Why Can’t We Get Beyond an “Aloof” Stonewall Jackson?
Do we need another five hundered page biography of Stonewall Jackson? Sure, why not. And from what little I’ve read so far, S.C. Gwynne can certainly turn a phrase. That said, I was hoping for a more nuanced look at Jackson’s understanding of politics and specifically the politics of slavery on the eve of the war. Unfortunately, Gwynne provides a one-dimensional analysis that runs the risk of perpetuating a number of myths about the war.
After quickly going through the national debate over the expansion of slavery west and the major political milestones he offers the following:
Those were the reasons the politicians, the statesmen, the newspaper editors, the lawyers, and the intellectuals went to war, anyway. But they did not explain why the average soldier fought. they were not the reasons Virginians such as Jackson and his cadets would have given for wanting to fight Yankees. Jackson had remained generally aloof from national politics. As a slaveholder, he was aware of the congressional debate over slavery in the territories, but not deeply versed in it. He was like many ordinary Virginians of his day: a moderate state’-rights Democrat who favored keeping Washington’s nose out of Virginia’s business and working within the Union to resolve differences. He had no ideology; he was a Virginian. The cadets he taught, moreover–part of that great mass of young men who would do most of the war’s fighting–would have had little understanding of the freakish complexity of the Compromise of 1850, for example, which attempted to settle the question of slavery in what was essentially the entire American Southwest, plus California. Most would have been unable to parse the meaning of “states rights” in the federal Constitution, or fully grasp the reasons for the disastrous splintering of the Democratic Party in 1860…. Virginians were not stupid; they just had more provincial and personal views of the world than the men who rode to battle in the halls of Congress. (p. 22)
How “deeply versed” in the defining political issue of the day do you have to be to arrive at a position one way or the other? I suspect that the majority of Americans would have difficulty explaining legislation on the state/national level and court rulings on the issue of Gay Marriage, but that in no way prevents people from embracing a position and even acting on it. I am not suggesting that Jackson, along with his men, marched off from Lexington, Va. in the spring of 1861 with one and only one thing on their mind. That would be a serious oversimplification, but as Peter Carmichael has shown Virginia students, who came of age during the mid- to late-1850s, remained some of the most committed Confederates, even late into the war. They were well versed in politics and the other issues of the day.
Following his description of John’s Brown raid, its impact on the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia’s vote to secede, Gwynne writes:
If the cadets who marched to Richmond with Thomas Jackson four days later had been asked why they were doing it, few would have replied that it was because of their convictions about slavery, or their beliefs about state sovereignty or any of the other great national questions that had been debated for so long. They would have told you then–as most of Stonewall Jackson’s soldiers in the army of the Confederate States of America would have told you later–that they were fighting to repel the invaders, to drive the Northern aggressors from their homeland. That was why Virginia went to war. The great and complicated political reasons for secession, thundered about in Congress and in the state legislatures, were not their reasons, which were more like those expressed by a captive Confederate soldier, who was not a slaveholder, to his puzzled Union captors. “I’m fighting because you’re down here,” he said. To Jackson, Lincoln had launched a war of aggression against sovereign states. That was why he fought, why he believed that God could not possibly be on the side of the aggressor. The Northern response to John Brown’s raid had proven beyond a doubt the North’s malign intent. Now, finally, soldiers were coming. (pp. 30-31)
First, this excerpt completely ignores the last twenty years of really good scholarship on Civil War soldiers. Politics and slavery were very much on the minds of Northerners and Southerners at the beginning and remained so throughout the war. It also completely brushes over the extent to which the issue of slavery shaped Virginia’s secession convention meetings leading up to its decision to secede in mid-April. Finally, as William Freehling has demonstrated, it ignores the divisive debate over slavery between the eastern and western counties in Virginia. Was Jackson really “aloof” from all of this? Again, I am not suggesting a reductionist interpretation as an alternative.
What concerns me is the ease with which Gwynne brushes all of this under the table. It’s not that we are left with an “aloof” Jackson, but an entire Confederate army. Such an interpretation is highly misleading and feeds into any number of myths about the Civil War.