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Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend or Fairly Typical Slave Owner?

In attempting to venerate the beloved Stonewall Jackson, many sympathizers cast the man as “the black man’s friend.” They claim Jackson to be an anti-slavery advocate who risked imprisonment to teach an all-black Sunday school. We are to believe that out of the goodness of his heart, Stonewall Jackson defied the laws of the land, and risked jail time, simply because he wanted to make black people literate.

But was the curious Stonewall Jackson truly a friend to the black man? Or does the evidence lead us to seeing him as a rather common example of a mid-1800s slave owner from the Shenandoah Valley?

Let’s take a closer look at not only Jackson’s Sunday school, but at his childhood among his family’s slaves, and his adult life as a slave owner. In doing so, we can discover Thomas Jackson’s attitudes and feelings on slavery, as well as the context for the Sunday school.

Jackson’s Early Life with Slaves

Jackson was born to poor parents, who died when he was young. Though his father had owned slaves, by the time of his death, his last slave was acquired by Jackson’s uncle, who also took custody of Thomas and his sister.

Jackson's supposed birthplace in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Jackson’s supposed birthplace in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Young Jackson spent his entire childhood living and helping on his uncle’s 500 acre mill. He was daily surrounded by slaves, who outnumbered his family two to one. It was a small operation, but the idea that “Jackson’s early exposure to slavery was limited,” as K.M. Kostyal writes in Stonewall Jackson: A Life Portrait is a bit misleading. It was limited in the sense that many white people who lived around him owned few or no slaves, but slavery was a part of his life from a very early age. Being raised with it, there’s no evidence that he ever questioned it. 1K.M. Kostyal, Stonewall Jackson: A Life Portrait (Taylor Publishing Company, 1999) 13-14.

Still, there were a few slaves whom Jackson recalled with some fondness. There was Uncle Robinson, Jackson’s father’s former slave, who helped Jackson build a raft one summer. There was also another, unnamed, who was taught to read by the young Jackson, and who soon learned enough letters to forge his own pass, escaping away to Canada and freedom. 2James I. Robertson, Jr., Stonewall Jackson (Macmillan Publishing, 1997) 17.

There is precious little concerning this part of Jackson’s history. Most of it came from his wife’s memoirs, which were her own recollections of what Jackson had told her years before. Nevertheless, books such as H.W. Crocker’s Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War provide a wholly uncredited delving into young Jackson’s psyche. Slaves “certainly weren’t ‘property’ to Jackson in the sense of a saddle or a mare,” writes Crocker, “they were people and weren’t to be subjected to the whip or a beating.” 3H.W. Crocker, III The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Regnery Publishing, 2008) Chapter 11. As there is no source for this, it can only be seen as a figment based upon the hopes of the author. Without proof, it’s simply Stonewall Jackson fan-fiction.

Jackson's boyhood home near Weston, West Virginia.
Jackson’s boyhood home near Weston, West Virginia.

One of Jackson’s more prominent traits was his faith. Christian author, Richard G. Williams Jr., whose book Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend strings together some fascinating tidbits to construct a fairly wishful account of Jackson’s love for African-Americans. He proposes without evidence or citation that Jackson was inspired by his uncle’s slaves to take up his Christian faith. 4Richard G. Williams Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend (Cumberland House Publishing, 2006). Yet even James I. Robertson, in his nearly 1000-page hagiography of Jackson, attributes the inspiration to a friend he made when a teenager. 5James I. Robertson, Jr., Stonewall Jackson (Macmillan Publishing, 1997) 18-19. Robertson cites Roy Bird Cook’s The Family and Early Life of Stonewall Jackson.

When Jackson was older and attended West Point, he once wrote home, telling his sister to “give my respects to Seely [Celia, one of Jackson uncle’s slaves who took care of the household] if you should see her and tell her that there is not a day that passes without my thinking of her, and that I expect to see her in less than five months.” 6Thomas Jackson to his sister, January 28, 1844; as printed in Early Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson ed. Thomas Jackson Arnold (Fleming H. Revel Company, 1916) 64. There’s clearly no doubt that Jackson was fond of Seely, and it’s quite possible that even though his uncle owned her, Jackson never really saw her as just property. Also, she was his caretaker. Whatever else Seely was, she was also a slave – a fact that no amount of affection could change. 7Mary Anna Jackson, Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (New York: Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1892) 114.

The “Illegal” Sunday School That Everyone Knew About

Jackson’s most famous interaction with slaves was the aforementioned Sunday school. After the death of his first wife, Jackson returned to Lexington and to the Presbyterian Church he attended. It was then that Jackson began his school.


But Jackson’s school was not the first such school in Virginia – it wasn’t even the first in Lexington. In 1843, Col. Francis Henney Smith, the superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught, started a Sunday school for slaves as well as free blacks. Another such venture happened a couple of years later in Richmond. There was still another in Lexington, started by William Spotswood White, pastor of the same Presbyterian Church attended by Jackson.

