At the end of January, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, commanding the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah at Winchester, Virginia, had submitted a request to either return to his teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute or resign from the army. Congressman Alexander Boteler, representing a district in the Shenandoah Valley, received a copy of Jackson’s letter and was determined to keep Jackson in command. He stormed into the office of Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin to protest the secretary’s order that had prompted Jackson’s letter. Benjamin referred Boteler to President Jefferson Davis.
Boteler showed Jackson’s letter to Davis, who said, “I’ll not accept it, sir!” The congressman then met with Virginia Governor John Letcher, who had not yet received Jackson’s letter asking him to help Jackson get his job back at V.M.I. Enraged, Letcher publicly berated Benjamin and his staff and demanded that the secretary not accept Jackson’s resignation. Benjamin agreed. Letcher then sent Boteler to Winchester.
Meanwhile, General Joseph E. Johnston, Jackson’s superior, received his message of January 31 and a second message from Jackson asking Johnston to countermand Benjamin’s order. Johnston did not want to lose such a valuable officer, so he waited a few days before finally forwarding both messages to the War Department. During that time, Johnston wrote a personal letter to Jackson pleading with him to reconsider.
Acknowledging that Jackson was right to resent such an order, Johnston explained that he too had experienced difficulties in dealing with the administration. Nevertheless, “The danger in which our very existence as an independent people lies requires sacrifices from us all who have been educated as soldiers.” He assured Jackson that he was writing “not merely from warm feelings of personal regard, but from the official opinion which makes me regard you as necessary to the service of the country in your present position.”
In forwarding Jackson’s messages to Benjamin, Johnston added a note to the resignation letter stating that he did not “know how the loss of this officer can be supplied.” Johnston also added a note to the second message: “Respectfully forwarded to the Secretary of War, whose orders I cannot countermand.”
Boteler arrived at Jackson’s headquarters on February 6. By that time, Jackson had received many letters from supporters urging him to remain army commander, but he was still determined to resign. Boteler joined with the supporters in pleading with Jackson to reconsider. Jackson finally agreed, but only on the condition that politicians “sitting at a desk 300 miles away” would not interfere with him.
The congressman could give no such assurance. Instead, he argued that Jackson had an obligation as a Virginian to defend his home state. Jackson angrily countered that he and his family had made great sacrifices in this war, and he would always be ready to defend Virginia “even if it be as a private in the ranks.” Eventually Jackson calmed down and realized, “If the Valley is lost, Virginia is lost.” He agreed to withdraw his resignation.
Jackson wrote to Governor Letcher explaining his decision. Still disagreeing with Benjamin’s order, he added that “if the Secretary persists in the ruinous policy complained of, I feel that no officer can serve his country better than by making his strongest possible protest against it, which, in my opinion, is done by tendering his resignation, rather than be a willful instrument in prosecuting the war upon a ruinous principle.”
His statement notwithstanding, Jackson retained his army command, and Benjamin indirectly withdrew his earlier orders. This became a moot point a day later when Federal forces reclaimed Romney, the object of Jackson’s January campaign. Benjamin settled the feud between Jackson and Brigadier General William W. Loring by promoting Loring to major general and transferring him to a command in southwestern Virginia. The secretary received intense criticism for his role in this affair.
- Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Longacre, Edward G. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Smith, Dean E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.