Quotes By And About Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson At West Point

The Mystique Of Stonewall Jackson

Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson is a fascinating character of the Civil War. His battlefield successes, Robert E. Lee calling him his right-hand man, his nickname of Stonewall, his legendary 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, his personal eccentricities, his strong faith in God, and his death from friendly fire, have all made him larger than life and created a mystique about him. Note that Jackson would not gain his nickname of “Stonewall” until the First Battle of Bull Run.

Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson

Thomas Jackson’s early life was a sad and difficult one. He was born on January 21, 1824, and when he was two-years-old the month of March 1826, would bring tragedy to his family. On March 6, 1826, his sister Elizabeth died of typhoid fever. On March 26, only the day after mother Julia gave birth to Thomas’ sister Laura Ann, his father Jonathan also died of typhoid fever. Julia Jackson was now a widow at age twenty-eight, deeply in debt, and with a young family to support. She refused to accept charity. To pay off the debt, Julia sold family belongings, moved her family into a small rented house, sewed, and she taught school. Julia married again in 1830 and died the following year giving birth to Thomas Jackson’s half-brother. Her health had been poor for some time prior to her death. Julia’s declining health caused Thomas and his younger sister Laura Ann to leave their home and live with their half-uncle Cummins Jackson at Jackson’s Mill, Virginia (now West Virginia). Cummins Jackson owned a farm and a grist mill at Jackson’s Mill.

Young Thomas Jackson worked at his Uncle Cummins farm at Jackson’s Mill. He had a sheepdog to help him herd sheep, he drove teams of oxen, and there were crops such as corn and wheat to be harvested. Jackson’s education was not full. He attended school classes sporadically, it was now and then, but never enough.

Thomas Jackson wanted to make something of himself by attending West Point. It was hard for him to pass West Point’s entrance examinations, but in 1842 he became a cadet at The United States Military Academy. Jackson was not prepared for the difficult West Point academics as his prior education was lacking, especially when compared to other cadets with more fortunate backgrounds. Academically, he was near the bottom of his class. Thomas Jackson was not lacking in determination and he set himself on a course of working and studying very hard to keep up with West Point’s demanding academics. Over his years at West Point Thomas Jackson steadily increased his class standing. He eventually worked his way up to finish with a respectable class ranking of 17th of 59 cadets in the 1846 West Point class.

West Point, Circa 1855

West Point, Circa 1855.
Photo Courtesy West Point Museum Collections, United States Military Academy

These quotes are by and about Thomas Jackson during his time at West Point. They give us understanding into Jackson’s character, his personality, his experiences, and the challenges he faced as a young man during his development as a cadet at The United States Military Academy.

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“Knowing that he had no influential friends to urge his appointment, and that even if he secured it, he was poorly prepared to pass the preliminary examination, I at first discouraged him in his purpose. Seeing that his mind was made up, I did all I could to advance his interests.”

The words of William E. Arnold. In 1842, Thomas Jackson was hoping to obtain an appointment to West Point after an earlier attempt had failed. Jackson’s fortune would change. A young man who had received an appointment to West Point instead of Jackson had found life at West Point too unsuitable and he returned home. Jackson now had another chance at West Point but he needed to gain support from his community to obtain the appointment. Thomas sought out William E. Arnold, whom he’d known all his life, for his advice and for an endorsement. Despite having reservations about Jackson, Arnold saw that Thomas Jackson was determined to attend West Point and provided him an endorsement.

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“I know that I shall have the application necessary to succeed. I hope that I have the capacity. At least I am determined to try, and I wish you to help me to do this.”

… Jonathan M. Bennett was an attorney with influence. Thomas Jackson wanted Bennett to write him a letter of introduction to Congressman Hays in Washington, of whom Jackson hoped to obtain his West Point appointment. Jackson showed up at Bennett’s law office on a rainy afternoon, wet and dripping water on Bennett’s office floor. Bennett was leery of Jackson’s chances of success at West Point and questioned his ability to survive in such a competitive academic environment. This was Thomas Jackson’s reply to Jonathan M. Bennett. Bennett did write Jackson the letter of introduction.

