The Fundamentalists’ Civil War

Civil War Culture

I was browsing through the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine when I came across Jeff Sharlett’s essay, "Through A Glass Darkly: How the Christian Right is Reimagining U.S. History" (December 2006).  Sharlett includes a brief reference to Stonewall Jackson’s place in fundamentalist history:

In the pantheon of fundamentalist history, the man revered above all others
is General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy, perhaps the most brilliant
military commander in American history and certainly the most pious. “United
States History for Christian Schools”  devotes more space to Jackson, "Soldier
of the Cross," and the revivals he led among his troops in the midst of the
Civil War, than to either Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant; “Practical
Homeschooling” magazine offers instructions for making Stonewall costumes out of
gray sweatsuits with schooling "fun day." The Vision Forum catalogue offers for
men a military biography and for the ladies a collection of Jackson’s letters to
his wife; both books extol his strategic and romantic achievements as
corollaries to his unparalleled love of God.

Fundamentalists even celebrate the Confederate hero as an early civil rights
visionary, dedicated to teaching slaves to read so that they could learn their
Bible lessons. For fundamentalist admirers, that is enough; this fall saw the
publication of “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend,” by Richard G.
Williams, a regular contributor to the conservative Washington Times. Jackson
fought not to defend slavery, argues another biographer, but for religious
freedom; he believed the North had usurped the moral jurisdiction of God. "The
North seemed to be striving to alter basic American structures,” writes James I.
Robertson Jr. "Such activity flew in the face of God’s preordained notion of
what America should be."

Jackson’s popularity with fundamentalists represents the triumph of the
Christian history that Rousas John Rushdoony dreamed of when he discovered,
during the early 1960s, the forgotten works of the theologian Robert Lewis
Dabney. including “Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson
(Stonewall Jackson).  Dabney had served under Jackson, but more important he was
a theologian in the tradition of John Calvin – that is, he believed deeply in a
God who worked through chosen individuals – and he wrote the general’s life in
biblical terms. Rushdoony imagined the story as transcending its Confederate
origins, and so helped make it a founding text of the nascent homeschooling
movement.

In 2003, Vision Forum sponsored a national essay contest and awarded first
prize to a pretty,  freckle-faced young woman named Amanda Freeborn for her
essay, "How Stonewall Jack- son Demonstrated a Biblical Vision of Manhood."
"There is a name," writes Freeborn, “that casts upon the screen of our
imaginations the image of the personification of godly manhood.  That name is
Stonewall Jackson… His life was a testimony to the world of what God can do
through a man consecrated to his purposes…

…Civil War buffs study his military maneuvers and wonder whether, had he
not been mistaken for a Yankee and shot by his own men in 1863, he might have
outflanked the Union Army and fought the North to a standstill. But Freeborn
chooses as case study not a Civil War battle but his first victory as a lowly
lieutenant out of West Point. Sent to the Mexican War, he defied an order to
retreat, fought the Mexican cavalry alone with one artillery piece, won, and was
promoted, later commended by General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S.
forces, for "the way in which [he] slaughtered those poor Mexicans."

Many of the poor Mexicans Jackson slaughtered were civilians.  After his
small victory had helped clear the way for the American advance, Jackson
received orders to turn his guns on Mexico City residents attempting to flee the
oncoming U.S. army. He did so without hesitation – mowing them down as they
sought to surrender.

What are we to make of this murder? Secular historians attribute this
atrocity to Jackson’s military discipline – he simply obeyed orders. But
fundamentalists see in that discipline, that willingness to kill innocents,
confirmation of Romans 13:1; "For there is no power but of God: the powers that
be are ordained of God." Obeying one’s superiors, according to this logic, is an
act of devotion to the God above them.

But wait – fundamentalists also praise the heroism that resulted from his
defiance of orders to retreat, his rout of the Mexican cavalry so miraculous –
it’s said that a cannonball bounced between his legs as he stood fast – that it
seems to fundamentalist biographers proof that he was anointed by God.  Is this
hypocrisy on the part of his fans?  Not exactly.

