Stonewall Jackson may not have been the easiest man to like, but even the Union troops, who certainly had no reason to love him, admired his prowess as a warrior and a leader of men. He lacked Robert E. Lee’s sartorial elegance and was not a compassionate man, but he was an adversary to respect and to fear greatly.
He did not win all his fights. At Kernstown, Va., on March 23, 1862, he misjudged the strength of a Federal force he attacked and found himself outnumbered. The Union troops, commanded by Gen. James Shields, a man with a poor war record, sent Jackson’s cavalry fleeing. Jackson overcame this setback, however, striking so hard at Nathaniel Banks in the Shenandoah Valley that he fully merited his reputation as a wily tactician and ferocious fighter.
Unsurprisingly, a Confederate leader of such caliber attracted the attention of songwriters, and two songs in particular stand out because of the evocative quality of their lyrics. They are “Stonewall Jackson’s Way” and “Stonewall’s Requiem.” The first is joyously optimistic as men about a campfire and afterward salute their esteemed commander. The second song is subdued in keeping with its tragic theme.
It was John Williamson Palmer, a war correspondent, who created a classic of Civil War balladry to honor a man whose tragic death would later shock Lee and deal the South a blow from which it would never recover. There were suggestions long after the war that Palmer did not write “Stonewall Jackson’s Way,” but Palmer made it clear in 1891 that he was, indeed, the author.
In September 1862, he said, he had been staying at the Glades Hotel in Oakland, Md. One day, he recalled later, he was listening to the din of a nearby battle in which he knew Jackson was taking part. For some reason, he began to whistle an old Oregon logging tune, and as he did so, the words of a song began to form in his mind. He completed the last verse of this poem the following day. In all, he wrote six stanzas. Frederick Benteen later composed a good marching tune, presumably the one we hear today. The words of “Stonewall Jackson’s Way” are vivid:
“We see him now — the old slouched hat / Cocked o’er his eye askew; / The shrewd, dry smile, his speech so pat, / So calm, so blunt, so true.”
So opens the second verse, and this remarkable word portrait of a highly individual man continues in the third stanza:
“Silence! Ground arms! Caps off! / Old Massa’s goin’ to pray. / Strangle the fool that dares to scoff; / Attention! It’s his way.”
His men mostly referred to their redoubtable and ruthless commander as “Old Jack.” They had absolute confidence in his ability even though their affection was tempered by a wary respect. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s character and battle expertise were reminiscent of those of an equally doughty leader, Oliver Cromwell, who during the English Civil War led his dour and psalm-chanting Roundheads as they drove a Cavalier force reeling off a battlefield. However, Jackson, brilliant but undeniably eccentric, died as the result of a tragic misunderstanding, whereas Cromwell, after the execution of King Charles I, became Lord Protector of England.
The battle that raged unseen but heard by Palmer was Antietam. When it was over, the dead of both sides were strewn like autumn leaves, while the survivors, exhausted, lay around Antietam Creek.
The circumstances of Jackson’s death are well documented. The tragedy began on May 2, 1862, at the close of the first day’s fighting at Chancellorsville. With a small escort, he was riding in poor light toward men of the 18th North Carolina Regiment, who took the small band to be Federal intruders. An order was given to fire two volleys. Capt. Boswell of the Engineers and Sgt. Cunliffe of the Signal Corps were killed outright; Jackson was hit three times.
At Guiney Station, south of Fredericksburg, an arm was amputated, and there, on May 7, Mary Anna Jackson and their small daughter came to be with him. Able to converse for a time with his wife, he soon became delirious, uttering battlefield commands. The end came on May 10 with the words, “No, let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” His passing inspired the second song, although it is perhaps less familiar to most people than “Stonewall Jackson’s Way.”
Written and composed by M. Deeves, about whom nothing seems to be known, “Stonewall’s Requiem” is a somber song in keeping with its unhappy theme. The tune is slow and stately, the lyric elegiac. It consists of four stanzas, each of four lines, and the opening verse sets the mood to perfection.
“The muffled drum is beating; there’s a sad and solemn tread; / Our banner’s draped in mourning as it shrouds the illustrious dead.” The lyric ends on a spiritual note: “But though his spirit’s wafted to the happy realms above, / His name shall live forever, linked with reverence and love.”
In one respect, the lyric is in error: “He stained the field of glory with his brave life’s precious gore.” It could have been a better lyric, of course, but who can doubt the sincerity of “Stonewall’s Requiem”?
Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.