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“a meritorious young man… quite a smart youth in every respect for his age and opportunity… a youth… with many noble facultys of soul and great moral worth… a fit and proper person… a young man of industry and perseverance”

… When Thomas Jackson arrived at Congressman Hays’ office in Washington, he brought with him a collection of recommendations which he presented to Congressman Hays. These are a few excerpts from the recommendations.

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“An orphan in early age, he has inspired by his conduct, confidence in his rectitude, and won the acclaim of the community. Descended from a family which has discovered much of the country, and with nothing but his individual exertions to advance him in life, we consider him as having a claim upon the country as great as that of any other young man.”

… Friends of “Thomas J. Jackson” from Lewis County, Virginia wrote this glowing recommendation for Jackson as he attempted to obtain an appointment to West Point. Note that these friends added the middle initial of “J” to Jackson’s name for this recommendation.

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“Personally and intimately acquainted ”
“Fine athletic form… manly appearance… good moral character… improvable mind”

… Congressman Hays’ appointment for Thomas Jackson to West Point to Secretary of War John C. Spencer included these words.

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“Thomas J. Jackson”

… When Secretary of War John C. Spencer gave Thomas Jackson his appointment to West Point, Jackson signed his name on the acceptance certificate in this way. It is significant because from now on the middle initial of “J” for Jonathan would be included in his name. Later in the Civil War, Thomas Jonathan Jackson would gain a nickname that immortalizes him in history.

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“That fellow looks as if he has come to stay.”

… On June 19, 1842, Thomas J. Jackson arrived at West Point. A fellow Cadet named Dabney M. Maury made this observation of Jackson to other classmates.

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Young Thomas J. Jackson

Young Thomas J. Jackson

“to show my interest in a fellow country-man by being humorous and feigning an air of authority.”

… On Thomas J. Jackson’s first day at West Point, he is assigned along with other new Cadets to a policing detail to rid any trash or litter from the campus. These are the words of Virginian Cadet Dabney M. Maury who was included in this policing detail. Maury attempted to get to know Jackson by playfully speaking to him in the manner he describes here. Jackson’s response was to give Maury a blank stare.

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“Mr. Jackson, I find that I made a mistake just now in speaking to you in a playful manner—not justified by our slight acquaintance. I regret that I did so.”

… West Point Cadet Dabney M. Maury trying to make amends with Thomas J. Jackson. Maury had teased Jackson in an attempt to draw him out and meet him while the two were busy picking up litter and trash from the campus grounds during a policing detail.

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“That is perfectly satisfactory, sir.”

… Thomas J. Jackson’s reply to Cadet Dabney M. Maury accompanied with another blank stare, after their above-described exchange of words.

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“Cadet Jackson, from Virginia is a jackass!”

… Cadet Dabney M. Maury’s judgment of Thomas J. Jackson after their initial bad exchange while working a litter and trash policing detail at West Point. Maury spoke this to Birkett D. Fry, A. P. Hill, and George E. Pickett, all of whom were fellow members of Jackson’s West Point class. Jackson, Maury, Birkett, Hill, and Picket would all become generals for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

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“His whole soul was bent on passing. When he went to the blackboard the perspiration was streaming from his face, and during the whole examination his anxiety was painful to witness.”

… Thomas J. Jackson had to pass his admission examination at West Point, this was the observation of another cadet as Jackson went to the blackboard to work his exam’s math problem. Jackson successfully solved the math exam problem.

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“Tho. J. Jackson”

… Thomas J. Jackson’s name appeared in this way on the list of those West Point cadets who passed their admission exam. Jackson’s name was last on the list and he confessed that he had passed only “by the skin of his teeth.”

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“[…] ready extensive contact with the world foiled the boys in their fun. Among the more advanced cadets he soon made warm friends.”

… When Thomas J. Jackson began at West Point, he was older than most of his fellow classmates, but all of them were subject to the usual hazing and harassment eagerly offered by the upper cadets. However, in Jackson’s case, his older age and experience in the world shielded him somewhat from the hazing and harassment.

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“The fare of the mess hall is miserable… it would be quite a luxury to miss a meal.”

