How Sarcasm, a Typo, and Snarkiness Created Three Civil War Nicknames

This Saturday, April 12 marks the 153rd anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That terrible conflict has been my lifelong passion. I’m always amazed by how many generals, North and South, had colorful nicknames.

Here is the backstory on how three of them came to be.

“Stonewall” Jackson

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Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

His birth name was Thomas Jonathan Jackson. His classmates at West Point (and the cadets he later taught at Virginia Military Academy) called him “Old Jack.” And so he was known … until a blazing hot Sunday afternoon in July 1861. The Battle of First Manassas (or First Bull Run to the Yankees), the war’s first major battle, was underway in northern Virginia near Washington, DC. Jackson was there as colonel of the 1st Virginia Brigade.

Things were going badly for the Southerners, as they kept getting pushed back by the boys in blue. South Carolina Confederate General Bernard Bee pointed to Jackson’s men and said, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall.” From that moment on, the man was Stonewall Jackson and the military unit was the Stonewall Brigade.

But here’s the mystery: was Bee being complimentary or sarcastic? He had been trying to convince Jackson to attack, which the Virginian refused to do. Some historians, plus Bee’s adjutant who was there, claim the phrase “stands like a stone wall” was a snide putdown, not praise for Jackson’s grim resistance.

We’ll never know Bee’s true meaning of the words because he was wounded soon after speaking them and died a few days later. His precise intention went to the grave with him.  (Jackson followed 22 months later.)

“Fighting Joe” Hooker

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“Fighting Joe” Hooker

If the Civil War had a party boy, it was Joe Hooker. Sandy haired and blue eyed, he knew how to have a good time. A really good time. One prudish Bostonian smugly wrote that Hooker’s headquarters was “a place where no self-respecting gentleman liked to go, and no decent woman could go.”

In 1862, he sent a report on the Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia back to the brass in Washington. He signed it, “I am still fighting – Joe Hooker.” But the message was garbled en route and the dash got lost. It came out as “I am still, Fighting Joe Hooker.”  Newspapers reporters –then as now eager for a new angle to a story– seized on it and a nickname was born.

Hooker was an aggressive fighter and with a great love of the spotlight. But ironically, this publicity hound hated the name that was pinned on him. He said “Fighting Joe” made him sound reckless, or stupid or, worst of all, “like a common bandit.” Like it or not, the nickname stuck … even after he was humiliated by Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

By the way, there’s a widely repeated but utterly false story that Hooker’s own name became a nickname for someone else. Many people claim the term “hooker” was inspired by Joe Hooker’s frequent use of prostitutes. Not true. In fact, “hooker” used in connection with practitioners of the world’s oldest profession appeared in print multiple times well before Joe Hook rose to fame in the Civil War. However, the general did turn a blind eye to army regulations and allowed prostitutes to follow the army, claiming it was good for morale. Those women were nicknamed “Hooker’s Division,” and this certainly helped popularize the term.  So in an indirect way, Joe Hooker was associated with “hookers.” 

Jeb “Beauty” Stuart

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“Beauty” Stuart, sans beard

He began life as James Ewell Brown Stuart, and as a boy created a new name from the first initials of his first three names: Jeb. And people called him that. But some of them called him something less flattering, too.

Stuart had a soft, weak chin as a teenager that gave his face an almost feminine quality. A classmate said the chin was “so short and retiring as positively to disfigure his otherwise fine countenance.” The guys had no trouble coming up with this snarky nickname: “Beauty.”

Stuart responded the only way he could: immediately after graduating from mandatorily required clean-shaven West Point, he grew a beard. A fellow office said Stuart was “the only man he ever saw that [a] beard improved.”

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The bearded Jeb Stuart

The weak chin was hidden from view, but the nickname “Beauty” stayed with him. In a way, Stuart got the last laugh. The beard he sported for the rest of his short life was long, red and wavy; it, coupled with his reputation as a dashing cavalryman and the ostrich plume he wore in his hat, made him attractive to the fair sex. Stuart was an unapologtic ladies man who loved basking in their attention.

And there you have it. How sarcasm, a typo and snarkiness conspired to create three nicknames that are still remembered 150 years later. Regardless which side your family was on, let’s join together this Saturday and honor the memory of all who served so long ago.

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