Cowards in the Cornfield? (Part Two): The Complicated Story of Virginia’s General John R. Jones

When General J. R. Jones quickly relinquished command at the prospect of marching his division into Antietam’s Cornfield, his fellow Southern officers began whispering the word “coward” behind his back.  But even this firestorm of controversy couldn’t prepare Jones for what awaited him when his postwar “indiscretions” became known.   

By David A. Welker

John Robert Jones was born on March 12th, 1827 in Harrisonburg, Virginia to David and Harriet Jones, who had emigrated from Ireland in 1801.  Although little is known of his youth, the Jones family must have prospered and John must have been a good student because in 1845 he enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), from which he graduated in 1848.  Standing seventh in his class, Cadet Jones also held the title “Captain of Cadets,” reflecting his apparent promise as a rising future military leader.  [i]

After graduation from VMI and entering professional life, Jones became a teacher in both his native Virginia and later in Maryland, where he served as the principal of a military school at Urbana.  Jones then moved to Florida to continue his educational mission, only to find dreams of academic life diverted by the dawning of civil war.  [ii]

Jones’ military background and civilian prominence made him an ideal candidate to lead militia troops in soon-to-succeed Florida and in early January 1861, Florida’s Governor Perry put him in command of a company of state troops.  On January 6th, 1861, J. R. Jones led his company as part of Colonel W. J. Gunn’s regiment in seizing the Apalachicola Federal Arsenal.  Fortunately for Jones and the South, this operation gave the fledging Confederacy some 5,000 pounds of much-needed gunpowder (as well as some very antique guns) and was more of a confrontation than a battle.  J. R. Jones’ first military action had been both successful and bloodless.

Perhaps seeking greater promotion opportunity, Jones returned to his native Virginia later33rd VA flag that year, putting himself at the very seat of the widening Civil War.  Returning to his home in Rockingham Country, John raised a company of infantry that would soon enough become Company I (the “Rockingham Confederates”) of the 33rd Virginia infantry Regiment, once it joined that unit shortly after the First Battle of Manassas.  Although the 33rd Virginia was commanded initially by Col. Arthur C. Cummings, J. R. Jones quickly became the regiment’s second in command and earned with that post the rank of lieutenant colonel on August 21st.  The 33rd was by then part of the Stonewall Brigade—Jackson’s famous former command—which had been assigned in early 1862 as part of Jackson’s Command operating throughout the Shenandoah Valley. [iii]

It was during this time when John Jones first experienced his first major combat and combat command, on March 23rd, 1862 at the Battle of Kernstown.  Commanding the 33rd Virginia as part of the Stonewall Brigade—led by General Richard Garrnett—Jones was cited for gallantry during the battle by Stonewall Jackson himself.  Based on this performance, his overall pattern of leadership, and probably J. R. Jones’ VMI background—which he shared with Stonewall—Jackson promoted J. R. Jones to the rank of brigadier general on June 25th, 1862.

When Jackson’s force joined General Lee’s army before Richmond to repulse Union troops threatening the Confederate capital—during what would become known as the Seven Days’ Battles—newly-minted Brigadier General John Jones was assigned to command the Second Brigade in Jackson’s Division.  Jones now led the 21st, 42nd, 48th Virginia Infantry Regiments, as well as the 11st Virginia Battalion and a battery of artillery.  While his rise through the ranks wasn’t meteoric, John Jones was doing well for a teacher serving in the army.  But then, something changed…

During the Battle of White Oak Swamp on June 30th, 1862 General Jones was wounded when a shell fragment ripped into his knee.  Taken to the rear and medical treatment, General Jones recovered apace in a Richmond hospital.  Then typhoid fever set in, lengthening his recovery for several seeks.  Still, the general recovered and by the first week in September, J. R. Jones rejoined the Confederate Army in the field.  And barely had he arrived in Frederick, Maryland and been restored to his brigade command, when J. R. Jones learned he’d been promoted to lead a division in Jackson’s Command.  But this wasn’t just any division he’d been given to lead.  It included his own first regiment, the 33rd Virginia, as well as the famed Stonewall Brigade – in short, Jackson had given him charge of his own division, which still officially bore General Jackson’s name.  John Jones was filling some very big shoes!  And perhaps it was that overwhelming sense of responsibility; perhaps it was that he’d never really fully recovered from his White Oak Swamp wound and the illness that followed.  Regardless, something had changed in John R. Jones that wasn’t apparent to those around him, including General Jackson.  But he certainly knew…  [iv]

