Tag Archives: Stonewall Jackson

Taking Stonewall Jackson Seriously

The latest issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. 116, No. 1) arrived today and contains a very thoughtful essay by Christopher R. Lawton who is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia.  The essay which is titled “The Pilgrim’s Progress: Thomas J. Jackson’s Journey Toward Civility and Citizenship” uses Jackson as a case study to analyze “the struggles that faced many antebellum white males, about the models they were told to follow, and about expectations that they had to overcome.” (p. 4)  Here is the abstract:

In this article the author argues that applying the methodologies of gender and cultural studies to the prewar life of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson provides a new and exceptionally fruitful path of enquiry into the biography of one of the Confederacy’s most iconic heroes. Conversely, approaching these modern fields of study by way of such a prominent figure allows for an enriched version of what masculinity studies can do. Whereas other historians have challenged James I. Robertson, Jr.’s assertions about the importance of the book of maxims in understanding Jackson’s character, this article contends that Jackson was extraordinarily concerned with defining and following a hegemonic model of white, middle-class manhood. To that end, the argument is built around a careful and in-depth exploration of the cultural milieu in which he came of age, the books he read and that filtered into his maxims, and the social realm to which he aspired in Lexington. It is hoped that this essay makes small, but worthwhile contributions to studies of southern social mobility, the Civil War, and our understanding of antebellum manhood.

Anyone interested in a sophisticated treatment of a crucial period of Jackson’s life should spend some time with this article.  It’s a breadth of fresh air in contrast with the overly simplistic slop that passes for biography and analysis in some quarters.  The fundamental problem with the more popular interpretations of Jackson is an almost complete lack of historical context.  In other words, the authors in question for whatever reason are unable to analyze their subject with an understanding of the broader social, political, and economic conditions in which they lived.  Such is the case with most treatments of Jackson’s views of slavery and his religious outlook.

The problem is that the authors in question know very little about the subjects they write about, especially in the case of the history of religion in the nineteenth-century and the complexity of race and slavery.  No, it’s not enough that you are a self-described Christian or that you believe Jackson’s life should serve as a model for your own.  In fact, it is difficult to see how any religious affiliation  could be considered a necessary condition for writing a respectable study of Jackson or any other Lost Cause figure.  The net result of many of these studies is a watered down view of Jackson that fails to do justice to his complexity of character and the world in which he operated.

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.

I Don’t Get It

Stonewall Jackson’s horse has returned home.  Little Sorrel has returned to VMI’s museum after getting a makeover. Last month conservators gave Little Sorrel a bath and repaired his hide.  It was the first time he’d received a bath in 140 years.

Little Sorrel belonged to Stonewall Jackson.  The horse died in 1886, but his hide was preserved.  The Virginia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy organized the fundraising for the restoration. The group raised about $16,000 by selling Little Sorrel toys across the state.

Sorry, but I say BURY THE DAMN THING!

Is Heritage History? – Part 2

Just a few follow-up thoughts to some of the comments from yesterday’s post. I am struck by the tendency on the part of some who equate southern history with white southern history. This is precisely where much of the tension lay in the debate over the renaming of various public spaces in the South. I think it is important to remember that many of these public spaces were created at a time when white southerners stood at the top of the political and social hierarchy throughout the South. From the control over the content of school textbooks by the UDC to the Jim Crow legislation passed at the turn of the century, most black southerners were cut off from adding to the national narrative an element that would accurately reflect their contributions to the recent past, including the Civil War. This is not to say that African Americans did not commemorate their past, it is just to say that they did not have equal access to the public spaces that were shaped by white Americans to commemorate their own version of the past. It is not surprising that given the increased participation of African Americans in the political process on all levels that they would want to see their communities reflect a broader history, one that is more inclusive and acknowledges their contributions to history. I agree that this is an emotional topic, but change is inevitable. One final question re: the changing of names of public spaces: Why was there such a backlash from heritage groups when the Arthur Ashe statue was unveiled on Monument Avenue in Richmond? Nothing was torn down or changed, only added.

Given my current research on postwar commemorations and memory of the Crater I can give you one clear example of the disappearance of African Americans from national memory. Between the letters written in the weeks following the battle by Lee’s men and the well-attended 1903 reenactment of the battle in Petersburg, black soldiers were almost entirely forgotten about in the written record and public ceremony. The 1903 reenactment included only one black man and it turned out to be Stonewall Jackson’s personal servant. It is not surprising that the organizers of the event failed to include black representatives since this would only serve as a reminder that they had recently fought for their freedom and sacrificed for the United States. Virginia had just recently revised its state constitution which barred large numbers of black Virginians from the polls and the state legislature was in the process of passing legislation segregating public spaces along racial lines. Better to ignore this crucial aspect of the battle and concentrate on the mythology of the obedient and loyal slave who remained loyal to his fallen white chieftain.