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Tuesday, 17 January 2012
Taking Stonewall down off the pedestal

It’s certainly no secret that my affection for the life and legacy of General Thomas J. Jackson has been a major influence on my life both privately and professionally:

My first book (published back in 2005) was a religious biography on Jackson titled Onward Christian Soldier. Since then I've penned at least a dozen or so articles and have presented three lectures and a banquet address on him; I once taught an 8-week bible study class on Jackson’s piousness at my church; I started a web portal for Jackson-related information titled The Jackson Society; I’ve worked on multiple Jackson-specific studies for Mort Kunstler paintings; Jackson is featured (or at least mentioned) in 5 of my Civil War books; I have received awards from the UDC and SCV for my published works on Jackson; I am often requested for private tours to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine; I own and probably have read more books about Jackson than any other subject; my personal license plate says STOWNWL; and my youngest son is named after the good general.

Cleary I am fascinated with the guy and have spent a considerable amount of time studying him. That said, I now find myself at a point where I must suspend my own idol-worship practices and accept the painful reality that Stonewall Jackson is not hero material. Why? Because I can no longer gloss over the dark realities of this man’s life that I was once captivated by. I can no longer compartmentalize the dreadful cause in which he stood for. In other words, I can’t continue to disregard the sins on which Thomas Jackson’s memory has been founded and fortified. The legacy of Stonewall Jackson may be thick with inspiring religious fervor and military brilliance, but at the heart of it all is a man who ferociously fought for the perpetuation of slavery. How can anyone reconcile that?

Simply put, Thomas Jackson played a central role in a movement that was founded on what we would consider today to be political treason and prejudice. Jackson himself was a complex participant, a walking contradiction of sorts in regards to politics and race. A Christian man, he founded a Sunday school for slave and free blacks in Lexington, yet at the same time, he conducted incredibly successful military campaigns that served a cause vehemently against granting their freedom. One act does not excuse the other.  

Jackson’s untimely death is also said to have created an irreplaceable void in the South’s high-command. Therefore one can only conclude that if he had lived beyond the Spring of 1863, the potential for a Confederate victory would have been bolstered – a victory that would have ultimately maintained the institution of human bondage as the primary cog in the economic-engine of the agricultural south.

The reality is that Thomas Jackson “stood as a stonewall” against his own government and repeatedly defeated a Union Army who were pursuing the liberty and freedom of enslaved African-Americans. Yes I get the State’s Rights and defending Virginia soil counter-arguments and absolutely agree that it was an important aspect of the southern cause, but the question I now ask is what “rights” were they defending? The answer is the right to independently govern a society that maintained the institution of slavery. Once again, you can’t get around that no matter how hard you try.

It’s very easy to get caught up in all of the reverence and awe that has been showered upon the Confederacy’s heroes over the last 150 years. With countless monuments and markers testifying to their courage and tenacity, as well as book after book elevating them to a deity-like stature, Stonewall Jackson is a perfect example of a manufactured American titan. His persona has been carefully crafted and handed down for generations. We are taught that he was an Old Testament Warrior who died defending the sanctity of the Old Dominion. He is still worshipped and adored by folks on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line and his likeness is just as much a part of our pop-culture as any other historical figurehead.

I am experiencing what I can only refer to as a conflict of conscience and I am looking at Thomas Jackson and his peers in a much different light nowadays. Much like our Founding Fathers, I believe that we must make a concerted effort to reconcile ourselves to the fact that these Confederate icons were not gods, nor are they truly worthy of the elevated statuses that we project on them. They were men. We must acknowledge their humanity and this includes their faults. Perhaps hardest of all, we must accept the fact that they fought for the wrong side.

Stonewall Jackson was a brilliant military commander, a faithful deacon, a loving husband and a brief doting father. These are traits to admire. He was also a socially awkward individual with little people skills, a terrible teacher and communicator who was disliked by most of his subordinate generals and in some regards a fanatically religious egotist who truly believed himself to be conducting the will of God. He was also by textbook definition a military traitor and a racist who voluntarily chose to fight for a deplorable cause. These are not traits to admire.

Professionally speaking, I will continue to be fascinated by this man and I am sure that he will return periodically as a subject in my work. He certainly remains a mainstay in my all-access battlefield tours. Personally speaking however, I no longer find myself emotionally-attached to or quite so enamored by him. That bias is gone. Jackson is no longer a “hero” to me. None of them are. I still respect the Confederacy's conviction, but I can no longer celebrate its cause.

Some of the most respected historians I know preach the notion that one must remain completely objective and impersonal if they really want to accurately convey their subject matter. A NPS chief historian told me once that the minute you become smitten with your subject, your interpretation is skewed. Another friend who is a professor at a major university stated that the second you start writing to bolster your own affections for an individual you are no longer a historian, you are a disciple. I've certainly been guilty of that when it comes to Stonewall Jackson. 

The hardest part of studying history is accepting the fact that the people you once admired were not really that admirable afterall. I believe it’s time that we take Stonewall down off the pedestal and recognize him for all that he truly was, good, bad, or indifferent –  not at all the infallible and mythical figure that some of us have helped to perpetuate for over a century.

I think the best explanation for what I am feeling was posted in an article titled “Confederate Apologists” over at Vast Public Indifference:

When our focus is on honoring the men who fought and died, no doubt bravely, without ever really grappling with what they were fighting for, we don’t learn anything. When we implicitly deny the horror of slavery and the continual betrayal of African-Americans during and after the war, we are setting ourselves up to accept racist fantasies in the present. When we fawn over Southern leaders like Lee and Jackson as models of American manhood, what we are really doing is yearning for a white, Christian, patriarchal past in which women and slaves knew their places and real men were subordinate only to God.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 10:58 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 January 2012 6:44 PM EST
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