Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Lost Cause Mythology: Challenging The Stonewall Jackson Orthodoxy

We have spent some time here addressing the hagiography surrounding Robert E Lee and attempting to critically analyze some of it, but he is most certainly not the only revered and celebrated Confederate officer in the Lost Cause pantheon. There is also one Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a man remembered in large parts of the country as a warrior-hero, brilliant leader, and stalwartly devout man who, before his death in May, 1863, was a primary cause for Confederate success. At least, that's what I was taught in school (and I bet you were too), as well as being what was and still is preached throughout many parts of the Civil War community. From the nascency of Jubal Early's efforts to inscribe the Lost Cause mythology into the national consciousness, Jackson was at the forefront of his writings as the essential leader behind Lee, a man who as Early wrote, "always appreciated, and sympathized with the bold conceptions of the commanding General, and entered upon their execution with the most cheerful alacrity and zeal." From the start, the Jackson mythology moved in lockstep with that of Lee, as the growing movement to rationalize and explain the crushing defeat suffered by the Confederacy ensconced both men as scions of Southern glory and righteousness. Early again: "be thankful that our cause had two such champions, and that, in their characters, we can furnish the world at large with the best assurances of the rightfulness of the principles for which they and we fought. When asked for our vindication, we can triumphantly point to the graves of Lee and Jackson and look the world square in the face."
This reverential treatment of Jackson was immediately echoed by early Lost Cause writers who, as Alan Nolan put it "presented him as a deeply religious, mystical, eccentric, and brilliant military leader of Olympian proportions." This treatment continued through Douglas Southall Freeman's "Lee's Lieutenants" and the worshipful discussions of Jackson and his campaigns therein, which cemented the concept of Jackson's untrammeled leadership acumen and the myth that had Jackson still been alive at Gettysburg, the Confederacy would have won the battle. This biased and clumsy writing has continued over the years, pushing the Jackson component of the Lost Cause mythology deeper into our collective memory.
This is especially true of the Shenandoah Campaign of 1862, which brought Jackson fully into the consciousness of both North and South. Robert Tanner's "Stonewall in the Valley", published in 1976, was for more than three decades regarded as the premier accounting of the conduct and campaigning that made Jackson's reputation. (A new and more balanced treatment by Peter Cozzens, just hit the shelves. My signed copy just arrived courtesy of It helped to amplify this mythology by sticking to the tenets of the Southern Historical Society Papers and writers like Southall Freeman; writing, as Tanner himself stated, "from the Confederate viewpoint." This unapologetic bias is illustrated by the fact that every single manuscript and all but three printed primary sources are from a Confederate perspective.
Even recent treatments of Jackson, the most popular of which is James Robertson's "Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend", focus more on hagiography than accurate historiography, with Jackson being described as a "spiritual prince, standing alone on a high pedestal" and that Jackson's devotion to God and the Confederacy "remain treasured legacies of the American people just as they are inspirations to people everywhere." The religious imagery of the deeply Calvinist Jackson, just like the oft-discussed piety of Robert E Lee, remains a cornerstone of how this man is remembered, as shown above and illustrated here (Jackson is the man on bended knee at Lee's feet). This image and the hundreds of others like it, are an amazing display of the power and endurance of Early's message and mission for the South "to remain true to the memory of your venerated leaders...Let the holy memories connected with our glorious struggle afford stronger incentives to renewed efforts to do our duty." While this is the way that Jackson is idealized and conceptualized, we must, as responsible historians, ask whether it is indeed accurate. This question, dear reader, is one we shall explore soon.


Marty Hancock said...

I guess Early was trying to justify the whole thing, including the terrible loss of life, the horror of the institution of slavery. I'll have to catch up on his writings.
From what I've gathered, Jackson was a cold fish, abrupt and brusque toward subordinates, totally insensitive to suffering. We all realize that a general has to be able to detach himself from his feelings when sending men to their possible death, but I have the impression that this was not something that Stonewall had to wrestle with much.

His skill and exploits were undeniable, but to deify him is almost laughable. In fact, Stephen Lang's portrayal of him in Gods and Generals is one of the great comedic performances of all time.

This is a great subject, and I look forward to your future postings.

Mark said...

Thanks for the comment. The Lost Cause mythology is indeed fascinating, please take a look at some of my previous posts; I've worked through some of the major tenets of the Lost Cause and I think you'll enjoy reading them

Robert Moore said...

Great post Mark. I need to get my copy of Cozzens' book. I also need to monitor your blog more frequently considering your upcoming discussion of Jackson. Best - Robert Moore