Key men always obey orders, but they follow the command of the highest
authority. Jackson’s    amazing victory is taken as evidence that God was with
him – that God overrode the orders of his earthly commanders. And yet the
civilian dead that resulted from Jackson’s subsequent obedience of those very
same earthly commanders are  also signs of God’s guiding hand. The providential
God sees everything; that such a tragedy was allowed to occur must be evidence
of a greater plan. One of fundamentalist history’s favorite proofs comes not
from Scripture itself but from Ben Franklin’s paraphrase at the Constitutional
Convention: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is
it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”   

To put it in political terms, the contradictory legend of Stonewall Jackson –
rebellion and reverence, rage and order – results in the synthesis of
self-destructive patriotism embraced by contemporary fundamentalism.

I’m not sure I agree with lumping James I. Robertson in with the rest of the gang.  His enthusiasm for the movie Gods and Generals leaves something to be desired.  And I know that some people believe that his more recent scholarship betrays a disturbing sympathy with Lost Cause ideology; for example see Alan Nolan’s review of Robertson’s Jackson biography in the Washington Times [reprinted in "Rally Once Again!": Selected Civil War Writings of Alan T. Nolan, pp. 269-72].  I am not a huge fan of Nolan’s work, but I cite it simply as an example. 

Interpreting history in a way that merely confirms a religious worldview is not to do history at all.  I should point out that I get just as frustrated when secularists attempt to generalize about the Founding Fathers – the typical point being that they were all deists or admirers of Locke, Hutcheson and the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment.   They do this to counter the fundamentalist interpretation that God worked through these men during the founding period.  Both positions betray an unwillingness to admit of a complexity that defines many of our important historical figures. 

In my most honest moments I can easily admit to myself that I am still learning how to research the past.  One of the most difficult challenges in conducting research is in placing prior assumptions in check.  And this is a challenge that both seasoned scholars and novices must continually face.  I like to think that I am beyond the naive epistemology of the "noble dream" of objectivity; however, that does not mean that we cannot strive to get the story right.  In doing so we would do well to remember that the story to be told is not our story.

22 comments… add one

  • Justin Felux Dec 17, 2006

    As an atheist I often hear my fellow travelers say that the Founders were deists, and that Abraham Lincoln was an atheist, no less. They should probably read some of his speeches.

  • Justin Felux Dec 17, 2006

    Kevin,

    Since you mentioned the movie _Gods and Generals_, I decided to search your blog for other times you’ve mentioned the movie. I was glad to find someone who hated that movie as much as I did.

    I think it’s amazing that _Gettysburg_ was made by the same people who made _Gods and Generals_. I think Gettysburg was a great movie.

    So I decided to learn something about Ron Maxwell, and I found out that he wrote an insane nativist rant on the right-wing World Net Daily website, in which he talks about how the Southwest United States will soon be annexed by the “socialist radicals” in Latin America.

    Check it out if you haven’t seen it:

    http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=50138

    It’s pretty disturbing that racists like Maxwell and Shelby Foote are accorded so much respect in the Civil War community.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 17, 2006

    Justin, — I am not a fan of either movie. Gettysburg is much to sappy and I could never get beyond Beringer’s beard and the overweight reenactors. Thanks for the Maxwell reference. I commented on it a few months back. It is simply hilarious.

    Lincoln’s religious worldview is dangerous territory. I recommend Allen Guelzo’s _Redeemer President_ as a place to start.

  • Justin Felux Dec 17, 2006

    The overweight reenactors are somewhat amusing (especially in that scene where they are crowding around cheering Lee). Who knows, maybe there were a few fat people in the Army of Northern Virginia. Maybe some of them just had really bad metabolism.

    I liked _Gettysburg_ because it was mostly free of Lost Cause nonsense. The poverty of the Confederate cause is illustrated by the contrast between Chamberlain’s eloquent speechifying against slavery and that Confederate prisoner’s statement that he and his fellow southerners are fighting for their “rats” (rights).

    Probably what I liked most was its positive portrayal of Longstreet — wasn’t it about time “Old Pete” got a fair showing to the American public (despite the beard)? The other day I read a really terrible piece of character assassination by Robert K. Krick against General Longstreet that I don’t believe was published very long ago.