… An opinion by cadet John Buford of the food at West Point. John Buford would later play a significant role and gain fame at the Battle of Gettysburg. Thomas J. Jackson apparently was so wrapped up in his studies that he paid not much attention at all to the food offered to the cadets. Jackson’s attention was focused elsewhere.

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“Our course of studies is a difficult one to accomplish and requires great industry under the many restrictions and deprivations of military discipline—not at all agreeable to a young man not fond of study for its own sake.”

… These are the words of one of the faculty regarding the academic standards of West Point. Thomas J. Jackson found this quote to be true. Jackson began as one of West Point’s “Immortals,” which was what those of the poorest academic standing were called. However, Jackson worked very hard and with great determination. By the time he graduated from West Point in the Class of 1846, Jackson’s class standing was seventeenth.

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“under great disadvantage—others were trained at the start but his mind was still the unbroken colt, shying here, tottering there, and blundering where his companions already knew the difficulties of the ground.”

… William Edmondson “Grumble” Jones was a classmate of Thomas J. Jackson. Jones realized that Jackson was not as well prepared for West Point as most others in regards to academics and social skills. In the Civil War, Brigadier General “Grumble” Jones was a Confederate cavalry officer known for complaining. Jones was killed at the Battle of Piedmont on June 5, 1864.

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“He seemed to me, far from quick of apprehension, & acquisition of knowledge was a labor. I was much attracted by his determination to get through, his application, & his modesty.”

…West Point Cadet W. H. Chase Whiting was the leader of the third class at West Point and he had the highest academic ranking. Thomas J. Jackson was struggling with his studies and he asked the older and better student Whiting for help. Whiting was gracious to Jackson and often tutored him.

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“Efforts at the blackboard were some times painful to watch. No matter what proposition was assigned to recite on, he would hang to it like a bull dog and in his mental efforts to overcome the difficulty great drops of perspiration would fall from his face, even in the coldest weather, so that it soon became a proverb with us that whenever ‘Old Jack’ … got a difficult proposition at the blackboard, he was certain to flood the entire room.”

…Cadet John Gibbon’s humorous observation of Thomas J. Jackson. Union Brigadier General John Gibbon was a Pennsylvanian who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg, there is a monument at Gettysburg National Military Park to honor him. Ironically, Gibbon had three brothers who fought in the Confederate army.

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“was the most honest human being I ever knew—painfully conscientious, very slow in acquiring information, but a hard, incessant student.”

… These words about Thomas J. Jackson are supposedly from Ulysses S. Grant, West Point class of 1843.

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“No one I have ever known could so perfectly withdraw his mind from surrounding objects or influences.”

… Parmenas Turnley. Turnley was Thomas J. Jackson’s first roommate at West Point.

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Maxims of Thomas J. Jackson:

“Through life let your personal object be the discharge of duty.”

“Sacrifice your life rather than your word.”

“Let your conduct toward men have some uniformity.”

“Temperance: Eat not to fullness, drink not to elevation.”

“Silence: Speak but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”

“It is not desirable to have a large number of intimate friends.”

“Never weary your company by talking too long or too frequently.”

“Never try to appear more wise and learned than the rest of the company.”

“You can be whatever you resolve to be.”

… Thomas J. Jackson began keeping a five-by-eight-inch book of maxims while at West Point. His entries covered many facets of life. All were meant as goals or advice to himself in order to improve his character. His maxim: “You can be whatever you resolve to be.” has become the most famous of all.

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“[…]henceforth his was a gaining race. Everytime he left scores behind—increased labor seeming only to increase his speed.”

… Although Thomas J. Jackson began West Point behind his classmates in academic ability, his steady hard work improved his standing. Cadet William Jones had this observation of Jackson’s scholastic improvement.

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“His military deportment & his general conduct were exemplary.”

… Praise for Thomas J. Jackson from upperclassman Chase Whiting, who helped Jackson with his studies.

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“After a year of endurance the plebe becomes a third classman and changes from the persecuted to the persecutor. It is probably the proudest moment of his whole life. He enters on his new career with all the zest of disimprisoned youth, and all the skill of a doctor just out of disease. The enjoyment is exquisite and in proportion to the perplexities inflicted.”

