Six Lessons for Leaders from General Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Campaign

“You may be whatever you resolve to be.”

David Chandler, in his comprehensive 1200-page volume The Campaigns of Napoleon, begins by laying down the groundwork for why Napoleon was such a significant force in European history, exhausting us for over a hundred pages before introducing his subject, Napoleon and the art of war.

James R. Arnold, in his book Grant Wins the War, a detailed account of the Battle of Vicksburg, also begins with praise for Napoleon. Of the top 20 military battles in history, according to historians, more than half were engineered by Napoleon. Arnold notes that only two battles from the U.S. Civil War made this top 20 list. They were General Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

A few years ago I read a comment about the Civil War that brought to mind the above passage from the book by James R. Arnold. The statement was this: the South didn’t have to win the war, it only had to survive until the North lost the will to fight. A light bulb ignited. I suddenly understood General Jackson’s significance.

So what was it that General Jackson had done? He used speed, audacity and concealment to undermine the Union’s confidence, producing confusion and uncertainty. Here’s how he did this. He took his cavalry and flew up the Shenandoah Valley to a pass 100 miles to the north, slipped through and won a skirmish over the soldiers he encountered, withdrew, disappeared, rushed south along the valley and produced another skirmish, retreated and marched more men up the valley. Back and forth he went, with the general effect of creating a massive panic amongst the Union soldiers and their generals, leaving them emotionally paralyzed.

Panic is a powerful force. It’s also irrational. Here’s a story to illustrate. When I was living in Puerto Rico in 1979 a friend and I decided to go ocean snorkeling. Essentially, you swim out into the deep and there’s a reef where you can see conch shells and marine life amongst the coral. Unfortunately, the water was murky that day because of inland rains. The rivers had spewed muddy waters into the deep blue sea. While we were swimming out further and further from shore my friend suddenly turned to hightail it back toward the beach. I was confused, but having been trained on the buddy system (you don’t swim alone) I also turned toward the beach.

Then the fear crept in. “What did he see? Why is he swimming so fast? Did he see a shark? Barracuda?” These last thoughts fired adrenaline into my bloodstream and I shot through the water like a torpedo, my brain racing even faster. We got to shore and it turned out to be nothing. My friend was simply in a panic because he couldn’t see through the murky water. His imagination got the best of him, which triggered my own fear-swilled imagination.

That’s what happened to the undisciplined Union army at Bull Run, and those were the emotions the Union army had become bathed in as a result of General Stonewall Jackson’s impossible-to-anticipate maneuvers. The general’s efforts to generate panic were achieving the goal he’d set out to achieve: paralyzing the North from advancing, and prolonging the conflict with minimal loss of Southern life.

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Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign contains several lessons. Here are six.

  1. When panic settles in, reason flies out the window.
  2. Do not feed your fears. They will only grow larger, sometimes to monstrous proportions.
  3. Fear is irrational. You can’t reason with it. So don’t try.
  4. Whereas emotions cannot be controlled directly, your thoughts can be. Your mind is like a railroad engine. Once your thoughts are put on track the rest of the train cars will follow.
  5. Great leaders operate from a higher purpose and know how to remain cool under pressure. Rather than reacting out of fear to every frenzied report from the front, they strive to give proper weight to what they see and hear, and act in accordance with the bigger picture.
  6. Both Grant and Jackson were original thinkers and men of action who took initiative. They understood the objectives that would achieve their aims, and did whatever it took to achieve these ends.

Tragically for the Confederates General Jackson was killed by friendly fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville. His death at age 39 was a loss from which the South never recovered.

Portions of this post originally published at
Photo of book cover by the author. General Jackson photo public domain.
Civil War cannon photo, courtesy Creative Commons.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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