A magisterial new biography of Stonewall Jackson presents all sides of a complex, often inscrutable man.
By Richard F. Welch
At the time of his death in May 1863, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was the best-known Civil War commander. Revered in the South and feared in the North, Jackson so personified the Confederacy’s military prowess that his portrait was featured on the highest-denomination bill issued by the Richmond government. The ink was barely dry on the surrender papers at Appomattox when a legion of historians, biographers and memorialists of all stripes began to turn out a small mountain of publications devoted to his life and exploits. Now, with his new book, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (MacMillan, New York, 1997, $40), James I. Robertson crowns a distinguished career devoted to the study of the Civil War with a rich, in-depth presentation of Jackson in all his complexity, tragedy and glory.
Drawing on the knowledge he accumulated through years of studying the war in Virginia and the Stonewall Brigade in particular, Robertson consulted all known repositories of Jackson-related materials and discovered several that had remained untouched. Especially helpful was a treasure trove of new information located in the Stonewall Jackson Collection at Tulane University that had remained unconsulted since it was bequeathed to the university in the 1920s. Through this original source material, Robertson proceeded to re-create Jackson’s public life and private sorrows.
Robertson argues that two elements shaped the general’s life. The first was a life-scarring childhood–he lost both parents before he was 5. Raised by an uncle who treated him primarily as cheap labor, Jackson never developed the usual social graces. He strove to overcome his deficiencies in this regard, but he never lost his awkward bearing in public, a characteristic that lay at the root of much of the behavior his contemporaries found eccentric, if not neurotic. The second major factor in his life was religion. Lonely and insecure, Jackson was fascinated by religion. Baptized an Episcopalian while stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, he found his personal salvation in the Presbyterian Church, which he joined while a professor at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington.
West Point provided Jackson with an escape from the constrained life and dim prospects that had seemed his destiny in the mountains of western Virginia. Poorly educated, he barely got into West Point, but his will to succeed drove him to study incessantly to improve his standing. He went from second-to-last in his first year to 17th in his class at graduation.
Jackson found military life congenial and saw it as a means of advancement. During the Mexican War, he served as an artillery officer. He possessed a remarkable combination of a sharp eye for the battlefield, a quick mind in assessing combat situations, and a cool head in dangerous situations. Breveted three times for bravery, he emerged from the conflict with the rank of major. Like many Mexican War veterans, he found the peacetime army less congenial and resigned to accept a professorship at VMI. His first wife died in childbirth, and Jackson had married again and was still at VMI when the secession crisis led to war.
As Robertson sees it, Jackson’s decision to support the Confederacy was natural. Jackson had come to believe that the North was destroying the American society that the framers of the Constitution had created. As for slavery, his readings of the Bible had convinced him that God had destined some peoples as bondsmen, and God’s arrangements were beyond questioning. He viewed the outbreak of the Civil War as a curse of God that had to be endured. Jackson waged war like an Old Testament warrior. Totally convinced of the righteousness of his cause, he smote the enemies of the just with all the power and energy his exceptional military mind could devise.
Robertson guides the reader through Jackson’s military career in a thoughtful, engaging fashion that makes familiar events seem fresh. He emphasizes that from the earliest days of the war Jackson was a staunch advocate of carrying the war to the North. At his first skirmish near Harpers Ferry in 1861, Jackson demonstrated the mode of operation that he would utilize on a larger scale–hard-hitting assaults combined with sweeping flanking movements. After First Manassas, where he won his famous sobriquet, Jackson chaffed at Confederate inactivity and proposed an invasion of the North that sounds eerily like the type of campaign Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman unleashed in Georgia in 1864.
Jackson’s 1862 Valley campaign boosted Southern morale at a time when the Confederacy seemed doomed and revealed the general as a strategist and combat commander of the first order. Robertson does not flinch from describing how close Jackson came to disaster at several junctures in the campaign, and he emphasizes just how physically exhausting the marches and strikes were for both Jackson and his men.
Jackson’s crowning, and final, achievement was the flank attack that broke the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville, Va. Robertson carefully credits the idea of the attack to General Robert E. Lee, while explaining how Jackson’s refinements and execution were central to its success.
When he received word of Jackson’s death, Lee remarked that he did not know how to replace his most gifted lieutenant. He was not exaggerating. During their 10 months of collaboration, Lee granted generous latitude to his subordinate in the execution of his orders. Jackson flourished in this quasi-autonomous role and, except for a poor performance during the Seven Days’ battles, fully justified Lee’s expectations and confidence. While the total effect that Jackson’s death had on the prospects for Southern arms remains incalculable, Robertson argues that Jackson represented Lee’s mobility. Without Stonewall, Lee was forced to become more cautious. The result was a war of attrition that the South could not win.
Stonewall Jackson is as complete a recreation of a life as is possible in historical writing. The amount of detailed knowledge about Jackson’s life is stunning and occasionally overwhelming. Robertson has even decoded the meaning of Jackson’s final words. Robertson clearly likes and admires his subject, but he is too good and hard-nosed a historian to descend into squishy hagiography. In a recent interview, Robertson was asked what he intended to tackle for his next project. He replied that after seven years of re-creating Jackson’s life, he was still grieving the loss of the remarkable American he had come to know so well. Robertson’s readers are likely to experience a similar sensation upon finishing this superb example of a master historian’s craft.