Now back in the field, General J. R. Jones led Jackson’s division as part of Jackson’s operations to capture Harpers Ferry during 12 – 15 September.  Fortunately for all concerned, Jones’ division was posted on Jackson’s far left of the Confederate line—holding both the B&O Railroad route into town and the Shepherdstown Road, the army’s main escape route should things turn against them—and saw no action during the battle.  When Harpers Ferry easily fell to the Confederates, General Jones could share in the victory despite having taken rather little risk for the result.  The general seemed to be back to his old self.  But after that nearly-bloodless victory, Jackson’s Command was rushed toward Sharpsburg, Maryland and the prospect of a very different kind of fight.

During the early hours of 16 September, Jackson’s forces were rapidly approaching Sharpsburg and as they appeared were quickly deployed to strengthen Lee’s existing line for the coming fight.  J. R. Jones’s division was the first of Jackson’s units to cross the river late on the 15th, followed at dawn by Lawton’s division.  An hour or so later, the two divisions marched eastward along the Shepherdstown Road and stopped in a wood one mile west of Sharpsburg to rest and await further orders. By days’ end, J.R. Jones’ division had arrived north of Sharpsburg and was deployed on the left flank of Jackson’s position north of town.  Jones’ and Grigsby’s Stonewall brigades deployed in General Jones’ first line, side by side; Jones’ left was pinned on a fenced wood line and Grigsby’s right on the fence holding the Hagerstown Pike.  In Jones’ second line was Starke’s brigade and Taliaferro’s brigade, similarly side by side with their right on the Hagerstown Pike but hidden under the cover of a woodlot’s fenced edge.  Out in front of the entire position on a small knoll was posted Poagues’ battery of three guns—two ten pound Parrot guns and one Napoleon—holding a spot from which they could sweep the roads and fields well in advance of their own infantry.  Jones’ position was supported and strengthened by two additional Southern units, Ewell’s division and Early’s brigade.  Behind this strong division-plus sized formation was Hays’ brigade, and in their rear—around the Dunker Church—were Lawton’s and Trimble’s brigades.  Holding the two or so miles between Jackson’s left and banks of the Potomac River was General Stuart’s cavalry.  As darkness closed the scattered fighting on September 16th, everyone in Jones’ command was acutely aware that tomorrow would bring a major fight.  For many —particularly for the general himself—this night would bring a torture of thoughts and deadly possibilities for the dawn, making getting though the dark, drizzly night a mental endurance test. [v]

The sign that the fighting was underway again in earnest came before dawn when the first artillery round was fired by Confederate gunners on Jackson’s far left on Nicodemus Heights.  The first round, though, exploded harmlessly above General John Gibbon’s surging men, adding forcefully to the message of urgency that Generals Gibbon and Doubleday had been shouting as they sought to get their portion of General Hooker’s opening Union assault underway.  Now two more shells came at Gibbon’s men through the dark, the last of which came to earth in the middle of one of Sam Poffenberger’s threshing machines.  As it blew apart the thresher, jagged shards of metal—that today is known as “shrapnel”—flew wildly through the midst of Gibbon’s men and when the smoke cleared, three men of the 6th Wisconsin were dead.  Like that first shell, they were a first this day – the first of thousands of Union casualties to fall before Rebel artillery.  Eleven more of Gibbon’s men were soon killed or wounded in this opening Confederate artillery barrage.

artillerybatteryfiringGeneral Abner Doubleday knew that because these guns were beyond the range of his infantry, his only hope to silence the enemy’s fire lay in using his own artillery.  Turning loose his own cannon, deployed on the slope between the North Woods and the Hagerstown Pike, Union artillery were now lobbing their own shells though the dim morning light.  It took the Union gunners a bit longer to find the range of their targets, though, and the first shells flew beyond the crest of Nicodemus Heights and missing their mark completely.  But for Lieutenant Colonel John T. Thornton, Resting along with his 3rd Virginia Cavalry in the rear of the hill, this fire was anything but a failure.  The very first Yankee round killed him before he knew he was under fire, making Colonel Thornton the first of the day’s Confederate victims of artillery fire.  [vi]

