A Civil War historian makes the case for Stonewall Jackson having Asperger’s Syndrome
By Nils Skudra
As a Civil War historian, I always have a fervent interest in studying how its notable political and military leaders made a significant impact on the course of the war.
One of the most iconic figures is Stonewall Jackson, who was renowned for his rapid marches in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 and his epic assault which shattered the Union right flank at Chancellorsville in May 1863 before he was fatally wounded by friendly fire.
However, Jackson was also highly eccentric since he displayed a variety of odd habits, such as routinely sucking lemons and riding into battle with one hand raised in order to balance his blood circulation. Some historians have suggested that Jackson may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, and therefore I have decided to make this topic the focus of my article.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born in Clarksburg, Virginia (present-day West Virginia) on January 21, 1824. His early childhood was marked by tragedy since he lost both his father, Jonathan Jackson, and sister Elizabeth to typhoid fever, and he did not get along well with his stepfather, Captain Blake B. Woodson. Due to his mother’s poor health, Thomas and his other sister Laura Ann were sent to live with their grandmother, who cared for them with the aid of two maiden aunts and several bachelor uncles. As his mother’s health declined, he and Laura Ann were sent to live with their half-uncle, Cummins Jackson, who raised them at Jackson’s Mill.
During this period, Thomas attended school when and where he could, but he largely taught himself through reading borrowed books, at one point making a secret deal with one of his uncle’s slaves to provide him with pine knots in exchange for reading lessons, although this was forbidden under Virginia state law.
Jackson entered the military academy at West Point in 1842, where he experienced difficulty with the entrance examinations due to his inadequate formal education. However, Jackson brought an ardent determination to his studies, something which would be a lifelong characteristic, and he thus earned a reputation as one of the hardest working cadets at West Point.
This could be considered an autism or Asperger’s trait since Asperger’s individuals have an extremely diligent work ethic and display a profoundly single-minded focus on accomplishing their tasks. Since these would be distinguishing characteristics throughout Jackson’s career, it thus lends some plausibility to the suggestion that he may have had Asperger’s Syndrome.
Following his graduation from West Point in 1846, Jackson served with distinction in the Mexican War as an artillery officer, where he notably displayed an independent judgment in the face of what he considered a “bad order” to withdraw his troops during the assault on Chapultepec in September 1847.
Jackson explained his rationale by maintaining that withdrawal would be more hazardous than continuing the artillery duel he was engaged in, and this judgment was ultimately proven correct. Asperger’s individuals often tend to be very adamant in defending the rightness of their judgment, which can sometimes be a significant social shortcoming since it may alienate other people. This would prove to be an enduring characteristic of Jackson’s career since he often clashed with superiors and subordinates over military decisions that he criticized.
Following the Mexican War, Jackson settled in Lexington, Virginia, where he became a professor of artillery tactics at the Virginia Military Institute. It was here that he earned notoriety for his eccentricities, which included a repetitive tendency to recite lessons by the book, give the same explanation to students asking for help, and punish a student for insubordination if they asked a second time.
Jackson was a hypochondriac who would stand for long periods to keep his internal organs in place due to arthritis and sinus problems, and he believed that this activity contributed to good health. These tendencies made Jackson a figure of ridicule among the VMI cadets, who referred to him as “Tom Fool” behind his back.
It could be argued that these traits offer further evidence of Jackson possibly having Asperger’s since Asperger’s individuals often display repetitive mannerisms, as well as a tendency to hold odd beliefs and fixations which are not shared by most neurotypical individuals.
