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Book Review: Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend (James I. Robertson) : CWT

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend,by James I Robertson, Jr. (Macmillian, New York, 950 pages, $40).

Forty years have passed since the publication of the last scholarly biography on Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. That's hard to believe, considering that millions of tons of paper and barrels of ink have been conscripted to publish Civil War history books in the past four decades. Not since 1957, however, when Lenoir Chambers produced his excellent two-volume study of the enigmatic Stonewall, has an exhaustive and balanced biography of the famous general marched through the presses.

James I. "Bud" Robertson's Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend is the crowning achievement of Robertson's remarkable 40-year career as a Civil War scholar. As a historian, Robertson's strategy mirrors the warrior strategy of General Jackson: focus on the target (repositories and sources); analyze strengths and weaknesses (separate truth from legend); take risks and use surprise (challenge conventional assessments); and produce dramatic results.

Unlike the secretive Jackson, however, Robertson shares his strategy from the outset: "This study is not a biography of a great general," announces the author; it is "the life story of an extraordinary man who became a great general."

The vortex of Robertson's theme is Jackson as a sum of his human experiences. Robertson admirably devotes one-third of his text to "Old Jack's" sad upbringing in western Virginia, his struggles and grit at West Point, his career in the antebellum army, and his happiness and despair in Lexington. As a result, Robertson's portrayal of Jackson as a lonely but determined orphan appropriately diminishes the image of the lemon-sucking reclusive general. Jackson conveyed as a loving husband and father deadens the hyperbole of the eccentric hypochondriac. Jackson presented as a soul-searching servant of God transforms the picture of the warrior praying fervently in the moonlight. The focus on the antebellum period brings Jackson to life before he emerges larger than life.

Robertson's treatment of Jackson's Confederate career is not a study of battles (although ample context is provided), but a focus upon the mind and soul of a dutiful soldier committed to the Almighty. "Conquering for God, Jackson was confident in battle," Robertson writes. "His faith permitted nothing less." Complimenting this strength from God was Jackson's infective belief in the possible. "Do not say it is impossible!" Stonewall once scorned a brigade commander. "Turn your command over to the next officer. If he cannot do it, I will find someone who can, if I have to take him from the ranks!"

Although an obvious admirer of Jackson–Robertson "served" seven years with the general during his research and writing–Robertson is not a blind admirer. He acknowledges Jackson's errors at Kernstown, Port Republic, and Cedar Mountain, and in the Seven Days. He also addresses lapses in judgment stemming from Jackson's insistence on absolute discipline as well as his stormy relations with his subordinates. Robertson is tenacious, however, in his unyielding defense of Jackson's muddled performance during the Seven Days. He eagerly challenges the veterans and historians of the Longstreet/E.P. Alexander school who use "the always revealing instrument of hindsight" to criticize Jackson, and he explains Jackson's constitution in late June 1862 in a one-word chapter title–"Fatigue."

Throughout his narrative, Robertson challenges conventional wisdom. For example, in a warning to unsuspecting readers, he states Henry Kyd Douglas is "one of the most quoted and most unreliable sources on Jackson." Famous tales such as Jackson's 1861 capture of the Baltimore & Ohio trains at Harpers Ferry, the lone sentry at Paris, Belle Boyd at Front Royal, and the Dick Taylor meeting at Port Republic are unceremoniously debunked. Robertson even shares an insight into his own profession when addressing Jackson as a teacher at Virginia Military Institute: "Single-mindedness is a great asset in an army commander but deadly in a college professor."

The display of scholarship is one of the greatest strengths of this book. Robertson examined 370 collections in 75 repositories stretching from coast to coast and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The book includes 2,854 endnotes, many of them descriptive, filling 133 pages. The publisher deserves credit for not eviscerating this detailed documentation, for it permits Robertson's work to stand as the most definitive Jackson biography in history.

Robertson's 950-page tome on Jackson will stand alone for the next 40 years–and perhaps into eternity. It is a superior model of research, writing, and analysis. It is a book every student of the war should read and every chronicler should emulate. Like Stonewall's Shenandoah Valley Campaign, it is a masterpiece for the ages.

Dennis E. Frye

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