Stonewall Jackson

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

There must somewhere be a comment about Stonewall Jackson that James Robertson missed. If so, it is buried in some totally obscure manuscript. If ever a book about Jackson were to be considered definitive, this is it.

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had been a preeminent Confederate hero from the moment his Valley campaign (spring, 1862) revived the hopes of Southern patriots who were reeling from a series of Union victories. His death a year later after the Battle of Chancellorsville, where he was shot accidentally by Southern sentries, was considered by contemporaries to be the most severe blow ever dealt the Confederacy; and they later chose to believe that the “Lost Cause” might have been saved had “Stonewall” lived. Such a pivotal figure could not be ignored by historians, who eagerly seized upon his oddities of behavior and quirks of personality to create the “Tom Fool” Jackson legend, the man who rode around with one arm in the air, sucking on lemons, a religious fanatic who combined God and war to become the scourge of Lincoln’s generals.

Robertson makes great effort to revise this legend. He succeeds only partially. In truth, Jackson was an oddity. He was taciturn to a fault, repeatedly putting his forces into difficult situations that could have been avoided by telling his subordinates something, anything, about his intentions. Such revelations were not possible, however, because Jackson expected obedience in the same blind manner that he himself gave it (to the harm of his cause, especially at Seven Days). He honored the Sabbath so punctiliously that he would do nothing on the seventh day except fight, and he took no personal credit for any success—every victory was the Lord’s. This belief in God having a design for each human being freed him from all concern for personal danger and from any fear that he was driving his men too hard or asking too much of them. His poor health led him to exercise regularly and to adopt a diet of bread, buttermilk, and fresh fruit (hence the lemon legend); his love of stimulants (even coffee) caused him to avoid them as much as possible.

Much about Jackson’s personality is explained by his being orphaned in childhood, the rest by his physical weakness. His full height was just short of six feet, but he was so debilitated throughout his youth that he considered reaching 166 pounds a great achievement. He was slow in thought, slower in speech. Everything he learned came through concentrating every power, and he was inarticulate in explaining what he had mastered except to repeat it exactly; hence, he learned to rely solely on repetition and memorization. This was not a trait likely to be compatible with success in society—Jackson’s lack of the social graces was almost legendary—but it goes far to explain his methodical approach to combat. Jackson believed in a completely ordered and disciplined life, and he found a justification for this belief in his Presbyterian God, a deity who knew what He was doing and what He expected of true Christians.

Jackson, however, is not to be so easily pigeonholed. Photographs reveal a handsome soldier, private letters indicate a playful and passionate husband, and anecdotes show a caring and compassionate man. As a young man, Jackson taught a slave how to read, although that was against the law (and the slave promptly used his new talent to escape). While he was a faculty member at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Jackson established a Sunday school for poor whites and slaves, although that was technically against the law. He quickly learned that when he was not present to lead services and instruction, attendance declined from one hundred to far fewer, and his first act after the victory at the First Battle of Manassas was to write a brief note to the church at Lexington, Virginia, enclosing his check for support of the school (which came as a great disappointment to the congregation that anticipated a blow-by-blow account of the battle). He loved Mexico and for a while contemplated settling there. His dream of marrying some local young woman faded under deeper study of the reality of religious life there and the unstable political situation, but he came to love the Spanish language, which he spoke fluently for the rest of his life. Although he never spoke for or against slavery as an institution, he saw it and state’s rights as part of an inscrutable divine plan that only heretics would try to change; his model society was one in which rulers took the responsibility for governing according to Biblical rules, and the model slaveholder who treated his servants fairly and humanely fit Jackson’s views much better than the radicals in the North who were challenging every tradition that the state and family represented.

Jackson was a hero...

(The entire section is 1959 words.)