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.

18 comments… add one
  • James Harrigan Oct 8, 2014

    Hard to believe that hooey like this is still being written and published in 2014. I guess there is a market for this, but not among readers who want something more than myth.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 8, 2014

      I am certainly still willing to give this book a chance, but I was really hoping for something different on this particular issue.

    • tmheaney Oct 8, 2014

      Yes, and as I discovered yesterday, that market is at Costco on the book pile next to “Killing Patton.”

      • Kevin Levin Oct 8, 2014

        Perhaps we could move this thread in a positive direction.

        Am I onto something when I suggest that we still have difficulty thinking about Jackson’s politics and views on slavery? If so, why is that?

  • citycivics Oct 8, 2014

    As to the “Why” in the minds of the musket-toters, I ofter suggest considering considering the same question as applied to the many young people who enlisted in the U.S, military for the Iraq invasion… or many another war.

    • freedmenspatrol Oct 8, 2014

      There are certainly commonalities, but I think there’s a risk of losing important nuances if the specific questions of why them and why this war are reduced down to the generic answers one has for every set of young people in every war. At the very least, young men from Virginia had a very unusual decision in front of them if they wanted to go to war for all the usual reasons come 1861. A Virginia boy who wanted to prove his manhood and have a great big adventure could have signed up with the US Army too. Opting one way or the other then is a very different decision from, say, deciding whether to fight for Mexico or the US during the Mexican War.

  • Al Mackey Oct 8, 2014

    That passage convinces me the book would be a waste of my money. Many VMI cadets came from upper class families and understood the politics of the time as well as the threat to slavery. His use of the Shelby Foote anecdote from the Ken Burns series is an indicator of some shallow research to me. He doesn’t have a good understanding of why Virginia went to war, either.

  • Donald R. Shaffer Oct 8, 2014

    Books like this find a publisher because there is a market for them and other Civil War worthies. Unlike most other Confederate leaders, I have a small soft spot for Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson because he is a blood relative on my mother’s side (he was a first cousin of a maternal ancestor), but definitely it is time to put “Cousin Stonewall,” as my mother calls him, aside for a time to develop different and worthwhile perspectives on him. But as long as publishers have fixed costs they need to cover, I suspect we’ll continue to see more books like this. The best thing to do is try to ignore them whenever possible.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 8, 2014

      I am not suggesting that we dismiss this book in its entirety. I have barely cracked it. Yes, I am disappointed about this particular analysis, but this is a big book and may still yield some interesting insights about a whole host of other topics.

  • M.D. Blough Oct 8, 2014

    I think the idea of an uninformed and uninterested populace really isn’t borne out by the evidence. In an era before the movies, radio, and TV, politics WAS the entertainment of the time. Look at the massive roadshow that was the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Many people cared and cared passionately. The amount of dispassionate information available to any but the very determined, particularly in the South, was questionable. Newspapers were expected to be, and generally were, vehemently partisan and, in the South, any attempts for a newspaper to be less than a cheerleader for slavery had pretty much been driven out. As the secession winter of 1860-1861 played out, there was a huge market for pamphlets on the subject. I’d recommend Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861 (Civil War America) September 9, 1996 by Jon L. Wakelyn (Editor) http://www.amazon.com/Southern-Pamphlets-Secession-November-1860-April/dp/0807822787

    • Kevin Levin Oct 8, 2014

      For the Shenandoah Valley specifically it wouldn’t take much more than spending some time at the Valley of the Shadow website. I would love to know what Robert Moore thinks.

  • chancery Oct 8, 2014

    The notion that a slaveholder (Jackson) and young men from prosperous families would be indifferent to the survival of the slave system strikes me as something that doesn’t pass the straight face test.

    Also, Gwynne wrote that “[t]he Northern response to John Brown’s raid had proven beyond a doubt the North’s malign intent.”

    Does he explain what he means by the North’s “malign intent”?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 8, 2014

      I assume what he means is that many white Southerners assumed that the majority of Northerners approved of Brown’s tactics to incite a general slave insurrection.

  • chancery Oct 8, 2014

    Yeah, that’s reasonable. But my question really is the identity of the person making this assertion. If he’s ascribing it to Jackson, he’s not offered any evidence (unless, of course, it’s discussed elsewhere in the book). That’s bad enough.

    The alternative is that it’s an editorial comment by the author himself (this is how I first read it, but while the attribution issue isn’t so clear, Gwynne certainly does nothing to deprecate the correctness of this view). If that’s what is intended, it certainly makes the book eligible for a variation of an ancient “New Yorker” newsbreak tagline: “Books we never finished reading.”

  • Mary Burgher Oct 8, 2014

    slaveholder = deeply versed. How could any slaveholder not know what the issues were?

  • London John Oct 9, 2014

    “He had no ideology; he was a Virginian”. So were Winfield Scott and George Thomas; and so, in 1861, were the people of what became West Virginia. Surely every white southern Union volunteer gives the lie to the story of Confederates fighting out of simple loyalty to their states? Plus those who just weren’t going to fight for the interests of the slave-owners if they could help it.
    I suppose in principle it would have been possible to consider slavery not worth fighting for, and secession a mistake, and yet believe that the people of the state had the right to secede if they wanted to, and to fight for that right when it was denied; but has any individual with that particular motive been identified?
    I suppose in princi

    • James Harrigan Oct 9, 2014

      I suppose in principle it would have been possible to consider slavery not worth fighting for, and secession a mistake, and yet believe that the people of the state had the right to secede if they wanted to, and to fight for that right when it was denied; but has any individual with that particular motive been identified?
      John, I don’t think this is implausible at all. I think a reasonable case can be made that this was true for Lee, and maybe Jackson too. Many Virginians who were opposed to secession ended up fighting in the Confederate army (Ed Ayers’ book In The Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 is very good on this question). But that is very different from the (absurd) claim that Jackson had no political opinions at all, or that he was indifferent to the fate of slavery.

  • Bob Huddleston Oct 9, 2014

    I also found a stack at Costco.
    What does it have to say about Jackson’s sister Laura? Robertson’s last mention is a letter he wrote to her on the eve of Sumter and then she disappears. Robertson makes no attempt to contrast Steonwall’s fervent rebellion with Laura’s equally fervent Unionism.

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