendent Francis H. Smith. In the spring of 1852, Smith happened to be walking across the parade ground when he saw one of the cannons lose its wheels and scatter in several directions—the result of the linchpin-pulling trick. He walked over to Jackson and ordered him to report the cadet officers responsible for allowing this to happen. Stung by what he perceived to be sharp criticism—though it hardly sounds like that—Jackson immediately went back to his room in the barracks and wrote Smith a note requesting that he “put his severe reprimand in writing.” After that, Jackson’s treatment of Smith became noticeably cooler. He did not, as far as we know, ”cut” him as he had done Major French at Fort Meade, but for a time he would have nothing to do with him on anything except official business, and on that he was curt and deliberately abrupt.
As with French, Jackson, the normally duty-bound, strictly-by-the-book military man, had some obvious problems with officers of elevated rank, and with authority in general, especially when they said anything critical of him. This rogue character trait—nothing in his past quite accounts for it, and it would seem to violate both his military and Christian sense of duty—would come into play significantly during the Civil War, in ways that would have a profound effect on his military career.
Jackson had several notable confrontations with cadets who were unhappy with him or who felt he had been unjust. The most famous of these took place in April 1852. It involved a cadet named James A. Walker. Walker, a highly ranked student, had challenged Jackson in trigonometry class over an answer to a problem that Walker had written on the blackboard, insisting that he was right and telling Jackson that he had not made himself clear. Jackson told the cadet that he was out of line, whereupon Walker protested angrily. When Jackson told him to be quiet, he refused, and Jackson put him under arrest. After a court-martial, in which 62 pages of testimony were recorded, Walker was found guilty on all charges and dismissed from the institute. His response was to challenge Jackson to a duel, and to write him a note saying that if he did not receive satisfaction he would kill Jackson on sight.
What happened next is not quite clear, though many versions exist. The most commonly cited is that told by D. H. Hill, who later said that Jackson had asked him for advice on whether to seek a restraining order. Hill advised him not to, saying that if he did so, the cadets would regard him as a coward. But Jackson disregarded him and went straight to the magistrate. Hill saw this as the quintessential demonstration of Jackson’s personality: he would do his Christian duty to avoid a fight, and he would accept the social consequences.
“I have thought that no incident in the life of Jackson was more truly sublime than this,” wrote Hill. “He was ambitious, covetous of distinction, desirous to rise in the world, sensitive to ridicule, tenacious of honor—yet, from a high sense of Christian duty, he sacrificed the good opinion of his associates.” In Hill’s version, Jackson at the same time let it be known that he would defend himself if attacked, and Walker never dared attack him. In any case, there was nothing in Jackson’s behavior that suggested cowardice to anyone. The cadet was expelled, and that was the end of it.
We do know with great precision what happened to the expelled student. He entered the war with the 4th Virginia Regiment. He fought with distinction under Jackson as part of the Stonewall Brigade, rising steadily by Jackson’s promotions and making colonel in March 1862. In May 1863 he was promoted to brigadier general and became, by Jackson’s direct command on his deathbed (“I do not know a braver officer”), the Stonewall Brigade’s last commanding officer. Thirty-nine years after his expulsion from VMI, he acted as chief marshal at the unveiling of the Stonewall Jackson monument in Lexington. His nickname, given to him at the Battle of Gettysburg and which he kept for the rest of his life, was Stonewall Jim. He would later write of Jackson that “the cadets came to understand him and to appreciate his character for courage and justice, and to respect and love him for his kindly heart and noble soul.”
Walker was not the only one who complained publicly about Jackson. Superintendent Smith, in fact, had fielded a steady stream of complaints about him that never resulted in any direct action. But in the spring of 1856 he finally faced a full-scale protest. Acting on the basis of a number of complaints, the Society of the Alumni appointed a VMI graduate to investigate and prepare a report for the school’s governing body, the Board of Visitors. In July, the alumni presented a resolution condemning the mismanagement of the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, and saying that Jackson lacked ”capacity adequate to the duties of the chair.”
Though this might easily have been grounds for dismissal or reassignment, nothing of the sort happened. The board decided simply to table the resolution, and there the matter rested. When Jackson found out about this campaign against him a year later, he made a formal request that every charge be investigated. But the board— like General David Twiggs in Tampa, who fielded a similar request—would have nothing to do with it. The members tabled Jackson’s request as well.
It is noteworthy, considering how difficult it must have been for him to engage year after year in a difficult job for which he had no aptitude, that he even stuck it out. (His one attempt to leave was a failure, too: he applied for a job teaching math at the University of Virginia in 1854, but did not get the job.) One explanation comes from his second wife, Anna, who said that Jackson had once been asked by a friend if it wasn’t presumptuous of him to take the teaching job at VMI when his eye illness made him incapable of doing it properly. “Not in the least,” Jackson said. “The appointment came unsought, and was therefore providential; and I knew that if Providence set me a task, he would give me the power to perform it. So I resolved to get well.” He persisted because he believed God wanted him to.
Excerpted from Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne. Copyright © 2014 by Samuel C. Gwynne. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
S.C. Gwynne, author of Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, is the author of the New York Times bestseller Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He spent most of his career as a journalist, including stints with Time as bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor, and with Texas Monthly as executive editor. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and daughter. For more information please visit http://www.scgwynne.com, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter