In the introduction to his biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, historian Bernard Bailyn briefly examines how distance from the historical event under analysis shapes the interpretation. According to Bailyn, early histories “that follow a great and controversial event are still a significant part of the event itself.” For the historian, “the outcome [of the event] is still in question,” writes Bailyn, and “emotions are still deeply engaged.” This emotional attachment to the event by historians “especially those involved in the event in question” leaves wide open issues relating to how the event will be explained, what aspects of it will be remembered, and which participants will be included and why. Throughout this early stage of historical interpretation assumptions and conclusions remain in flux. Only later is the historian able to see clearly from a more detached perspective where “earlier assumptions of relevance, partisan in their nature, seem crude, and fall away.” As I read these passages Bailyn is not suggesting that distance necessarily leads to philosophical objectivity, but that it tends to allow historians to attain a more detached perspective where they are able to ask more engaging perspectives that address multiple perspectives.
The historiography of the Civil War presents us with an interesting counterexample to Bailyn’s outline. On the one hand the historical profession has in the last few decades attained a kind of objectivity that has resulted in an outpouring of studies that have shed new light on old questions as well as a wide spectrum of new topics. While this scholarship has broadened our understanding of mid-nineteenth century America it has also revealed the fact that not everyone (perhaps not even most Civil War enthusiasts) have yet to move beyond the point where their “emotions are still deeply engaged.” Examples abound from the public display of the Confederate flag to questions about Lincoln’s civil liberties record to the divisive topics of slavery and race. I should say that I see nothing necessarily wrong with having one’s emotions engaged in the work of uncovering the past as long as it does not become an obstacle to the historical process. In the case of the Civil War and especially (though not exclusively) in reference to topics related to the antebellum South and Confederacy the emotional hold that the past exercises on many continues to result in materials that ultimately tell us more about our own values than much of anything having to do with history.
We see this very clearly in the documentary Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story, which was released last year by Franklin Springs Family Media. The video is produced and directed by Ken Carpenter and based on the book, Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend by Richard Williams, which offers an account of Jackson’s views on slavery and the history of his Sunday School class for slaves and free blacks in Lexington, Virginia. Williams is included as a talking head along with historians James I. Robertson and Col. Keith Gibson of VMI. As a broad overview of Jackson’s life from cradle to grave the documentary succeeds. I was very impressed with the footage of Jackson’s childhood stomping grounds as well as the discussion of the difficulties he faced throughout his early years owing to the death of his parents. While I don’t claim to understand Jackson I find him to be an incredibly sympathetic character and the documentary does a very good job of imparting the sadness of his early years. I also enjoyed the segments on Jackson’s private life, including the grief surrounding the loss of his first wife and unborn child and subsequent marriage to Mary Anna Jackson. Overall the documentary is visually stunning and I commend the production staff for the pace of the narrative as well as the choice of visual materials.
Unfortunately, the narrative attempts to cover too much given its running time of 50 minutes. While the video succeeds in terms of broad coverage when it comes to more specific subjects it is less than satisfying. The fundamental flaw is the lack of any attempt at providing context for Jackson’s life. Jackson is an island unto himself regardless of whether the focus is on his religious outlook or racial views. For example, in the context of his belief that slaves ought to be taught to read there is no discussion of how this assumption fits into Presbyterian doctrine or any broader religious context that might help the viewer better understand why Jackson believed this. Was this unusual in Lexington and in Rockbridge County? Instead we are treated to a confused explanation suggesting that while Jackson believed slavery to be wrong he believed God was responsible for it and was not justified in interfering; however, he did believe himself to be justified in improving the condition of slaves within the Lexington community. Need I point out the contradiction here? The producers perhaps would have had better luck if they had dispensed with the broad overview and instead focused specifically on Jackson’s relationship with his slaves as well as his racial views. More importantly, there is no discussion of how Jackson’s attitudes compared with other slave owners in Rockbridge County or the Shenandoah Valley. Perhaps they could have interviewed historian Fitzhugh Brundage who is the author of one of the finest studies of slavery in the county.
The problem emerges again when briefly discussing Jackson’s decision to resign from the U.S. Army and align himself with Virginia and the Confederacy. The talking heads make a conscious effort to remove any and all references to slavery when discussing Jackson’s decision here. Interestingly enough, a similarly narrow approach is typically taken when addressing Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign from the U.S. Army. According to Robertson, Jackson was “not fighting to preserve slavery.” He goes on to suggest that “there is no way he could fight to do that….I don’t think he was willing to do something so evil.” I’m not sure that a slave owner would have thought of that as “evil.” According to Robertson, Jackson was “fighting for his home state of Virginia” and a “way of life.” I guess we are supposed to forget that this way of life revolved around the ownership of slaves and the maintenance of a social and political hierarchy based on race. More to the point, such a statement ignores the wealth of new research which demonstrates the centrality of slavery to better understanding the alignment of white southerners during the secession period. The failure to provide a more sophisticated analysis of crucial aspects of Jackson’s life will no doubt lead some to characterize this documentary as a study in hagiography.
Unfortunately, the narrative loses all historical integrity when discussing Jackson’s relationship with his servant-slave Jim Lewis. Richard Williams admits that the “records are sketchy” and then goes on to suggest Lewis “was very loyal to Jackson” and that “they had a great relationship.” The evidence cited is indeed “sketchy” at best and includes the story of Lewis silencing men in camp so as to allow Jackson to pray in peace. There is no tangible evidence cited to suggest much of anything in terms of Jackson’s relationship with Lewis nor his slaves and free blacks back home who attended his Sunday School. To do so in a convincing way would involve citing contemporary evidence from those black individuals who interacted with Jackson. Of course, this is very difficult for anyone familiar with the historical record. What exactly are we saying when referencing concepts of loyalty and friendship in describing the master-slave relationship? The viewer is left to her own devices assuming one is inclined to ask questions.
The story closes with reflections by the talking heads on Jackson’s significance along with footage of the Broad Run Baptist Church which includes a beautiful stained glass window in memory of Jackson and paid for by one of his former Sunday School students. Once again the viewer is left to guess as to the significance of this act. This documentary is best understood as a celebration of Jackson’s life which is no doubt what those who purchase it will be looking for. That said, the celebration of Jackson’s life contained in Still Standing comes at the expense of any serious attempt to come to terms with what was, by any standards, an engrossing and historically significant life.