… Cadet William Jones speaking of the joy experienced when West Point cadets advance to a new year of study. They now had the class standing to harass and haze younger cadets. Thomas J. Jackson was an exception to this. Jackson did not spend his time causing grief for the younger cadets, he kept his nose to the grindstone so as to improve his studies and himself. He did not participate in any recreational activities, except for an occasional brisk walk.

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“Yes. I remember one overt act, but it was the only one in which I consciously did what I knew to be wrong. I stepped behind a tree to conceal myself from an officer, because I was beyond bounds without a permit.”

… Thomas J. Jackson’s reply when asked if he had ever purposely broken the rules at West Point.

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Thomas J. Jackson

Thomas J. Jackson

“My health is far better than it was when I parted with you, and indeed more flattering than it has been for the last two years. …The examinations closed a few days since, and rather to my advantage, as I rose considerably in mathematics, and a few files in the French language, though in the same time I fell a few files in ethics and drawing. There was only one Virginian found deficient in my class. …I am also homesick, and expect to continue so until I can have a view of my native mountains, and receive the greetings of my friends and relatives. …It is the anticipation of one day realizing them that fills my heart with joy, and causes me to urge forward and grasp that prize which will qualify me for spending time with them in peace and honor. I feel very confident that unless fortune frowns on me more than it has yet, I shall graduate in the upper half of my class, and high enough to enter the Dragoons. Be that as it may, I intend to remain in the army no longer than I can get rid of it with honor, and means to commence some professional business at home.”

… Thomas J. Jackson and his sister Laura corresponded for seventeen years, beginning with this letter that Jackson wrote to her from West Point in January 1844. The Dragoons used a horse to get to and move around the battlefield, but they would dismount to fight. Civil War cavalry fought while mounted. It is interesting how in this letter Jackson indicates he has no plans for continued military service and preferred to use his schooling to work in business. Thomas J. Jackson was like many of us, he could become homesick.

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“Oh, I tell you I had to work hard.”

… Thomas J. Jackson regarding his challenging his studies at West Point.

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“During my furlough I was made an officer, consequently my duties are lighter than usual.”

… From West Point in August 1844, Thomas J. Jackson wrote to his sister Laura the good news that he’d been appointed as a sergeant.

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“These were such quiet neighbors I scarcely knew they were there.”

… Thomas J. Jackson’s roommate his junior year at West Point was George Stoneman. Stoneman and Jackson were both focused on their studies, they were contemplative and pensive with none of the rowdy behavior as might be expected from young men. George Stoneman was from New York and in the Civil War, he would be a Union cavalry general. This is a quote from John Tidball who roomed near Jackson and Stoneman.

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“In consequence of a somewhat shambling, awkward gait, and the habit of carrying his head down in a thoughtful attitude, he seemed of less stature than he really was.”

“His voice was thin and feminine—almost squeaky—while his utterances were quick, jerky and sententious, but when once made were there ended; there was… no hypothesis or observation to lead to further discussion.”

“There were occasions, as I observed, when his actions appeared strangely affected; as, for instance, a drenching shower caught sections returning from recitations, or the battalion from the mess-hall, and ranks were broken to allow the cadets to rush for shelter to the barracks, Jackson would continue his march, solemnly, at the usual pace, deviating neither to the right nor to the left.”

… John Tidball wrote of his experiences at West Point which included his recollections of Thomas J. Jackson.

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“My sincere desire, is that you may both enjoy all the blessings which a bountiful Providence can bestow. I think that if happiness exists in this world, matrimony is one of the principal factors.”

… Jackson’s sister Laura married a man named Jonathan Arnold in October 1844, but Thomas J. Jackson did not learn of the marriage until four months later. Considering the closeness of brother Jonathan and sister Laura, this delay in relaying the news of Laura’s marriage seem odd. Jonathan Arnold was twenty-four years older than Laura and this was his third marriage. This quote is from a letter Jackson wrote to Laura in February 1845.

