If you want to see why Stonewall Jackson endures as a figure of history and legend, take a look at the poem “Barbara Fritchie,” written by the prominent American poet John Greenleaf Whittier in 1864, which became a national sensation two years after Jackson’s death. In it, Whittier tells how Jackson ordered his men to shoot down an American flag in Frederick, Md. But when an old woman took the flag in her hands, Jackson ordered his men to stand down: “Who touches a hair of yon gray head / Dies like a dog! March on! he said.”
None of this ever happened, but to the Northern nation – to the wartime nation – the incident was as good as documented fact. What it said was that Jackson was a gentleman and a Christian and a decent person, certainly, in spite of his role in killing and maiming tens of thousands of young Northern men. But it also said that he was, fundamentally, an American. He had, after all, fought heroically for his country in the Mexican War. In Whittier’s poem, it was his Americanness that had stirred in him and redeemed him.
What happened after Jackson’s death was the first great national outpouring of grief for a fallen leader in the country’s history. Though it was overshadowed by Lincoln’s death two years later, Jackson’s death touched the hearts of every household in the South, and prompted many admiring testimonials in the North. “I rejoice at Stonewall Jackson’s death as a gain to our cause,” wrote Union Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, “and yet in my soldier’s heart I cannot but see him as the best soldier in all of this war, and grieve at his untimely end.”