The Stonewall Brigade
James I. Robertson Jr.
At a desperate moment during the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, when the Confederate battle line was coming unhinged, one Virginia regiment stood firm under a relatively unknown officer named Thomas J. Jackson. Wounded and demoralized soldiers streamed to the rear, giving the Virginians warning of what was coming next. Union infantry and artillery soon appeared, rising above the crest of Henry House Hill to deliver what was to be the final blow against the Rebels’ shaky position. A South Carolina officer, Bernard Bee, warned Jackson: “They are beating us back.” The professor from Virginia Military Institute firmly replied: “Then, sir, we will give them the bayonet.”
As Jackson’s men wheeled into position, Bee tried to rally his own troops with the inspiring cry: “Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians.” There remains some controversy about Bee’s words, as many historians believe that Bee was condemning rather than complimenting Jackson’s men for refusing to budge. Despite that debate, the appellation “Stonewall” was forever attached to the brigade and its commander, bringing both recognition and a reputation that would sustain these soldiers for the remainder of the war.
The unit’s stand and counterattack at First Manassas undeniably helped turned the course of the battle, underscoring the truism that it was the men who made the officers during the Civil War. In The Stonewall Brigade, James I. Robertson Jr. chronicles the journey of the men who served in the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd Virginia regiments, a unit that stood in the top echelon of an army that produced an unusual number of extraordinary brigades.
The 1963 publication of The Stonewall Brigade came at a time when few Civil War historians practiced social history, but Robertson wants us to understand history from the ground up. This book offers a gripping story of how ordinary men transformed themselves into reliable soldiers, how they contended with pressures from home and how they developed a collective sense of becoming a band of brothers. The brutal marches under Jackson, the desperate fighting and the paltry rations are elemental to understanding the soldier experience. Robertson shows amazing sensitivity to the human side of the war by giving the ordinary soldier a powerful voice in a conflict often seen as one controlled exclusively by the generals and politicians.
In writing about the Stonewall Brigade’s essential annihilation at Spotsylvania in 1864, Robertson brilliantly conveys the deep sense of loss that pervaded the ranks. The reader will be hard-pressed not to be touched by the bonds of affection and loyalty that were suddenly severed as the brigade’s survivors were marched off to assorted prison camps. Robertson’s pathbreaking work brought to life the inner world of the Civil War soldier, a topic that has preoccupied historians and students of the war ever since.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.