White claimed that his school failed because the slaves “had become so enamored with a boisterous sort of meeting that they could not relish our calm and quiet methods of proceeding.” They had been excluded from the fairly subdued church for so long that they had turned “to the Baptist and Methodist churches,” which were apparently more lively. A school was tried several times by Dr. White, as well as a younger minister. According to White, all attempts had failed until Jackson had a go at it.

Jackson’s school was “a decided success.” This was likely due to the level of almost parental attention with which Jackson observed the slaves. He would write up monthly reports of the students, delivering them in person to their masters, noting any misbehavior he witnessed. 8William Spotswood White, Rev. William S. White, DD and His Times, ed. H.M. White (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1891) 158-159. From a letter dated November 17, 1864.

In Rev. White’s letter, as well as in Anna Jackson’s account, there is no mention of the criminality of Jackson’s school. Since other schools of this sort were attempted, it seems highly unlikely that it was actually against any enforced law. If Jackson was indeed breaking the law by teaching the gospel to slaves, very few seemed to care.

But there were three men who took issue with it: Colonel S.M. Reid, J.D. Davidson, and William McLaughlin, lawyers at the county courthouse. Not knowing for sure if it was actually illegal, they had consulted the law books and concluded that the Sunday school was an “unlawful assembly.” This meant that while teaching slaves to read was legal in Virginia at this time, gathering them together to do so was, they thought, illegal.

They confronted Jackson in May of 1858, telling him that it was “against the letter of the law.” McLaughlin explained that “whilst I lament that we have such a statute in our Code, I am satisfied that your Sunday school is an ‘unlawful assembly,’ and probably the grand jury will take it up and test it.” Both Jackson and Davidson snapped at each other, and both met later that evening to apologize. Nothing more ever came of the conversation. 9J.D. Davidson, Letter to the Lexington Gazette, August 16, 1876, as printed in Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 9 ed. Robert Alonzo Brock, p45-46.

According to an 1848 statute still on the books in 1858, slaves and free blacks could not conduct such assemblies themselves. It’s likely that this “letter of the law” came into focus because the law itself left no provision for these assemblies to be led by a white man. Most other slave codes allowed for this. Virginia’s explicitly bans black assemblies led by black people, but is silent on the issue of being led by a white person such as Jackson.

Also, it was certainly illegal, according to the same 1848 law, to teach black people to read. That statute, however, did not bar religious services. This is probably why the three lawyers did not approach Jackson’s school on this issue. 10See Acts Passed at a General Assembly, Chapter X, Sections 39-40. This can be found here, and is worth the read. You can see the pertinent statutes here.

Strangely, Major Robert Lewis Dabney, Jackson’s adjutant and chaplain, seemed to believe that no such laws existed in Virginia at the time. In his 1866 biography of Jackson, Dabney goes to great lengths to prove that Jackson was breaking no law by teaching slaves to read. “It has been said that we prohibit the slave all access to letters,” wrote Dabney, “and do not permit him to learn to read even the book of life. This, again, is unmingled falsehood; there is no law in Virginia, forbidding a master to teach his slaves literature; and as many of them can read, and do read God’s Word, as of the agricultural peasantry of boasted England.” 11Robert Lewis Dabney Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson (New York: Blelock & Co, 1866) 167. Due to the way in which Dabney phrased it, due to the vagueness of the 1848 statutes, he had a fairly solid argument.

Jackson’s Own Slaves

It wasn’t until after West Point and the Mexican War when Jackson was finally able to settle down. In 1853, he married his first wife who died a year later in childbirth. It’s unclear from the earliest sources just when Jackson bought his first slave, but it was most definitely prior to his second marriage in 1857.


It was during this time that Jackson’s ownership of slaves greatly increased. This was due, in part, to his marriage to Anna, his second wife. Jackson owned a man named Albert before he and Anna were wed. According to Anna’s memory, Albert had begged Jackson to purchase him and to allow him to pay Jackson back in installments so that he might gain his emancipation. Jackson agreed, and allowed Albert to work as a waiter. He did not live with the family, though Jackson kept close tabs on him. From 1858 to 1860, Jackson made $120 each year by renting Albert out to VMI. By the time the war broke out, Albert’s debt was still not fully paid.

Also prior to his second marriage, Jackson purchased Amy. Anna tells a story that might have as much to do with slavery’s idiosyncrasies as it does her potentially faulty memory. Amy “was about to be sold for debt, and… sought from him a deliverance from her troubles.” Anna also understandably praised her husband for buying Amy though “he had no use for her services.” Jackson, due to “his kind heart,” loaned her to a Christian family until he met Anna and the newlyweds took her back. She died during the war, and when Jackson heard the news, it “moved him to tears.”

While those two slaves were Jackson’s own, Anna requested that her father send Hetty, her childhood nurse, when she discovered they were about to have a child of their own. Anna seemed to regard Hetty well enough, but Jackson did not. She called the slave “an energetic, impulsive, quick-tempered woman.” Hetty had “some fine traits,” but was a bit too self-asserted for Jackson. She apparently saw herself as “so much the senior of her new master and mistress,” which is understandable since Hetty raised Anna. In ways that go unstated, Jackson made it clear “that her only course must be that of implicit obedience” to the Jacksons. Anna concludes that “after learning this lesson she toned down into a well-mannered, useful domestic, and indeed she became a factotum in the household, rendering valuable service in the house, garden, and upon the farm.”