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“J”

… Thomas J. Jackson wrote a letter to his sister Laura in February 1845, and he instructed her to use the letter “J” as his middle initial in his name for future correspondence. There was now another cadet at West Point whose name was Thomas K. Jackson and the “J” was needed in order to avoid confusion between the two Jacksons.

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“I expect to commence taking exercises in riding in a day or two.”

… In his February 1845 letter to sister Laura, Thomas J. Jackson mentions this. The future cavalry officer Jackson is about to begin training in horsemanship. In his case, it was much-needed training. Although as a young man Jackson had been a jockey, he was now rather inept at riding a horse.

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“[…] awkward and uncomfortable to look at upon a horse…. We used to watch him with anxiety when his turn came… he seemed in imminent danger of falling headlong from his horse.”

… Thomas J. Jackson took exercises in horse riding at West Point, Jackson was not a skilled horseman. This is cadet Dabney Maury remarking on Jackson’s equestrian abilities.

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“In the riding hall I think his sufferings must have been very great. He had a rough horse and, though accustomed to horseback-riding, was awkward, and when the order came to cross stirrups and trot, ‘Old Jack’ struggled hard to keep his horse.”

… A fellow cadet of Jackson’s describing Jackson’s horse riding ability during their West Point horse riding exercises.

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“The annual examination will commence in about two weeks. …If fortune should favor me in a degree corresponding to the past, I will have a better standing in my class than I formally had.”

… It was now May 1845, at West Point and Thomas J. Jackson’s important annual examination looms close. He had steadily advanced in class standing as he always improved overall in his studies. Jackson would not be disappointed in his annual examination results. He would improve his class ranking to the top third of his sixty-two cadet West Point class.

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“It became my duty as artillery instructor to “set him up at the Gun” — a duty which I found at very difficult to perform, because he was saw-boned, still jointed, and totally devoid of all grace of motion.”

“I found it hard to make any kind of an artillery man out of him, much more a graceful one.”

“Again he would be put in position and again the same result. Over and over this was repeated, until at last losing all patience I had learned to practice in drilling awkward cadets, I exclaimed, ‘d- -n it, Mr. Jackson, how often must I show you this simple movement?'”

“Instantly regretting my improper exclamation I cast my eyes from his feet to his face and became filled with remorse. The face revealed a soul touching patience and suffering of the “Ecce-homo.” No anger, no impatience, only sorrow and suffering. It was a hot July day and the sun was blazing down upon us. The perspiration was rolling down his face and dropped from his chin—a mosquito had fastened upon his nose, and yet his hands hung by his sides.”

… These four quotes are from Thomas J. Jackson’s artillery professor, Lieutenant Daniel Marsh Frost. It is seen here in Frost’s words how challenging it was for him to get the clumsy and awkward Jackson to perform the movements of precision necessary in artillery loading. Frost indicates in later words not provided here, that Jackson was able to learn how to load artillery in the correct way.

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“preferable to any other”

… Thomas J. Jackson’s words. He found the subject of ethics to be his favorite one at West Point.

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“That Jackson’s mind possessed a certain peculiarity is evidenced by the fact that though he stood low in all his studies during three years, when he entered the first class & commenced the study of logic [ethics], that bug-bear to the root majority of others, he shot like a meteor from near the foot of class to very near its top.”

… Fellow cadet John Gibbon’s observation of how Thomas J. Jackson’s strong aptitude for the study of ethics came through at West Point. Note that John Gibbon would fight for the Union during the Civil War. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Gibbon’s men were at Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, where they had a major role in beating back Pickett’s Charge. Gibbon was wounded during the fight and while recovering he was present at Gettysburg when President Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.

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“[…]while there were many who seemed to surpass [Thomas J. Jackson] in intellect, in geniality, and in good-fellowship, there was no one of our class who more absolutely possessed the respect and confidence of all.”

… Parmenas Turnley about how Thomas J. Jackson was thought of by his fellow cadets. Turnley was once a roommate of Jackson’s at West Point.

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“It grieves me to think that in a short time I must be separated from amiable and meritorious friends whom an acquaintance of years has endeared to me by many ties.”