    _Gettysburg_ was a good thing insofar as it undermined many of these pernicious myths.

  • BorderRuffian Dec 17, 2006

    I preferred Gods and Generals. It had very little of that self-righteous Yankee crap that was in Gettysburg.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 17, 2006

    I much prefer the Confederate “crap” in G&Gs.

  • Cash Dec 17, 2006

    Kevin,

    I read that review Mr. Nolan wrote, and I have to tell you it is one of the worst I’ve ever read. Prof. Robertson is not a Lost Causer, and Nolan’s review was not only rude but also inaccurate.

    It’s true Prof. Robertson thinks very highly of Jackson, and he also admires Jackson’s devotion to Christianity. However, the impression I got from reading that review was that Nolan appeared to think if someone wasn’t criticizing Jackson as some sort of spawn of Satan, let alone writing a positive biography of the man, then Nolan thought that person was a Lost Causer.

    A Lost Causer would not hold Prof. Robertson’s view that slavery was the major underlying cause of the war. A Lost Causer would not hold Lincoln in the esteem Prof. Robertson holds Lincoln.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Justin Felux Dec 18, 2006

    Cash, where did you find that review? I searched but couldn’t find it.

    I’m surprised to see so much anti-Nolanism on this blog. I think his work is fantastic.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 18, 2006

    Cash, — I tend to agree with you that it one of the worst book reviews ever.

    Justin, — You won’t find it on the internet, but it is in an edited collection of his writings which is mentioned in the post. I have mixed feelings about Nolan’s work. On the one hand I admire his study of the Iron Brigade, but his work on Lee reads more like a lawyer’s brief rather than a work of history. He completely misses the point about Lee’s generalship.

  • John Smith Dec 18, 2006

    I believe most would consider Robertson the Dean of Civil War historians. I would compare your criticisms of Robertson to a JV basketball coach criticizing Michael Jordan. When you are as accomplished as he is, your criticisms might have merit.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 18, 2006

    Thanks for the encouragement John.

  • John Smith Dec 18, 2006

    It was my pleasure.

  • Cash Dec 18, 2006

    Justin,

    I read the review when it was first published in the Times on their Civil War page. I’m not really anti-Nolan. I think he did some pretty good work, which is why that review was such a disappointment. I agree with Kevin about his Lee book, but Nolan did bring out some points to think about, and his review of the chronology surrounding Lee’s resignation is very useful.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Kevin Levin Dec 18, 2006

    Just to follow up with the points made by Cash, which I agree with. I think Nolan’s background as a lawyer surfaces in a dangerous way. The book reads as if he’s got Lee up on the stand already pronounced guilty. I know I read that somewhere in a review so please don’t accuse me of plagiarism :). That said, the section on Lee’s decision to secede is quite good and well worth looking at; in addition, he says some interesting things about Lee as a slaveholder. We want to believe two things about Lee: First, he seceded with great reluctance and he hated slavery. Well, I guess if we ignore most recent scholarship on Lee we can believe that.

  • John Smith Dec 18, 2006

    Yes, Lee was very reluctant to secede and he hated slavery. Many modern “scholars” are reluctant to praise their moral superiors and that is why they hate Lee – he is morally superior.

  • Cash Dec 18, 2006

    Lee didn’t hate slavery. He was a slaveholder himself, having inherited slaves from his mother. As late as January of 1865 he wrote that he regarded the slave/master relationship as the best that could exist between blacks and whites while intermingled. The letter is in the O.R.

    And Lee wasn’t all that reluctant to secede. He had made his mind up while still in Texas that as soon as Virginia seceded he was going with her. That is all detailed in Vol. 1 of Freeman’s biography of Lee.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • John Smith Dec 18, 2006

    That’s incorrect. He inherited slaves from his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, not from his mother. And Lee freed them as soon as he could based on the instructions in his father-in-law’s will. Yes, he was more loyal to Virginia and his family than he was to a government. Some would find that commendable. There’s a lot more in Freeman’s biography that you are apparently overlooking.