In response, artillery all over the field opened fire, some aiming at clear, threatening targets while others simply fired into the dark in the general direction of the enemy.  S.D. Lee’s batteries near the Dunker Church soon joined those commanded by Stuart on Nicodemus Heights and with the order to fire, Lee’s six batteries opened on the Yankees in the two woods in their front.  With the addition of fresh batteries brought in late the previous day, Lee now possessed a formidable line of firepower and all told, the Confederate artillery host before the Dunker Church comprised 21 guns.  Facing them on the western side of the Antietam was a Union artillery force that—for now—was equal in size, comprising 21 guns.  Soon, though, though, even more Union shells began raining onto the field, as if dropping from heaven.  The dozens of batteries lining the eastern bank of the Antietam had opened without any apparent reason other than to join their fire to the growing bombardment.  [vii]

But potentially the most important immediate impact of the Union shelling was a single round that killed no one.  Brigadier General John R. Jones would later recall that “[i]t 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, turning over command to Brigadier General Starke…”  Command of Jackson’s division—which was half of Stonewall Jackson’s two-division force holding the left of Lee’s line—now fell to a new commander just as the fight was getting underway, testing the strength and flexibility of Jackson’s command structure and the military ability of General Starke himself.  This much William Starke certainly knew as he was handed command; what he could not know was the effect this “promotion” would have on his very life.  [viii]


William Starke

Battle-tested Virginian William E. Starke would acquit himself well this day, leading Jackson’s division actively and skillfully in its fighting in the Cornfield.  In many respects, Starke’s calm, personal leadership of Jackson’s division was an important reason that Confederate defenders were able to stave off each thrust that General Hooker’s attacking Yankees threw at Lee’s left-most forces that September morning in the Cornfield.  He would do so at the cost of his life, however, for William Stake was mortally wounded during fighting in the Cornfield.  Thanks to the “stray Union shell” and his decision to relinquish command, General John R. Jones WOULD survive the Battle of Antietam.  But a cloud of suspicion was beginning to form around the general that wasn’t immediately apparent.

Although it also wasn’t immediately apparent, General J. R. Jones’ career had peaked and his star was descending.  When Major General William B. Taliaferro returned to the field shortly after the Battle of Antietam, having recovering from his Second Manassas wound, it was to take Jones’ place in command of Jackson’s division.  On the one hand this move might simply reflect the fact that Taliaferro outranked J.R., who in any case was simply returned to his previous position commanding the Second brigade.  Still, General Jones hadn’t been selected to replace one of several other division commanders wounded or killed at Antietam but rather was essentially “demoted.”  Did someone in the Confederate command chain know or suspect something was wrong with J. R. Jones?  [ix]

Now back with his old in command, J. R. Jones led his Second brigade as it deployed on the left of Jackson’s line south of Fredericksburg, preparing for the battle there on December 13th, 1862.  But when General Taliaferro pushed Jones’ brigade forward—not into the front line of fighting but rather into a supporting role in Jackson’s second line, albeit one that took them into the woods and closer to the battle—it was too much for General Jones.  When the movement drew random Union artillery fire—just as had his division’s presence in Antietam’s West Woods—General Jones was seen to be hiding behind trees.  He would continue this throughout the remainder of the fighting south of Fredericksburg.

An officer who witnessed General Jones hiding behind trees at Fredericksburg later quietly accused him of cowardice.  Perhaps knowing that General Jackson himself apparently favored his fellow VMI veteran, this officer refused to openly file charges but, at the same time, would not withdraw the accusation.   Here it would stand, a stain on J.R. Jones’ reputation but nothing more.

But the seed had been planted.  Now tongues within the Army of Northern Virginia began to wag, recalling his too-easy surrender of command to Starke at Antietam.  What was previously dismissed as rumor now looked like “something.”  Was this a pattern?