… As the end of his time at West Point came near, Jackson knew he would miss his friends.

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Prayer in Stonewall Jackson's camp.

Prayer in Stonewall Jackson’s camp.

“Scarcely an evening when both of them were off duty but they walked together around the promenade of the Point and every Saturday evening they explored the extreme limits of cadet bounds and some times ventured a little beyond. Their stride was long and quick, more like business than pleasure—passing rapidly all walkers in their way.”

… Thomas J. Jackson and his roommate Parmenas Turnley would take walks together their last year at West Point. This quote is the reminiscence of another cadet. Jackson was always concerned about his health and these walks were his attempt to improve his physical well-being. We should consider that Jackson was ahead of his time with his walking. We know well today how important regular exercise such as walking, is to good health.

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“My constitution has received a severe shock, but I believe I am gradually recovering.”

… Thomas J. Jackson to his sister Laura regarding his health concerns. Jackson was strange in his thoughts about his health. At the time of these words to Laura, he was believing that he may have consumption (which meant that he was having lung problems with wasting of the body), and dyspepsia (which meant that he was having indigestion problems). He was also suffering from some other non-described health complaints. Jackson also indicated that he hoped that exercise would have; “the desired effect of restoring me to perfect health.” He would take long walks, and at other times Jackson would “pump his arm for many minutes, counting the strokes” as forms of exercise. Jackson’s exercises would be good for us.

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“[Jackson] complained that one arm and one leg were heavier than the other,” and “[he] would occasionally raise his arm straight up, as he said to let the blood run back into his body, and so relieve the excessive weight.”

…West Point Cadet Dabney Maury describing the oddness of Thomas J. Jackson’s health beliefs and practices.

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“Rumor appears to indicate a rupture between our government and the Mexican. If such should be the case the probability is that I will be ordered to join the army of occupation immediately […] and the next letter you receive from me may be dated from Texas or Mexico. […] I shall continue to love you with a brother’s love.”

… Thomas J. Jackson writing to his sister Laura in early 1846. Jackson was to graduate from West Point that spring and he began to think of what may afterward be in store for him. Indeed, on May 13, 1846, the United States declared war against Mexico and the West Point class of 1846 knew what was in their immediate future. Thomas J. Jackson would begin his service in the First Artillery Regiment.

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“He attracted great attention and looked every inch a soldier, many who knew him spoke of the great change made by West Point in his appearance.”

… Thomas J. Jackson returned to Jackson’s Mill, Virginia in July 1846, after he finished at West Point. He went to Weston, Virginia to see and meet with friends he had not seen for a long time. This quote is the impression Jackson made on one individual during his visit to Weston. West Point had created a new Thomas J. Jackson.

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On July 22, 1846, Thomas J. Jackson received his orders. He was ordered to report to Captain Francis Taylor, the commanding officer of Company K of the First Artillery at Fort Columbus, Governor’s Island, New York. He was twenty-two-years-old and on his way to Mexico to serve his country, The United States of America.

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Jefferson Davis Resigns From The United States Senate

His Home State of Mississippi Seceded On January 9, 1861

“My own convictions, as to negro slavery are strong, It has its evils and abuses…. We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him–our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…. You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”

…Jefferson Davis

Those are the ugly words of Jefferson Davis to a northern friend after Davis became president of the Confederacy. They are especially ugly for us to read today.

We have to consider that Davis was a man living in his times and not ours, but that is not meant to justify or excuse him. What other words should we expect to come from the president of the Confederate States of America, the president of a collection of states which seceded from the Union and went to war to preserve slavery? Mississippi’s secession, which Davis supported, led to his resignation from the United States Senate. Jefferson Davis believed that all men are not equal, that slaves were not equal to whites, and his Farewell Address to the United States Senate emphasized his beliefs.

In January, 1861, Jefferson Davis was fifty-three-years-old and his health was poor. He had served the United States as a Congressman, led Mississippi volunteers in the Mexican War and was wounded at the Battle of Buena Vista, was a Senator, and was Secretary of War under Franklin Pearce. Davis was a Democrat and a strong supporter of States’ Rights, and in favor of Mississippi’s secession from the Union. Earlier in life, he had been a slave owner at the Davis family’s Mississippi plantation. Compared to other slave owners, the Davises were known to treat their slaves well, but they thought the slaves to be their private property, that they were inferior to whites, and as a race only suited for servitude.

