Brig. Gen. William Edmonson “Grumble” Jones

Brig. Gen. William Edmonson “Grumble” Jones

Grumble Jones had earned his nickname—he was irascible and prone to complaining. However, the Confederate cavalry chieftain, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart respected him. Although he greatly disliked Grumble Jones, Stuart nevertheless called him “the best outpost officer in the army.” Stuart also praised Jones’ “marked courage and determination”, indicating a grudging respect for Jones’ abilities. At the same time, however, when Jones was promoted to brigade command in October 1862, Stuart resisted the promotion, writing to his wife Flora, “…I hope he will be assigned to the Infantry, I don’t want him in the Cavalry, and have made a formal statement to that effect.” Returning Stuart’s disdain, Jones referred to Stuart as “that young whippersnapper.”

William Edmonson Jones was born on the Middle Fork of the Holston River in Washington County, Virginia on May 9, 1824. After graduating from Emory and Henry College in Virginia in 1844, Jones matriculated at West Point. Graduating twelfth out of forty-eight in the Class 1848 (which included John Buford), Jones spent his entire career in the Regular Army in the mounted arm, serving on the frontier in the Regiment of Mounted Rifles until his resignation in 1857. He spent much of his career in the Mounted Rifles fighting Indians and serving garrison duty in the Pacific Northwest. After leaving the Army, he spent the next several years as a reclusive farmer, living a lonely and bitter life. He had not always been so short-tempered. His young wife was washed from his arms in a shipwreck shortly after their marriage, and Jones never recovered from her loss. He grew “embittered, complaining and suspicious” as a result, quarreling with his fellow officers frequently. Eschewing the flamboyant style of dress and the exaggerated mannerisms adopted by Stuart, he was a plain dresser with a legendary talent for profanity. Jones was an extremely strict disciplinarian whose men respected but did not love him. While not a likeable man, Grumble Jones was definitely a fighter. His fellow cavalry general, Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, wrote that Jones “ was an old army officer, brave as a lion and had seen much service, and was known as a hard fighter. He was a man, however, of high temper, morose and fretful…He held the fighting qualities of the enemy in great contempt, and never would admit the possibility of defeat where the odds against him were not much over two to one.”

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jones formed a cavalry company, and was elected its captain, serving under J.E.B. Stuart in the First Manassas Campaign. He became colonel of the 1st and later the 7th Virginia Cavalry and was promoted to brigadier general on September 19, 1862. Shortly thereafter, Jones assumed command of the veteran cavalry brigade formerly commanded by the legendary Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby, one of the best brigades of cavalry in either army. Ashby, a gifted horseman and leader, was the first commander of the 7th Virginia. Promoted to command of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s cavalry during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Ashby performed well during the Campaign until he was killed in action in June 1862. In his short tenure as a commander, Ashby left his mark on his brigade. Proud and dashing, Ashby embodied the attitude of the beau sabreur. The brigade Jones inherited consisted entirely of Virginians, the 6th, 7th, 11th, and 12th Virginia Cavalry Regiments and the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, all veteran troopers accustomed to hard marching and hard fighting.

Jones’ men did splendidly at Brandy Station, where, badly outnumbered by the division of his West Point classmate John Buford, they held their own in a day of intense fighting. As the Gettysburg Campaign commenced, Jones’ men held the critical gaps in the mountain ranges on either side of the Shenandoah Valley on the march north, and screened the Army of Northern Virginia’s rear guard during the advance into Pennsylvania. As the three-day-long battle began at Gettysburg, Jones’ brigade crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland, and camped near Greencastle, Pennsylvania. Two units of the brigade were left behind as the rest of the brigade advanced north. The 12th Virginia remained in the lower Valley to watch the Federal troops garrisoned at Harper’s Ferry, and the 35th Battalion was temporarily attached to the Confederate cavalry brigade of Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins in the Confederate advance to the Susquehanna River. The balance of Jones’ troopers remained behind the Confederate lines, guarding the trains during the first two days of the battle.

On July 3, Jones’ Brigade fought a vicious battle with the 6th U.S. Cavalry at Fairfield, Pennsylvania. They then fought the Regulars again at Funkstown a few days later. When the retreat ended, Jones’ men had a brief respite they then had a sharp fight with Buford again at Second Brandy Station on August 1, 1863, and again on October 10, 1863 in Third Brandy Station. That fall, Jones and Stuart had a final falling out, and Jones was court-martialed for insulting Stuart. Robert E. Lee intervened, and Jones was transferred to the western part of Virginia.

There, he cobbled together a brigade of cavalry and campaigned in eastern Tennessee during the winter and spring of 1864. In the summer of 1864, Jones assumed command of the Confederate forces in the Upper Shenandoah Valley, and, while personally leading a charge at the Battle of Piedmont on June 5, 1864, he was killed in action, a fitting end for a fighting general. by Eric Wittenberg