General Jones remained in command of the Second brigade as 1863 dawned and the spring campaign season opened.  As the army approached General Hooker’s Union position near Chancellorsville during late April and early May, Jones ably led his command into positon to join in Jacksons’ famous flanking attack on May 2nd.  But as Jones’ brigade moved to the attack along with other Confederate units north of the Orange Turnpike, General Jones was not with them.  Claiming he had an “ulcerated leg” that made him—once again—unfit for duty, Brigadier General John R. Jones relinquished command of the brigade to the 48th Virginia’s Colonel Thomas S. Garnett (who, like General Starke at Antietam, would be mortally wounded during the battle) and left his command as they went into battle.

J R Jones drawingWhatever it was, something had changed in John R. Jones during the course of the war and it was all too much for his superiors to bear.  His actions at Chancellorsville suggested that the rumors about his behavior at Antietam and Fredericksburg were true, and with his advocate Stonewall Jackson mortally wounded at Chancellorsville, J. R. Jones was removed from command and would never again lead troops. The handwriting was on the wall and in late May, 1863 John R. Jones resigned his Confederate commission, a move that one Richmond newspaper generously ascribed to “ill health.” [x]


With command of Jones’ Second brigade conveniently passing to recently-promoted Brigadier General John M. Jones—the two men are unrelated—John R. Jones disappeared from the combat history of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Still, he had one more part to play in Confederate history, though it was hardly a noble or proud role in the view of his contemporaries.

After leaving the army, former Brigadier General J. R. Jones traveled to Smithburg, Maryland, a small town in western Maryland only 18 miles from Sharpsburg.  There on July 4th, 1863, he was captured—that he was no longer a Confederate general and was at the time wearing civilian clothes apparently mattered not at all–and sent to prison.  John R. Jones would call several different Northern prisoner of war camps home over the next few years, remaining in captivity for the rest of the war.  Now branded as a coward, the general was an embarrassment to Confederate authorities who, in any case, had more pressing problems than to spend time and effort freeing a useless former general officer.  [xi]

Still languishing in prison at Fort Warren, Massachusetts in July 1865—four months after Lee’s surrender and the fall of Richmond—John Jones wrote directly to President Johnson and Senator Henry Wilson, pleading for his release. “I know that no evil could result to the United States by my immediate release,” he wrote, “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.”  On July 24, 1865, John Jones was finally released from prison.  [xii]

Just as he’d promised President Johnson in his letter, a now-reconstructed John R. Jones returned to his home in Harrisonburg, Virginia and adjusted quickly to post-war civilian life.  He became a successful businessman—selling farm implements and machinery—and served on the local school board, as well as on the vestry of his Episcopal church in Harrisonburg.  Jones also periodically used his personal funds to buy the machinery he sold for local farmers who couldn’t afford the latest new agricultural technology.  Even his wartime failures seemed to have been forgiven when he was invited to participate in gatherings of local Confederate veterans. But an even more unpardonable sin than cowardice in battle was to bring John R. Jones to ruin once again in the eyes of post-war Southern society. [xiii]

In 1873, Jones and his second wife, Sarah, hired an African American former slave to work in their home.  Malinda Rice provide to be an effective servant and housekeeper who seemed to have found herself a settled position in the Jones home.  Just how settled she had become was demonstrated in 1875 when Malinda gave birth to Mary Magdalene Rice and two years later when her son Willie Rice was born.  The father of these two children was John R. Jones—the relationship had prompted Sarah to divorce him on grounds of adultery, citing Malinda Rice by name in the court filing–who would father two more mixed race children with another African American servant who was hired after both Sarah and Malinda had passed away.  [xiv]


Mary Rice Hayes Allen

Mary Rice Hayes Allen, J. R. Jones and Malinda Rice’s daughter

But what apparently earned John R. Jones the opprobrium of Southern society wasn’t the fact of his divorce, his out-of-wedlock relationships, or his four mixed race children, but rather that he acknowledged them as his family and openly provided for their wellbeing.  John Jones not only taught his four mixed-race children to read and write—he had been a teacher early in life, after all—but he even provided for Mary, his oldest mixed-race daughter, to attend Hartshorn Memorial College in Richmond (then a school exclusively for African American women, today it’s known as Virginia Union University).  And when John R. Jones passed away, he left his entire remaining estate to his mixed-race sons. [xv]