On January 21, 1861, Jefferson Davis was standing at a podium in the Senate Chamber at the United States Capitol. Now it was time for Davis to resign as a United States senator and return home to Mississippi, now part of the Confederate States of America. He was there to say farewell, or “adieu” as he would say in his emotional speech.

Jefferson Davis’ six-year term as president of the Confederate States of America was cut short. The Union won the Civil War after four years of bloody war and hell on earth. The Union was preserved, the Confederacy failed, and the United States bid “adieu” to the peculiar institution of slavery.

Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Speech to the United States Senate

Senate Chamber, United States Capitol, January 21, 1861

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

“I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more. The occasion does not invite me to go into argument; and my physical condition would not permit me to do so if it were otherwise; and yet it seems to become me to say something on the part of the State I here represent, on an occasion so solemn as this.

“It is known to Senators who have served with me here, that I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of State sovereignty, the right of a State to secede from the Union. Therefore, if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still, under my theory of the Government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act. I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted.

“I hope none who hear me will confound this expression of mine with the advocacy of the right of a State to remain in the Union, and to disregard its constitutional obligations by the nullification of the law. Such is not my theory. Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are indeed antagonistic principles. Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, and against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligation, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other States of the Union for a decision; but when the States themselves, and when the people of the States, have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.

“A great man who now reposes with his fathers, and who has been often arraigned for a want of fealty to the Union, advocated the doctrine of nullification, because it preserved the Union. It was because of his deep-seated attachment to the Union, his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States, that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before the tribunal of the States for their judgment.

“Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again, when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever.

“I therefore say I concur in the action of the people of Mississippi, believing it to be necessary and proper, and should have been bound by their action if my belief had been otherwise; and this brings me to the important point which I wish on this last occasion to present to the Senate. It is by this confounding of nullification and secession that the name of a great man, whose ashes now mingle with his mother earth, has been invoked to justify coercion against a seceded State. The phrase “to execute the laws,” was an expression which General Jackson applied to the case of a State refusing to obey the laws while yet a member of the Union. That is not the case which is now presented. The laws are to be executed over the United States, and upon the people of the United States. They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms, at least it is a great misapprehension of the case, which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. You may make war on a foreign State. If it be the purpose of gentlemen, they may make war against a State which has withdrawn from the Union; but there are no laws of the United States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State. A State finding herself in the condition in which Mississippi has judged she is, in which her safety requires that she should provide for the maintenance of her rights out of the Union, surrenders all the benefits, (and they are known to be many,) deprives herself of the advantages, (they are known to be great,) severs all the ties of affection, (and they are close and enduring,) which have bound her to the Union; and thus divesting herself of every benefit, taking upon herself every burden, she claims to be exempt from any power to execute the laws of the United States within her limits.

“I well remember an occasion when Massachusetts was arraigned before the bar of the Senate, and when then the doctrine of coercion was rife and to be applied against her because of the rescue of a fugitive slave in Boston. My opinion then was the same that it is now. Not in a spirit of egotism, but to show that I am not influenced in my opinion because the case is my own, I refer to that time and that occasion as containing the opinion which I then entertained, and on which my present conduct is based. I then said, if Massachusetts, following her through a stated line of conduct, chooses to take the last step which separates her from the Union, it is her right to go, and I will neither vote one dollar nor one man to coerce her back; but will say to her, God speed, in memory of the kind associations which once existed between her and the other States.

United States Capitol under construction in 1860

United States Capitol under construction in 1860.

“It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration of Independence is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it was made. The communities were declaring their independence; the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born–to use the language of Mr. Jefferson–booted and spurred to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal–meaning the men of the political community; that there was no divine right to rule; that no man inherited the right to govern; that there were no classes by which power and place descended to families, but that all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body-politic. These were the great principles they announced; these were the purposes for which they made their declaration; these were the ends to which their enunciation was directed. They have no reference to the slave; else, how happened it that among the items of arraignment made against George III was that he endeavored to do just what the North has been endeavoring of late to do–to stir up insurrection among our slaves? Had the Declaration announced that the negroes were free and equal, how was the Prince to be arraigned for stirring up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men–not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three fifths.

