I recall a story about General Stonewall Jackson that was told me by Peyton Skipwith, brother of Adair Skipwith, who was a student at V.M.I. at the time. In the light of General Jackson's subsequent career as one of the greatest strategists of all time, I think it is interesting. I shall call it
A SURPRISE ATTACK BY STONEWALL JACKSON.
They knew that a new Professor of Artillery Tactics and of Natural Philosophy was expected to arrive any day to replace the officer who had been holding that position. The officer whose departure had created the vacancy was a tall, erect, handsome man, most meticulous in his dress, who, to the cadets, exemplified a graduate of West Point. The officer with the Superintendant conformed so little to this pattern that they could hardly believe it when they heard the word passed around that he was the successor of the recently departing Professor, and that his name was Major Thomas J. Jackson. They rather felt that the somewhat unmilitary (according to their standards) they saw could not be a graduate of West Point, and that some mistake must have been made in his selection for duty at V.M.I.
As Professor, Major Jackson was serious, studious, and well posted on the subjects he taught. He made no particular impression on the cadets, one way or another, and, outside of his classes, he had but little contact with them.
Some months after he had assumed his duties a very unusual situation developed at V.M.I. A prominent member of the Senior Class had been expelled by the faculty for some breach of discipline on his part. His classmates felt that he had been treated unfairly and unjustly, and they protested against his dismissal. When the Superintendant refused to give consideration to their protest, the entire class refused to attend classes, remaining in their rooms. The situation rapidly grew more serious, and finally the Class notified the Superintendant that if the expelled student were not reinstated the entire Class would resign. This was, in effect, mutiny, and the authorities were faced with a most difficult problem.
At a Faculty meeting Major Jackson asked that he be allowed to talk to the assembled Graduating Class in the Assembly Hall. After some discussion the Superintendant agreed, although with considerably misgivings. A Notice was posted on the Bulletin Board stating that Professor Jackson desired to talk to the class, in the Assembly Hall, at a certain time next day.
It was the custom at V.M.I. to hold brief Chapel services in the Assembly Hall each morning, at which a member of the Faculty came out on the stage to preside and to read a Chapter from the Bible. This duty had gradually devolved upon Major Jackson, and it was chiefly in this connection that he was best known to the cadets. At first the members of the Class were inclined to disregard the Notice entirely. Eventually, however, they decided that the occasion afforded an excellent opportunity to show their unanimous disapproval of the Faculty by assembling, in the normal manner, in the Hall as requested, and when Professor Jackson came out on the stage, to get up, on a designated signal from one of their number, and walk out of the Hall, thus refusing to listen to the Professor.
At the appointed time therefore the cadets assembled in the Assembly Hall and waited, with anticipation if not with pleasure, the appearance of Professor Jackson on the stage, when the signal agreed upon would be given.
They waited some few minutes and then conversation became general. While the audience was centering its attention on the stage, Professor Jackson entered the Hall through a door in the rear of the audience. He reached the front of the Hall before his presence was noted by most of the cadets. He held up his hand and, when the talking stopped, as it did very quickly, he sat on the arm of one of the aisle seats and began to talk in a conversational but serious tone of voice.
His surprise entrance from a direction they had not anticipated had disconcerted them enough so that, before their plan could be put into effect, Professor Jackson had already begun to talk, and they listened quietly.
What he said was something like this:
"Young Gentlemen, I have asked you to assemble here this morning because I want to talk to you about some aspects of the present situation at V.M.I. to which, I feel quite sure, you, or many of you, have not given careful consideration.
You are all rightly proud of this Institution. It has become one of the most outstanding schools in the country. Its purpose is to give you military training that will fit you, if it is ever necessary, to become army officers trained and competent to command troops in battle.
I sincerely hope that it may never become necessary for you to have to do this, but I wish to impress upon you , with all the sincerity and conviction in my power, that events are now rapidly moving in such a direction in the country that it is, by no means, impossible that many of you young men may, in the comparatively near future, be called upon to train and to lead into battle after battle your fellow citizens, in defense of the institutions that have been the pride of your forefathers for generations.
You must realize that your parents, in sending you here, have had this in mind, and that their purpose has been to train you to be good soldiers, prepared if necessary to defend your state, and perhaps even your homes and your families against any attempts that may be made to injure or to destroy them.
This is a sobering thought, and one to which you should give the most serious consideration.
The training of any soldier has always been, and must always be, based upon inculcating in him prompt and unquestioned obedience to the orders of superior authority, and without such training this Institution would not justify its existence. An officer must learn to obey orders before he is qualified to give them.
It is not my purpose to discuss the right or wrong of the orders of the Faculty and Superintendant of this Institution. They have, after very careful consideration, issued these orders in the belief that they are in the best interests of V.M.I. and, irrespective of your own personal views, it is your duty, as possible future officers, to obey the orders of your superior officers here.
realize that some of you may feel that you have not been given a full opportunity to lay your views and requests before the Faculty. I have the word of the Superintendant that when you resume your normal duties he will permit a committee or a representative of the Class to appear before the Faculty and make as full a presentation of your views as you may desire.
I ask you now to return to your barracks and to resume your normal duties without delay."
The audience filed quietly out of the Hall, and in a short time the situation was resolved and became normal again.
I am sorry now that I do not now recall whether or not the cadet who was discharged was reinstated.
My principal interest in this story is that I think it exemplifies the skill and the ability and some of the other qualities that later made Stonewall Jackson famous for surprise attacks throughout the world.