Another distinguishing trait was Jackson’s zealous religiosity. A devout Presbyterian, he firmly believed that everything took place according to God’s will, and he would not mail correspondence on a Sunday since he felt that having the mail in transit on Sunday would be in violation of the Sabbath. His faith also influenced his remarkable composure in battle, as his biographer Robert Lewis Dabney suggested that “It was the fear of God which made him so fearless of all else,” which Jackson himself confirmed:
“My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed.” According to historian Stephen W. Sears, Jackson’s religious fanaticism “energized his military thought and character,” and theology “was the only subject he genuinely enjoyed discussing.” However, Sears also notes that this religiosity had significant shortcomings since it “warped Jackson’s judgment of men, leading to poor appointments,” giving rise to the belief that he “preferred good Presbyterians to good soldiers.”
Jackson’s singular fixation on religion provides further support to the notion that he may have been an Asperger’s individual since they tend to have an intensive focus on a particular subject of interest. This can be a significant asset since it can lead them to specialize in their area of interest, which in some ways has been true of my experience since my fervent love of history has driven me to excel in that particular field.
However, Jackson’s example proves that there can also be a downside to such singular focus since it may affect a person’s judgment, their social interactions, and their openness to other ideas or subjects. For Jackson, this was also evident in his Sunday schedule which, the late historian James “Bud” Robertson, Jr. wrote, had “no place… for labor, newspapers, or secular conversation.”
As a military commander, some of the traits which had earned ridicule in peacetime made Jackson highly effective. These included his extreme diligence, his composure in battle, and his intuition, as he could readily understand Robert E. Lee’s sometimes unstated goals or vague orders and decisively act upon them.
This intuition can also be a hallmark of Asperger’s since Asperger’s individuals are often quick to grasp complex information and synthesize it in ways that are more difficult for neurotypical individuals.
Consequently, Jackson achieved remarkable successes at First Manassas, where he earned the name “Stonewall” for his resolute stand on Henry House Hill, and in the Shenandoah Valley, where he mastered the art of deception and rapid movement, defeating several Union armies whose combined strength outnumbered his own and thereby preventing them from reinforcing George McClellan’s offensive against Richmond. Furthermore, Jackson expected his men to follow the example of his own diligence, marching them hard over long distances and exercising severe discipline, which earned them the nickname of “Jackson’s foot cavalry.”
A less admirable trait that Jackson displayed as a commander was his lack of empathy in the face of mass carnage.
On one occasion, a Confederate officer lamented the deaths of Union soldiers who had fought with remarkable courage at a recent skirmish, to which Jackson coldly replied, “No, shoot them all; I do not wish them to be brave.” In Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary, The Civil War, Shelby Foote takes note of another occasion during the Battle of Antietam in which Jackson was eating a peach, and surveying the corpse-strewn field following the cessation of fighting in his sector he remarked, “God has been very kind to us this day.”
For Asperger’s individuals, empathy can be a significant challenge since they tend to be very self-focused, which could in some ways explain Jackson’s interpersonal difficulties with subordinates, and for him to show such a lack of empathy amidst such slaughter is suggestive of the likelihood that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, although it was also possibly a consequence of becoming hardened by the experience of war. However, on a personal level Jackson was capable of forming close emotional attachments, as he had a loving relationship with his wife Mary Anna Jackson and with a young girl named Jane Corbin, whom he developed a fatherly affection for and whose death he deeply grieved.
In summation, Stonewall Jackson’s eccentricities and unique intellectual abilities make it highly plausible that he may indeed have had Asperger’s Syndrome.
Jackson’s story provides a significant example of the numerous ways in which Asperger’s traits can have both positive and negative effects on a person’s conduct. For Jackson, they contributed substantially to his talents as a military commander but adversely impacted his relations with subordinates, and in some ways his single-minded fixation on achieving total victory may have helped bring about his demise since he insisted on taking a night reconnaissance of the Union lines at Chancellorsville, which went against military prudence. This would ultimately deprive the Confederacy of one of its finest generals.
Editor’s note: Asperger’s Disorder is a previously used diagnosis that was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994 as a separate disorder from autism. In 2013 the DSM-5 replaced Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder and other pervasive developmental disorders with the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. To read more about the history of Asperger’s go here.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.