Hartshorn College

Hartshorn Memorial College


J R Jones grave

Jones’ final resting place

General John R. Jones’ military reputation was salved a bit by time, but not so his neighbors’ reaction to Jones’ pride in his mixed race children.  Reflecting this dichotomy, after General Jones died on April 1st, 1901 at the age of 74, one Confederate veteran noted “General Jones is dead, and peace be to his ashes, for they were not very clean.  You would be well to drop his name from the list of Honorable men…  (H)e was relieved of his command for what reason I am not able to say…  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.”

General J. R. Jones certainly had been unable to face the horror of Antietam’s Cornfield and other of the war’s battles, but by embracing his children–regardless of their race–in the face of his neighbors’ hatred, John Jones demonstrated that perhaps he wasn’t such a coward, after all.



[i] Ezra J Warner, Jr. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders (Baton Rouge, LA,: Louisiana State University Press;  2006), p. 165.; Patricia L. Faust, Ed. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper Perennial, 1986), p. 403.; Stewart Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Confederacy, Vol. II (New York: Facts on File Press, 1988). p. 155.

[ii] Warner Jr., Generals in Gray, p. 165.; Faust, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, p. 403; Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Confederacy, Vol. II, p. 155.


[iv] Warner Jr., Generals in Gray, p. 165.; Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Confederacy, Vol. II, p. 155.

[v] Ezra A. Carman and Joseph Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign of 1862; Ezra A. Carman’s Definitive Study of the Union and Confederates at Antietam. (New York: Routledge Books, 2008), p. 201; Ezra A. Carman and Thomas G. Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II: Antietam (California: Savas Beatie, 2012), pp. 17-18.; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XIX, Part 2 (hereafter referred to as “OR”) (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887), Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 923; p. 955; p. 1009.

[vi] Rufus R. Dawes A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press), 1962.  p. 87.

[vii] Holding Lee’s right flank on the Mumma farm lane was the Ashland artillery (Woolfolk’s battery) of two Parrott guns, to their left was Brooks’ artillery (Rhett’s battery, under the command of Lieutenant William Elliot) with two Parrot guns, Parker’s battery and its two ordnance rifles, and a bit farther to their left was the Bedford artillery (Jordan’s battery) with a three inch ordnance rifle, a Parrott gun, and a 12 pound howitzer.  But the Confederate artillery line continued on across the Hagerstown Pike with Patterson’s battery B of the Sumter artillery and its six howitzers and, farther left in the field before the West Woods, Brockenbrough’s Baltimore battery of two ordnance rifles and one howitzer.  Well in front of the main Southern artillery line was Poague’s Rockbridge artillery with two Parrott guns and one Napoleon (though Poague soon swapped his two Parrot guns for two short range howitzers pulled from Raine’s nearby battery because he could see that the Union threat would come to him, eliminating the need for the Parrott gun’s longer range).  Doubleday’s entire artillery component—four batteries, comprised of 18 Napoleons and three 3 inch ordnance rifles—all fired on the Confederates on the I Corps’ right.

[viii] OR, Vol. XIX, I, p. 1008.

[ix] Warner Jr., Generals in Gray, p. 165.; Faust, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, p. 403; Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Confederacy, Vol. II, p. 155.

[x]Southern Illustrated News,” Richmond, January 16, 1864; Warner Jr., Generals in Gray, p. 165.; Faust, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, p. 403; Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Confederacy, Vol. II, p. 155.

[xi] Warner Jr., Generals in Gray, p. 165.; Faust, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, p. 403.

[xii] Warner Jr., Generals in Gray, p. 165.; Faust, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, p. 403.; Carrie Allen McCray Freedom’s Child: The Life of a Confederate General’s Black Daughter (New York: Workman Publishing, 1998), pp. 27-28.

[xiii] McCray Freedom’s Child, p. 29.

[xiv] McCray Freedom’s Child, p. 21.

[xv] McCray Freedom’s Child, p. 25.

[xvi] McCray Freedom’s Child, p. 25.

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