The history of the storied Stonewall Brigade begins with its legendary first commander, Thomas J. Jackson. In 1851, First Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson, an 1846 West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War, resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and accepted a faculty position at the Virginia Military Institute. A decade later, Jackson took up his saber again, this time in rebellion against the United States. Ten days after Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, Governor John Letcher informed Jackson of his appointment as a colonel in the Virginia Provisional Army. On the same day, Major General Robert E. Lee ordered Jackson to “proceed, without delay, to Harper’s Ferry, Va., in execution of the orders of the governor of the State, and assume command of that post.” Lee directed Jackson that “After mustering into the service of the State such companies as may be accepted under your instructions, you will organize them into regiments or battalions, uniting, as far as possible, companies from the same section of the State.” Jackson left for Harpers Ferry the same day.
When Virginia’s forces folded into the Provisional Confederate Army, the Confederate War Department assigned Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston to take charge of the troops near Harpers Ferry on May 15, 1861. Johnston arrived at Harpers Ferry and replaced Jackson on May 24. By June 1861, Johnston and other Confederate officials began referring to the troops under Johnston’s command as the Army of the Shenandoah, which by then numbered nearly 10,000 soldiers divided into four brigades and a cavalry unit. Jackson commanded the army’s 1st Brigade, also known as Jackson’s Brigade.
The five Virginia regiments that made up Jackson’s Brigade came from the Shenandoah Valley. The 5th Virginia Infantry Regiment comprised men from the middle of the valley. Recruits from the southern end of the valley populated the 4th and 27th regiments, and soldiers from the northern end filled the ranks of the 2nd and 33rd regiments. The Rockbridge Artillery Battery provided artillery support for the brigade through October 1862.
First Battle of Bull Run
Just a few days later, Jackson led his brigade into combat at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). Around noon, the Confederate line began to collapse under intense Union pressure. Facing heavy fire, Jackson’s soldiers remained disciplined and held their ground, prompting Brigadier General Barnard Elliott Bee, Jr. to proclaim,
There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!
Bee’s exclamation, which probably fewer than fifty men heard, had little impact on the outcome of the battle, but it etched the names of Jackson and his brigade in Confederate folklore. For the rest of the Civil War, the name “Stonewall” represented the standard of excellence for Rebel soldiers.
The Stonewall Brigade fought under Jackson’s direct command for only a brief time. In October 1861, the Confederate War Department promoted Jackson to major general and placed him in charge of the Valley District of the Department of Northern Virginia, commanding a field division. Jackson’s forces consisted of one cavalry brigade and three infantry brigades, including the Stonewall Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett, who succeeded Jackson in November.
Garnett’s tenure lasted only a few months. On March 23, 1862, at the Battle of Kernstown I, Jackson deployed Garnett’s brigade in a defensive position along a ridge opposite a Federal division of approximately 8,500 men. The Confederates possessed the better ground, but the Federals had far more men. The Rebels held their position against an afternoon Union assault until they began to run out of ammunition. Faced with the possibility of being overrun, Garnett ordered the Stonewall Brigade to abandon the ridge. As Garnett’s men fell back, other Confederates joined the withdrawal, and the retreat became a rout. On April 1, Jackson arrested Garnett for “neglect of duty” and relieved him of his command for ordering the retreat without Jackson’s authorization. Jackson named Brigadier General Charles S. Winder to replace Garnett as commander of the Stonewall Brigade.
Many of the officers and soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade disliked Winder because the stern disciplinarian displaced the popular Garnett and because he was not a Virginian. Still, Winder led the brigade during some of its crowning achievements during the last few months of Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. Under his direction, the Stonewall Brigade often marched phenomenal distances with unparalleled speed in a single day, earning the nickname of “Jackson’s foot cavalry.”
When Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac threatened Richmond in June 1862, Robert E. Lee ordered Jackson’s troops, including the Stonewall Brigade, to the Virginia Peninsula where they helped turn the tide of the Peninsula Campaign, taking part in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill (June 27, 1862) and the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862).
As Lee drove McClellan off of the Virginia Peninsula, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Major General John Pope to command the newly created Army of Virginia. Sensing that McClellan now posed little threat to Richmond, Lee took the offensive before Pope could unite his army with McClellan’s retreating forces. Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia, dividing it into two wings. He placed Jackson in charge of the Left Wing, which included Jackson’s former division and the Stonewall Brigade.
On July 13, Lee dispatched the 14,000 soldiers under Jackson’s command to secure Confederate railroad links with the Shenandoah Valley. Before Pope could gather his forces, on August 9, 1862, Jackson launched an attack against the center of Pope’s army, commanded by Major General Nathaniel Banks, in Culpeper County, Virginia. During a hard-fought Confederate victory at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Colonel William S. H. Baylor assumed field command of the Stonewall Brigade after Union forces mortally wounded General Winder during the fighting.
