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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: TOM JACKSON and the AMERICAN DREAM

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


By Bob Hurst

Each year around this time Sons of Confederate Veterans camps around the country (and even some overseas) hold a banquet to honor two of the greatest heroes of the Confederacy and the South - General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson. The banquets are held at this time because of the birth dates of the two, January 19 and 21 respectively. They are held, period, because of the greatness in every way of the two men being honored.

I have thus far attended two Lee/Jackson Banquets (one in Alachua and one in Jacksonville) and will be attending at least two more including our own (Col. David Lang Camp) here in Tallahassee. I have been invited to speak at the banquet in Callahan just outside of Jacksonville in Nassau County.

I have been speaking at one or two banquets each year for the past several years and one thing I enjoy about these speaking engagements is the opportunity to do more research about my Confederate heroes so that I might make a presentation that is worthwhile for the attendees and one that I can feel good about. In Callahan, not surprisingly, I will be speaking about Gen. Lee and Gen. Jackson, but I will be emphasizing only certain aspects of their lives. For this, I have researched parts of their lives with which I was not very familiar.

Now let me say at this point that I have always known much more about Robert E. Lee than about Thomas Jackson. I am a son of the South and I was privileged to grow up during a period before the stench of political correctness settled on this country. During my youth, schools still taught about Confederate heroes in a positive manner and the local librarian steered me happily to the books in the War Between the States section (and there were many) about the magnificent Robert E. Lee. There were several schools in my native Alabama named for General Lee but I cannot recall one named for General Jackson.

There were very few books about General Jackson but he was mentioned frequently in many books that gave a broad coverage of the War. He was unforgettable to me, though, because his nickname, "Stonewall" , was the coolest that this then-young boy had ever heard.

As I grew older, I began buying books for my own budding library and kept one book (published in 1963) about Robert E. Lee with me through college which I frequently read for entertainment and inspiration. I had no books on Thomas Jackson. In more recent years, thanks primarily to the wonderful deeply-discounted sales that the LSU Press used to have, I have been able to increase my titles without doing too much damage to the budget. Many of these books, though, were about lesser-known Confederates and I was happy to be able to get them.

With this in mind, I resolved to spend more time researching Thomas Jackson for my presentation in Callahan. What an eye-opener this proved to be! What I have learned is that Thomas Jonathan Jackson is the true embodiment of the American Dream.

I knew about the patrician upbringing of Robert E. Lee. I knew his family was among the finest in Virginia, that his father was a Revolutionary War hero and a three-term Governor of Virginia and that his beautiful mother was a Carter, the wealthiest family in the state.

Thomas Jackson came from slightly more humble circumstances.

Each of his great-grandparents had been sentenced to indentured servitude in America (still colonies at that time) for crimes they had committed in England. They, in fact, met on the ship bringing them to America to serve their sentences. Once the 7-year indenture was completed, they married and moved to that rough-and-tumble area now known as West Virginia. They proved to be hardworking people and soon became successful.

Tom Jackson's father proved to be an unsuccessful lawyer and irresponsible individual who left his family deeply in debt when he died. Tom was only two years old when his father died and his mother's financial situation was so difficult that she soon sent Tom and his two siblings away to live with relatives who could better provide for the young children. She died when Tom was only 7 and he was devastated.

The uncle who provided a home for Tom Jackson for the next eleven years did what he could for the boy but he was not one to stress the educational and religious training that the young boy growing into manhood needed. Tom was generally described during this period as very somber, shy and unobtrusive with rarely a smile on his face. He worked at a sawmill and gristmill, sold fish he caught in local streams and even occasionally rode as a jockey in local horseraces to make extra money.

When he was 18, Tom saw a possible way out of this bleak lifestyle. The local congressman was taking applications for an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. The education was free and Tom knew this would be the only way he could get a college education. He was one of only two young men to qualify but the appointment went to the other lad. This was just another disappointment in Tom's life but fortune soon smiled on Tom when the other boy left the Academy shortly after arriving and Tom was able to fill the vacant spot.

The poorly-educated Tom Jackson was able to pass the entrance exam at the Academy by "the skin of his teeth" and was ranked 93rd, or dead last, as an entering student. But he had his chance.

From that inauspicious beginning was to come the legend that became "Stonewall" Jackson. The shy young man, without the benefit of a solid educational background or social skills, applied himself as none other at the Academy. Forsaking most of the social activities available to college-age students, Jackson studied incessantly - and it paid off.

Each grading period during his four years at West Point his class rank improved until when he graduated he was ranked 17th in his class. This was in competition with some of the brightest and most accomplished young men in the country. The reticent young man who had begun at the Academy as a not-very-popular cadet who was not expected to make it, graduated as the most respected and admired member of the Class of 1846. The consensus at the school was that if the curriculum had extended one more year, Tom Jackson would likely have finished at the head of his class.

Ahead of Thomas Jackson lay fame for his gallantry in the Mexican War, a happy family life while serving as a college professor at the Virginia Military Institute and, finally, immortality as the unconquerable "Stonewall" , the military genius of the Confederacy during the War for Southern Independence.

The young man of limited means who had only asked for a chance had succeeded magnificently. To me, there is no better story of achieving the American Dream than that of the incomparable Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson. I feel privileged to have spent the last two weeks with this great human being as a part of my life.


Bob is the Commander of the Col.David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and is 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV. He can be contacted at


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