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
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.