Jackson's house in Lexington.
Jackson’s house in Lexington.

If Jackson was quickly fed up with Hetty, he had even less patience for her two teenage sons, Cyrus and George. Anna described them as “pure, unadulterated Africans.” She wrote that her husband “used to say that if these boys were left to themselves they would be sure to go back to barbarism; and yet he was unwearying in his efforts to elevate them.”

These efforts to elevate came in the form of Anna teaching them to read and required attendance at the Sunday school. “He was a very strict but kind master,” wrote Anna, “giving to his servants ‘that which is just and equal,’ but exacting of them prompt obedience.”

Another slave owned by the Jacksons was Emma, who had been owned by an aging lady after her mother was no longer in the picture. Jackson purchased her as a surprise gift to his wife. Though Emma was only four at the time, Anna reasoned that “she would make a nice little maid for me in the future.” Anna lamented, however, that Emma “proved rather a troublesome one at first, but with the lapse of time she became useful, though never a treasure.”

Anna Jackson
Anna Jackson

There may have been two other unnamed slaves either owned or rented by Jackson, though it’s not fully possible to say.

Anna described the slaves, along with “the other animate possessions of the family,” lumping them in with the horse and “two splendid milch cows, and a lot of chickens.” To Anna, they were basically talking animals. To Jackson, they were children, even if they were not actually children. Anna explains:

“When a servant left a room without closing the door, he [Jackson] would wait until he [the slave] had reached the kitchen, and then call him back to shut it, thereby giving him extra trouble, which generally insured his remembrance the next time. His training made the colored servants as polite and punctual as that race is capable of being, and his system soon showed its good effects. They realized that if they did their duty they would receive the best of treatment from him. At Christmas he was generous in presents, and frequently gave them small sums of money.” 12Mary Anna Jackson, Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (New York: Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1892) 115-119.

Jackson’s Views on Slavery

This is not to paint Jackson as a ruthless tyrant. That was certainly not the case. But neither was it the case that he loathed slavery or wished for it to be ended. Jackson wrote little, if anything, about the institution, but likely believed that it was condoned in the Bible (which it was). He had ample opportunity to free his slaves, yet never did. In all likelihood, he saw no reason why he should.

He may have purchased a couple of his slaves in order to relieve their suffering – Anna even states that he had no use for them – but wouldn’t their suffering have been less if Jackson had emancipated them? According to Jackson’s line of reasoning, probably not. In the case of the teenage boys, without his guidance, they would become barbarians. He was of the paternalistic school of thought, understanding that without Christianity, the slaves would be little better than animals.

Anna wrote:
“He found the institution a responsible and troublesome one, and I have heard him say that he would prefer to see the negroes free, but he believed that the Bible taught that slavery was sanctioned by the Creator himself, who maketh men to differ, and instituted laws for the bond and the free. He therefore accepted slavery, as it existed in the Southern States, not as a thing desirable in itself, but as allowed by Providence for ends which it was not his business to determine. At the same time, the negroes had no truer friend, no greater benefactor.” 13Ibid. 143.


Even if this were true, even if this were not the overly-chewed Lost Cause rhetoric of the 1890s, what does it really tell us? According to his wife, Jackson disliked slavery, but felt that it was allowed by God. She does not say that it was commanded by God, or even desirable to God, but only that God allowed it. If God merely allowed slavery, then he also allowed not owning slaves. Even by this philosophy, one’s supposed dislike of slavery might have been expressed in better ways than willingly becoming an enslaver and buying a human child to surprise ones wife. It would still be within this proposed philosophy to emancipate all of ones slaves. Yet, that is not what Jackson did.

We often view Jackson as an oddity, a strange and hard-to-understand man of mystery. He was, as is well known, a peculiar personality. That he was also a fairly typical slave owner adds to his curious persona. Even through his awkward quirks and enigmatic demeanor, he was essentially a normal slave owner. Apart from owning them (which is a rather huge qualifier), there’s no evidence that he was overtly abusive to his slaves. Similarly, there’s really no evidence that Jackson was in any way the “black man’s friend.” His Sunday school was not all that rare, and was certainly not some scheme to educate the slaves against the will of the government.

Authors have hoped and prayed, speculated and simply invented stories to prove to themselves and their readers that their beloved Stonewall Jackson was anything but a typical slave owner. Because of them, Jackson ceased to be an actual historical figure and had instead become a fictional character who hated slavery and risked his own freedom to make literate those who had no freedom of their own. These fantastical and horribly mistaken beliefs about Jackson do no service at all to the study of history or to the man himself.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

3 thoughts on “Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend or Fairly Typical Slave Owner?

    1. Thank you! I’m used to reading a lot of my sources online these days. I wish I could have had this prior to publishing today’s post. Still, I’m going to tear into it.

      I’ve used Abe Books quite a bit. It’s basically like Amazon’s third party, including a lot of the same sellers. Sometimes, however, you can find some great deals.

      Thanks a bunch!

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