Gods and Generals: Some Final Thoughts

Yes, this will be my last post on Gods and Generals. I watched the closing segments of the movie with my students for the first time and it didn’t disappoint.  One of my students was a bit confused by the night scene in which Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men.  When I told her that this was in fact the case she responded simply: "That sucks!"  Indeed it does.  That tragedy of Jackson’s wounding comes through loud and clear in Lee’s more poignant plea that "Surely Jackson will recover."  And, of course, we get the old left arm right arm line.  No surprise that Maxwell decided to milk Jackson’s final moments with his Esposita and his personal black servant looking on right to the end.  I actually enjoyed that scene and thought it to be quite touching.

As I’ve pointed out before, this movie is really about Stonewall Jackson.  What I find troubling, however, is the illusion that no doubt many people are operating under which renders Jackson’s life intelligible.  I’ve read and even re-read Robertson’s biography, but for the life of me I really do not understand Jackson and I’m not sure I want to.  I find it difficult to interpret his own words which are consistently laced with what appears to me to be the ideas of a zealot.  Perhaps the perceived extremism of radical Islam provides a context for understanding Jackson’s language and behavior.  Is there really a significant difference here?  I think if they could most reasonable people would encourage radical Islamic terrorists to re-think some of their more "extreme" religious views that have led to the murder of innocent people.  It is interesting how we pick and choose between extreme religious attitudes that are tolerated and those that we consider to have fallen of the spectrum entirely.  Does Jackson ever question his beliefs about the meaning of the war or how it should be conducted?  Would Jackson have been justified to step back and re-examine his stand on Union prisoners of war? 

This seems to be another example of the unquestioning obedience that we love to celebrate in our Civil War.  It’s not that I have a problem with a movie that places religion at the forefront; religion did play an important role that may be difficult for many to identify with today.  What I have a problem with is the celebratory and unquestioning way in which most Civil War enthusiasts lap it up.  It’s another aspect of the implicit belief that our Civil War was unique.  It is much easier to offer an "objective" critique of Sunnis and Shiites compared with what had become a fairly hardened theological divide between North and South by 1860.  This divide should not simply be interpreted as tragic, but as a fundamental problem with religious doctrine. 

1 comment… add one

  • Cash May 9, 2006

    Kevin,

    As a former student of Prof. Robertson’s, Stonewall Jackson will always have a place in my heart. But you’re exactly right that he was a zealot. He was a man of single-minded purpose of total and complete obedience to authority, whether that authority was God or his superior officers.

    Jackson was not an introspective, intellectual, questioning man. Once he saw where he believed his duty lay, he didn’t question himself again.

    We think him strange today, and to read what was said and written about him in his time we’re not far off from the view of him by many of his contemporaries.

    You may find him difficult to understand because you’re looking for the complexity that exists in everyone else. Jackson simply didn’t have it. With Jackson what you see there is what you get, a man of fanatical devotion to God, first and foremost, and to what he saw as his duty who demanded that devotion from his subordinates, and a man who was also devoted to the love he had for his wife and daughter.

    Regards,
    Cash

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