  • Cash Dec 18, 2006

    Mr. Smith,

    Lee never inherited slaves from his father-in-law. He was the executor of his father-in-law’s will. Lee’s sole inheritance from his father-in-law was some property in Washington, DC.

    Lee owned about a half dozen slaves of his own he inherited from his mother. See Emory Thomas’ biography of Lee for more details of Anne Carter Lee’s will and the disposition of her slaves. Some were sold and the rest were split among Lee and his brothers. He rented one of his slaves, Billy Gardner, to his cousin, Hill Carter. The receipts for the rental payments are in the Shirley Plantation Papers. Lee’s will filed in Rockbridge County lists a slave woman and her children as his property. This was drawn up prior to GWP Custis’ death. The reference to the will and the date it was drawn up can be found in Vol 1 of Freeman’s biography of Lee.

    Perhaps you should go back and review Freeman.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • John Smith Dec 18, 2006

    I stand corrected. Thank you for the clarification. I should have reviewed the facts more carefully before responding. However, since you mention Thomas’ biography of Lee, allow me to quote from his work:

    “In holding these beliefs [about slavery] Lee was much in step with most Americans, and his abhorrence to slavery in the abstract probably placed Lee among more enlightened Americans.” (p. 173)

    Abhor – to loathe, to detest, i.e. to “hate” – which brings me back to my original disagreement. Lee hated slavery, despite his involvement, as did many 19th century Americans.

    By the way, this was posted once and “mysteriously disappeared”, as has a previoius post of mine. I dont’ know whether this is a “glitch” or an intentional purging of my posts for some reason. If it happens again, I’ll email you directly.

  • Cash Dec 18, 2006

    Mr. Smith,

    Thomas was, of course, referring to Lee’s famous 1856 letter to his wife in which he called slavery a “moral and political evil.” He could claim to abhor it in the abstract, nonreal world of discourse; however, when it came to the concrete world of real actions he hardly abhorred what he practiced and what he said very clearly was the “best relationship” that could exist between blacks and whites while intermingled in the same country.

    In other words, he found it convenient, in 1856, to claim slavery an evil, as it had been fashionable among the upperclass Virginians to do so. But when push came to shove he still participated in the system and he still, 9 years later, regarded it as the “best relationship” between blacks and whites.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • John Smith Dec 19, 2006

    We will agree to disagree. It was a complicated relationship. Evil, for certain. But one in which whites felt they were trapped; trapped by their own ancestors’ doing, of course, but nonetheless trapped. Northerners had already built their industrial economy on the capital earned via the slave trade and did not have the same economic interest in slavery by the mid 19th century. It was convenient for them to condemn Southerners since they could do so from the security of an economy built upon the backs of slaves sold to Southerners. I maintain that Lee, like Jefferson and many other Virginians, hated the institution and would have preferred it “go away.” Accusing Lee of doing what was “fashionable” reveals, I believe, a lack of understanding of the man’s true character. If reputation and “fashion” were his concerns, he would have chosen to ride to victory at Lincoln’s offer rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. Lee was first, a man of principle, not fashion.

    Best Wishes and Merry Christsmas.

    JS

  • Cash Dec 19, 2006

    Mr. Smith,

    I thank you for your perspective.

    I fail to see how slaveowners were trapped when the majority of them were defending slavery as a positive good.

    What we see in Lee and Jefferson is what I like to term the FFV Hypocrisy. They liked to talk about how slavery was an evil, yet they were very active participants in that evil. Of the first five presidents, four were Virginians, and all four of those were slaveholders. They all spoke against slavery, but only one, Washington, ever did anything about it, providing for the emancipation of his own slaves in his will, but restricting that emancipation to after the death of his wife. Henry Wiencek’s book, _An Imperfect God,_ is an excellent account of Washington’s evolution in thinking about slavery and in how he emancipated his slaves. Washington’s example was the exception rather than the rule. GWP Custis followed that example, but very few of the upper caste Virginians did, preferring to talk about how slavery was bad instead of actually doing something about it.

    Actions do speak louder than words.

    Regards,
    Cash

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