Sometimes, you just don't know what to believe.
Take the case of Confederate General John Robert Jones at Antietam, for example. In all of the battle's reports and histories, Jones is listed as wounded in action. It happened early that Wednesday morning. Federal artillery poured a destructive fire into Jones's ranks in the West Woods, and he was apparently among the first to go down. As he recorded in his official report, "It was during this almost unprecedented iron storm that a shell exploded a little above my head, and so stunned and injured me that I was rendered unfit for duty, and retired from the field. . . ." As he was being carried to the rear, Jones turned command of the famed Stonewall Division over General William Starke, who was killed less than half and hour later.
When looking exclusively at the battle, it is hard to question the veracity of Jones's wounding. But when viewed in light of his subsequent battlefield performances, well, eyebrows are undeniably raised. . .
Taking a step back, Jones showed all the promise for a distinguished military career. Born in 1828 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the son of Irish immigrants, Jones graduated seventh in his class from VMI in 1848, and held at graduation the distinguished title of captain of cadets. He then pursued a career in education, teaching in Virginia, Maryland (where he helped establish a military school at Urbanna), and finally in Florida. He was in Florida during the Secession Winter, and in early January 1861, under orders from the governor of Florida, he led a militia company in the capture of the Federal arsenal at Apalachiocola. Returning to his native Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, Jones then raised what became Company I, 33rd Virginia Infantry. He advanced to lieutenant colonel, leading the 33rd in the 1862 Valley Campaign. Cited for gallantry at Kernstown, Jones was praised by none of than Stonewall Jackson himself, who later recommended Jones's promotion to brigadier general.
Upon Jackson's recommendation, Jones was promoted to general on June 25, 1862. A week later, he fell wounded at Malvern Hill, a shell fragment striking his knee. A bout of typhoid fever lengthened his recovery, but by the end of the first week of September, he was back with his command. Joining his brigade at Frederick, Jones was immediately bumped up to command of the entire Stonewall Division. It was from this point where Jones's military reputation plummeted. . .
Following Antietam, Jones was relieved in command of the Stonewall Division by the return of Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro, wounded at Second Manassas. At Fredericksburg, Jones was apparently spotted hiding behind a tree; three months later, he was brought up on charges of cowardice. Tried on four counts of misbehavior in front of the enemy, charges that may have included his early retirement from the field at Antietam, Jones was subsequently acquitted and returned to brigade command. Then, at Chancellorsville, Jones again left the field, citing an ulcerated leg. He would never hold another command. Following Chancellorsville, and with his one-time champion Jackson dead, Jones resigned from the army.
So, by taking into account his behavior at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, I have no choice but to question whether the artillery blast at Antietam had, indeed, so stunned Jones that he was forced to leave the field and relinquish command. I want to believe that it had; his previous performance at Kernstown and at Malvern Hill, where he was wounded, was unquestionably heroic. But we can't get around the fact that his subsequent performances left much to be desired. In law, the concept of the Doctrine of Chances states that it is unlikely a defendant would be repeatedly, innocently involved in similar, suspicious circumstances. Normally inadmissible in the court-room, perhaps this doctrine can be invoked in examining Jones's actions at Antietam. If so, then his acquittal in the eyes of history is very difficult.
Sadly, after Jones's resignation from the army in May 1863, he was apparently seen as a disgrace to high-ranking Confederate authorities. He was captured in civilian clothes on July 4 of that year and spent the next two years languishing in a number of prisoner of war camps. There was no effort made to effect his exchange, and Jones spent one of the longest tenures as a prisoner than anyone who fell into enemy hands. He was still in captivity as late as July 1865. From his cell at Fort Warren, Massachusetts, Jones appealed directly to President Johnson and Senator Henry Wilson. "I know that no evil could result to the United States by my immediate release," pleaded Jones, "and I am sure some benefit, for I am prepared to accept fully the result of the sword and to devote myself to peace and to the reorganization of society, with slavery wiped out and in submission to the authority of the United States. I mean to be as good and faithful a citizen of the United States as anyone." Finally, on July 24, 1865, Jones was released.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The sad story of J.R. Jones perhaps grew even more intriguing after the war. True to his word, he went to great lengths to devote himself "to peace and the reorganization of society." Out of his own pocket, he provided farmers with what was then state-of-the-art agricultural machinery, and he became one of the leading citizens of his hometown of Harrisonburg. His wartime transgressions were seemingly forgiven as he was invited to participate in veterans' rallies and other veterans' activities. He served on the local school board, on the city council, and as a vestryman in his Episcopalian Church.
Yet, despite his best efforts and the turn-around in his reputation, Jones's esteem once again plummeted, at least in the eyes of post-war white Southern society.
In 1873, Malinda Rice, an African-American and former slave, went to work in the home of J.R. Jones and his wife, Sarah. Apparently, Jones and Malinda developed strong affections for one another. In 1875, Malinda gave birth to Mary Magdalene Rice; a son, Willie, followed three years later. The father of both of these children was John Robert Jones. Jones would also father two more children with another African-American woman following the deaths of both his first wife Sarah and Malinda.
What made Jones so detestable to white society was the fact that he did not shun nor deny his black children. He, in fact, was quite proud of them. He paid for their educations, even sending Mary to Hartshorn Memorial College in Richmond. He taught them all how to read and write, and even took them to places where no blacks were allowed to go. Following his death in 1901, he left his entire estate to his black sons.
John R. Jones was devoted to his children, which was simply unforgivable to post-war white society. His former comrades-in-arms were willing to forgive his implied cowardice on the battlefield, but not the fact that he cared so deeply about his illegitimate black children. To them, it was an outrage, a scandal that was viewed as a disgrace to the white community.
Such ignorance and contempt toward Jones was made all too clear by former Confederate officer, T.L. Williamson, like Jones a native of Harrisonburg and a former member of the Stonewall Brigade. In the early twentieth century a historian was seeking to compile a biographical roster of the Confederacy's wartime heroes. He sent a letter addressed to J.R. Jones in Harrisonburg, by this time deceased, inquiring of his service record. Williamson opened the letter, and penned a reply:
"General Jones is dead, and peace to his ashes, for they were not very clean. You would be well to drop his name from the list of Honorable men, if such is your roster when complete. . . .His subsequent life was a great disgrace to him and this community. I could write more but I think enough has been said. Draw a line through his name and be sure to have it Black!" [Emphasis in original].
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The story of Jones's first African-American child Mary, who went on to become a leader in the Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century, was written by her granddaughter Carrie Allen McCray, and published in 1998 under the title Freedom's Child. It is an excellent book, which speaks directly to a largely overlooked aspect of post-Civil War southern society.