“Then, Senators, we recur to the compact which binds us together; we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny to us the right to withdraw from a Government which thus perverted threatens to be destructive of our rights, we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence, and take the hazard. This is done not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit; but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our sacred duty to transmit unshorn to our children.

“I find in myself, perhaps, a type of the general feeling of my constituents towards yours. I am sure I feel no hostility to you, Senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well; and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people whom I represent towards those whom you represent. I therefore feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceful relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country; and if you will have it thus, we will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered them from the power of the lion, to protect us from the ravages of the bear; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our own firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may.

“In the course of my service here, associated at different times with a great variety of Senators, I see now around me some with whom I have served long; there have been points of collision; but whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here; I carry with me no hostile remembrance. Whatever offense I have given which has not been redressed, or for which satisfaction has not been demanded, I have, Senators, in this hour of our parting, to offer you my apology for any pain which, in heat of discussion, I have inflicted. I go hence unencumbered of the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury offered.

“Mr. President, and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains to me to bid you a final adieu.”

Source: The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 7, pp. 18-23.

Notes and Comments to the Speech:

  • John C. Breckinridge was Vice President of the United States from 1857–1861, he was president of the United States Senate.
  • Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861.
  • Jefferson Davis is resigning, and he wants to take the opportunity to speak to the Senate for Mississippi.
  • Davis has believed that a state has the right to secede, and that Mississippi was justified in seceding.
  • He says that secession is proper because Mississippi has been denied its constitutional rights.
  • John C. Calhoun’s essay Exposition and Protest, explained the idea of nullification. Nullification meant that states had the sovereign right to nullify (veto) national law that the state believed impinged on its interests. Calhoun died in 1850.
  • Jefferson Davis says that a state is not controlled by outside forces, that a state has greater status, authority, and power than the Federal government. A state has the right to secede.
  • Because Mississippi has seceded, United States laws now have no power over it. Mississippi is a separate entity and free from control by the United States.
  • Anthony Burns was a escaped slave living in Boston. By the Fugitive Slave law, Burns was captured in 1854 and returned to slavery in Virginia.
  • Jefferson Davis says that slaves are not referenced or considered as having equality in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution. He says that slaves are not equal to white men, and that slaves are not free, but are property.
  • Mississippi rights have been denied, so Mississippi secedes.
  • Jefferson Davis says that he wants relations to be peaceful between seceded Mississippi and the United States, but disaster will follow if there is not peace. God will protect Mississippi.
  • Jefferson Davis gives his goodbye to the Senate, and adds that he has no personal offense with him regarding other Senators, and he offers an apology to any he has offended in the past.

Audio Version of Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Speech

NOTE: There is an error in this audio version. In the first sentence of the last paragraph, the reader does not read these opening words: “In the course of my service here, associated at different times with a great variety of Senators,” Other than this error, this reading is accurate and an excellent resource.

Selected Speech Snippets

“[…]I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course my functions are terminated here.”

“[…]I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of State sovereignty, the right of a State to secede from the Union.”

“[…]I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.”

“Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it.”

“The laws are to be executed over the United States, and upon the people of the United States. They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms, at least it is a great misapprehension of the case, which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. You may make war on a foreign State. If it be the purpose of gentlemen, they may make war against a State which has withdrawn from the Union; but there are no laws of the United States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State.”

“It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision.”

“When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men–not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three fifths.”

“Then, Senators, we recur to the compact which binds us together; we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny to us the right to withdraw from a Government which thus perverted threatens to be destructive of our rights, we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence, and take the hazard.”

“I therefore feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceful relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country; and if you will have it thus, we will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered them from the power of the lion, to protect us from the ravages of the bear; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our own firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may.”

“Mr. President, and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains to me to bid you a final adieu.”

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