Review of Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story

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.

8 responses... add one

The non-discussion of slavery I think has to do with projecting onto well known figures (Lee, Stonewall, etc) the fears and trepidations of one owns families involvement. It explains why organizations such as SCV and the UDC are so rife with people who refuse to believe slavery had anything to do with the civil war, and they insist on a personal level, that their ancestors had nothing to do with the slave trade. In fact, I have never met a member from any of those organizations that has stated any involvement with slaves or slavery, which either is a byproduct of the slave-owner exemptions, or reeks of a cover up.

Until people can deal with their own personal histories, I doubt we will see such honesty in the public sphere.

I don’t believe this is a fair characterization of all so-called heritage groups. I’ve met plenty of people who acknowledge the role of slavery in their family histories. Some try to brush it off in the way you suggest while others have tried to better understand it.

Lee and Jackson are good people, and slavery is bad, so Lee and Jackson were against slavery, that’s a given. How they were against slavery is another story, but they had to be.

Seems simple to me.

I like the photograph of the Crater by the way. What year was it taken?

Off the top of my head I believe the photo is dated 1905.

I don’t know how far that will get you. The bigger problem is that the documentary is based on a book that fails to provide a sophisticated analysis of race relations in antebellum Virginia and during the war. If you look at the bibliography of the book you won’t find much of anything in terms of recent secondary sources on the subject and as you know there is a wealth of material out there. Williams has described much of the scholarship that could have been used to enrich his study as “revisionist,” “PC” etc. It’s the type of comment that reflects very little understanding of the historical process and suggests that he hasn’t read much of any of it. It’s actually ashame because Jackson would probably make for an ideal case study on race relations and slaveholder attitudes in Rockingham County.

I’m just being flip as usual. The book is about a hero, not a actual person from history. Jackson isn’t going to be allowed spots, besides lovable eccentricities, let alone an Achilles’ heel running all the way to the top of his head.

There’s all kinds of books, and “Jackson, the black man’s best friend” isn’t going be a “case study on race relations and slaveholder attitudes.”

Our culture has a weird relationship with the major figures of the past. The desire to admire mixed with cynicism, the value of the men and women who fought the causes, and the value of the causes themselves. So many historic figures have the wrong, that is the prejudices of their time, not the admirable prejudices of ours.

I read recently that Alice Paul, the heroic(there’s that word again) crusader for women’s rights, espoused anti semitic and racist attitudes. Given her background and time in point in history, its unsurprising. Yet its not insignificant or irrelevant to history, since it shaped that stage of the women’s movement. Is Paul, with her intelligence, bravery, mixed with her racism, worthy of our admiration? Are her “flaws” excused by her admirable cause?

Of course, racial attitudes in a Confederate general are central to his cause. So should our attitude towards the men in gray similar to our attitude to the men in field gray? With Shakespeare, do we say: “In a false quarrel, there is no true valor.”

We don’t have National Battlefield parks, biographies, narratives,or histories only because of a desire to learn history. That’s not how or why they were preserved, paid for, maintained, brought, or read. It’s a search for a heroic, usable past.

Matt, — Thanks for the follow-up. I actually have Alice Paul on my mind as I am getting ready to teach Women’s History again next semester. I show Iron Jawed Angels to my class and then I ask them to compare it with other sources. While the movie does briefly allude to her racial attitudes it fails to fully explain those beliefs. No surprise and of course my goal in having my students find additional information is not necessarily to tear down a heroic figure, but to give them a chance to judge for themselves and to think about how history is presented in our culture.

It reminds me of the old maxim “No Gods, No Heroes”, something I always keep in mind when I read any history book. It also, to me anyways, stands in stark contrast to the other, more quoted saying of “Those who forget the lessons of the past, are doomed to repeat them”. I generally find this NOT to be the case, and in fact, generally feel that those who hold strongly to the past are often the ones so wrapped up in preserving a specific mindset, status quo, or ideology. Sometimes I wish we could just chuck the detritus.

You raise an interesting point as to extent it is possible to identify on an emotional level with the past and maintain the kind of detachment necessary to to do history. I don’t mind admitting that I have a great deal of respect for Frederick Douglass, but at the same time I don’t identify him in the way that many regard Lee, Jackson, and the others. And the main reason for this has to do with the lack of connection that would be necessary for me to form certain other-regarding attitudes. They remain curiosities.

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