He was born around midnight of January 20–21, 1824, in a small house in the heart of Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). His attorney father always struggled financially. Dying of typhoid when Thomas was two, he left his family impoverished. When his widow, Julia Neale Jackson, remarried four years later, her new husband either could not support or did not wish to raise her older children, who were farmed out to relatives. Thomas was sent to live with his uncle Cummings Jackson, who operated a gristmill and sawmill near the town of Weston some 25 miles from Thomas’ birthplace. (The gristmill still stands, on the grounds of the West Virginia State 4-H Camp at Jackson’s Mill.) Thomas found a home with Cummings but little of familial love. The circumstances of his early life may have contributed to his taciturn nature and self-reliance.
In 1842, at the age of 18, he became constable of Lewis County briefly but was also one of four local residents to test for an appointment to the West Point Military Academy. The appointment went to Gibson Butcher, but Butcher quickly withdrew from the academy and Jackson, hoping to obtain an education he otherwise could not afford, went to see Congressman Samuel Hays about becoming Butcher’s replacement. He got the appointment.
At West Point, he struggled with his classes and studied well into the night, taking no part in social activities. By the time of his graduation in 1846, he had risen from near the bottom to rank 17th in his class. He was sent to the Mexican War as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery Regiment and was twice breveted for his actions in the war.
After Mexico, Jackson served at Fort Hamilton, New York, and in December 1850 was transferred with his artillery company to Fort Meade, Florida. He and his superior, Major William H. French, engaged in bitter disagreements and each filed accusations of misconduct against the other. Before matters escalated further, Jackson resigned to accept a position as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He memorized his lectures and, if interrupted, would begin again, speaking in a monotone with his high-pitched voice.
Jackson’s first Civil War battle occurred July 2, 1861. Now a brigadier general commanding a brigade commander in the Shenandoah Valley, he stretched his orders so he could intercept a Union probe toward Martinsburg led by Brig. Gen. George Cadwallader. The two small forces met at Falling Waters. Jackson was nearly outflanked by three regiments under Col. George H. Thomas—the future "Rock of Chickamauga"—but timely reinforcements arrived and Cadwallader withdrew. This small affair is most notable because it pitted the future "Rock" against the future "Stonewall."
Jackson acquired his nickname two weeks later, July 21, on Henry Hill outside Manassas, in the Battle of First Bull Run (First Battle of Manassas). Infantry under South Carolinian brigadier general Bernard Bee had been engaged for some time and were falling back; Jackson’s brigade was in reserve. Bee told his men, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall," but whether he meant it as a compliment or an insult has been long debated. Bee was killed later in the battle. When Jackson threw his troops into the battle, they captured Union artillery atop the hill and fought the Federals until Confederate reinforcements caused a Union rout.
About 8:30, Jackson ordered Hill to, "Press them, cut them off from the United States Ford (over the Rappahannock), Hill; press them." Jackson then rode off with his staff to reconnoiter the situation. Sometime after 9:00 they rode up behind the skirmishers of the 33rd North Carolina Regiment and turned back. Aware Federal cavalry was in the area, the North Carolinians mistook the riders for enemy horsemen and opened fire. From somewhere, probably the men of the 18th North Carolina, came another volley. Jackson was hit in his right hand and left wrist. A third ball broke his upper left arm
Taken to a field hospital, his arm was amputated sometime after midnight. Lee, hearing the news, remarked, "Jackson has lost his left arm; I have lost my right." On the afternoon of May 3, the wounded general was moved to a home at Guinea Station. At first, he seemed to be healing but by the time Anna arrived with their daughter on the 7th, pneumonia had set in. By the 10th, he felt the end was near and reportedly said, "My wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on a Sunday." By midafternoon, he spoke his last intelligible words, "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees." His body was laid in state in the Confederate capital before being buried at Lexington.
He had been a man of many contrasts. A rigid disciplinarian with both himself and those around him, he had often clashed with subordinates. A deeply religious man, he accepted killing as a necessity of war. He accepted slavery but made an effort to educate slaves, at least in religious matters. An aggressive fighter and brilliant tactician, he sometimes overextended himself and had demonstrated mediocrity or worse during the Seven Days Campaign. At Falling Waters, Cedar Mountain and Second Bull Run his success was due in no small part to the timely arrival of reinforcements. But he remains second only to Lee in the adoration of the Southern people, in relation to the war, and is held in high regard around the world for his military maneuvers.