Baylor’s Tenure – Second Battle of Bull Run
Baylor was a Virginian who was popular with the soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade. Before officials in Richmond had time to confirm his promotion to brigade commander, however, Federal soldiers shot him dead while he was leading his men at the Battle of Brawner’s Farm on August 28, 1862.
During that bloody engagement, which was the opening salvo of the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Stonewall Brigade tangled with the Union’s famous Iron Brigade. The clash ended in a standoff, but the losses on both sides were staggering. Fully one-third of the soldiers engaged on the evening of August 28 were killed or wounded. The Stonewall Brigade sustained a forty percent casualty rate, losing 340 of 800 men. On the Union side, of the 2,800 soldiers who took part in the fighting, nearly 1,100 were killed or wounded.
After Baylor’s death, Colonel Andrew Jackson Grigsby temporarily assumed field command of the Stonewall Brigade. A battle-hardened veteran of the Mexican-American War, the coarse Virginian had every reason to believe that he would officially succeed Winder permanently after he bravely led the brigade during the single bloodiest day of the Civil War at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Afterward, Jackson shocked Grigsby by selecting Colonel Elisha E. Paxton instead. Some contemporaries speculated that Grigsby’s profuse use of profane language offended the notably pious Jackson. Whatever the reasoning, on November 1, 1862, Confederate officials promoted Paxton to brigadier general and appointed him to command the Stonewall Brigade.
Paxton’s Tenure – Battle of Fredericksburg
Although not a soldier by training, Paxton capably led the Stonewall Brigade for the next half-year. On November 6, 1862, Lee again reorganized his army, adopting the corps structure. Under the new framework, Jackson commanded the 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Remaining under Jackson’s umbrella of authority as the 1st Brigade of the 4th Division of the 2nd Corps, the Stonewall Brigade took part in the overwhelming Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862). During that conflict, Paxton’s soldiers contributed significantly by launching a successful counterattack against a division of Pennsylvania reserves that sealed a developing breach in the Confederate lines.
Battle of Chancellorsville
Four months later, at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863), the Stonewall Brigade contributed to another overwhelming Rebel victory, although they suffered heavy casualties, including Paxton who took a bullet through his heart on May 3.
The conflict also claimed the life of the brigade’s namesake when Confederate pickets mistakenly fired on Stonewall Jackson as he returned to his lines after a reconnaissance mission after dark on May 2. Although doctors did not consider the wound to be mortal, Jackson died from complications eight days later, striking a serious blow to the Confederacy.
Reportedly, before his death, Jackson requested that Confederate officials give Colonel James A. Walker command of the Stonewall Brigade. On May 15, 1863, the Confederate government promoted Walker to brigadier general, and four days later Robert E. Lee designated him as Paxton’s successor (Special Orders, No. 135 (ANV), May 19, 1863).
Walker’s Tenure – Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Jackson’s death prompted Lee to restructure the Army of Northern Virginia once more. Lee expanded the number of corps from two to three and named Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell to succeed Jackson as commander of the 2nd Corps. The Stonewall Brigade became the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division one month prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–July 3, 1863). During that pivotal conflict, Walker’s brigade formed the center of a failed Rebel attempt to dislodge Union soldiers occupying Culp’s Hill on the right flank of the Federal line on July 3. Like other Confederate units, the Stonewall Brigade suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the 1,319 who took part in the conflict, only 981 escaped death, injury, or capture.
Walker led the Stonewall Brigade through the Mine Run Campaign (November 26–December 2, 1863), and into the Overland Campaign (May 5–June 24, 1864). During the latter, federal troops seriously wounded Walker at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21, 1864). On May 12 went home to recuperate. Besides Walker’s injury, the conflict left the brigade with fewer than 250 effectives when the fighting ended. Consequently, Confederate officials folded the remnants of the Stonewall Brigade into Brigadier General William Terry’s Brigade (Pickett’s Division, Andersons’ Corps, ANV).
Although the Stonewall Brigade ceased to exist after the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the unit’s few surviving soldiers fought on to the conclusion of the Civil War, taking part in the rest of the Overland Campaign, the Petersburg Campaign (June 1864–March 1865), Early’s Valley Campaign (July–August 1864), and the Appomattox Campaign (March 29–April 12, 1865). When Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, only 212 of the roughly 6,000 officers and soldiers who had served with the Stonewall Brigade’s five infantry regiments remained when they stacked their arms.