Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Lost Cause Mythology: Evaluating The Stonewall Jackson Orthodoxy

We spent a few lines last week meeting the General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson of myth and lore, and he is a powerful figure in American memory to say the least. Redressing these ideas is a bit of a challenge, not because of a paucity of data, but because of the strong feelings that are evoked when men like Jackson, Gen. Robert E Lee, et al get a proper historical treatment. Nevertheless, we shall go forward undaunted. There are themes we will discuss that deserve, and have received, book-length treatments; I include them here briefly to add depth to our discussion, if you want more info on any particular point, I would be happy to direct you to any number of resources.
First, a few bits of background. Jackson was born in Virginia and lived there until he went to West Point. He grew up with slaves and later became a slaveowner himself. Per author James Robertson, Jackson believed in the divine assignment of negroes to servitude as his rationalization for keeping humans in bondage. He fought for the United States in the Mexican-American War and was an instructor at VMI when the Civil War broke out. In that moment, he turned his back on the nation he had previously fought and killed for and joined the Confederate Army, where he would become the Stonewall Jackson we read about today.
On his effectiveness as a soldier in the Eastern Theater, there is no dispute that he was bold, aggressive, and sometimes brilliant. He led his troops into the Union rear to capture the Army of Virginia's supply depot before the Battle of Second Bull Run in August, 1862. His flank attack at Chancellorsville still remains his most famous maneuver, and is held in wide esteem.
He could also be neglectful, tardy, and foolish, and his abuses of his men are well-documented. His inability to effectively fight along with his near catastrophic tardiness during the Seven Days Campaign also cannot be disputed. On balance, Jackson was a very effective battlefield commander, but was by no means perfect.
Jackson the man was also an incredibly bizarre and not uncommonly cruel man. It is hard to believe he didn't have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, as he was convinced one leg was shorter than the other, he insisted on only sitting in straight-backed chairs to keep his organs aligned, and he rode with one arm in the air so the blood would drain out of it.
His own troops were subjected to his more brutal idiosyncracies; men who fell out on marches were arrested and often punished, frequently by flogging, sometimes by execution, but Jackson himself was not held to this standard as he rode a horse next to his hard-marching troops, and when he fell asleep and failed to follow orders during the Seven Days Battle, received no censure.
So with this decidedly mixed service history, why was Jackson, among so many other Confederate officers, singled out for legend status. Let us turn to the nickname "Stonewall" as a guide. At the Battle of First Bull Run, Jackson was a brigadier general under Gen Barnard Bee, and during the fighting around Henry House Hill and Matthews Hill, brought his troops up near the front. When Bee saw this brigade, which he had just ordered to move up into the fight, he reportedly said "There stands Jackson and his men, like a stone wall."
There is no way to know exactly what Bee meant when he said this, as he was shot and killed later that day, but at least one witness to the conversation and Bee's statement later said "I'm not the least sure Gen. Bee's remark was meant as a compliment." Questions remain today about Jackson's conduct that earned this sobriquet, and whether it was to be derisive or complimentary. As David Detzer writes in his book "Donnybrook", Jackson's "performance at Bull Run was actually no more courageous or resolute or dogged or unyielding than that of dozens of other officers on both sides." (pg 339)
Regardless, Jackson had a catchy new name, and with it, he went forth into the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862 and proceeded to, in a series of small battles and brutal forced marches, muddle up and defeat three different larger Union forces. (Keep in mind, please, about the admitted bias of the previous treatment of this battle by Tanner). Through these efforts, he garnished headlines and newspapers seized on the memorable nickname he carried, regardless of its origin.
This period of time was a difficult one for the Confederacy on all fronts. At sea, the Union blockade was beginning to strangle Southern shipping and, in the first battle of ironclad warships, the Monitor had been thwarted by the U.S.S. Merrimac. In the Eastern Theater, the Army of the Potomac was launching the Peninsula Campaign, and in the West, the Confederacy was being rapidly overrun with the advance of Grant's army and the Union's chain of victories culminating at Shiloh on April 6th, 1862. The commercial centers of Nashville and New Orleans, as well as large stretches of the Mississippi River were under Union control.
The Confederacy needed a boost and the beleaguered state of Virginia needed someone to rally behind (keeping in mind that Jackson was the highest ranking Virginian in the field as Lee was still behind a desk in Richmond), and in a strike of serendipity, Jackson was leading his men into the Valley and winning battle after battle.
Any potential pejorative connotation from Bee's appellation was forgotten, and this nickname "Stonewall" was thrust into the headlines. As Detzer wrote, "The Confederacy needed heroes. There was also the subtle matter of state pride...Virginians wanted a favorite son of their own." (pg 339) The nickname took hold over the next months, and Jackson rapidly became a favorite son of the Confederacy.
His star was at its apex when he was accidentally shot by his own men during the Battle of Chancellorsville, just hours after his famed flank attack, and died 8 days later. From there the idealization reached higher and higher, and after the war, was used at the expense of fellow Confederate officers who suffered reverses. One of the most prominent of these is General Robert Ewell at Cemetery Hill at the 1st day of Gettysburg, and the controversy over whether Jackson would have charged the Union emplacement and thus won the day for the Confederacy.
Another is the treatment that befell General James Longstreet after the war, which will be covered in a future post.
On one hand in this mythology is the brilliance of the dead Jackson, on the other hand is the besmirching and discrediting of Longstreet (just look at his bizarre monument at Gettysburg to see the culmination of this) The irony is that Longstreet was also shot by his own men at the Battle of the Wilderness. The difference is, he survived his wound, which begs the question if whether in death Jackson escaped the sort of scrutiny that Longstreet received. The post-war treatment of Longstreet is a long and baffling story, please see Piston's "Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant" for more.
Because of his successful campaigns and untimely death, Jackson was not only made into a figurehead for the army and an idealized soldier but also as the paragon representative of Virginia and the Southern cause. Attention was not paid to the way he treated his own men or his near-disastrous failings at the Seven Days Battle, nor to his bizarre personality. The South needed heroes and men to rally behind; Jackson became that man.
This idealization has only been amplified over the past decades, especially through the writings of Freeman, Tanner, and more recently, Robertson, who wrote in 1997 that Jackson's efforts should "remain treasured legacies of the American people just as they are inspirations to people everywhere." It also continues in popular culture, most vividly in the depiction of Jackson in the movie "Gods and Generals" If you haven't seen it yourself, believe me when I say all that was missing was a halo around his head. It is also this idealized Jackson that is painted onto canvas, plates, t-shirts, etc. and enthusiastically purchased by fans.
It is clear; however, that when the whole man is examined, that the time for this era has passed, Jackson was a man who owned slaves and used religion as an excuse for it, turned against the uniform he had once worn proudly, and, though a oft-successful battlefield commander, frequently treated the men who made his reputation like dogs.
We should not continue to subscribe to the hero-worship borne of the Lost Cause mythology. We must treat Confederate officers like Jackson and Lee, (as well as their Union counterparts) with respect, and part of that is to be honest about who they were and what they did; acknowledging their strengths, but also to their flaws. In that spirit, we can appreciate Stonewall Jackson's frequent, but not constant, tactical success, but we must free ourselves of the ideas of him as a paragon of virtue, an icon of devotion, and as any sort of hero, for they are neither earned nor deserved.

3 comments:

Robert Moore said...

A top-notch post! How can we ever truly gain an understanding of the people that were if we remain under the shadows of "legacy and legend?" He's a beloved figure in this area of Virginia, and I have familial connections to men who served under him. Hardly can I stand before his grave and not feel the incredible impact of his legend. Yet, I know that none of this should guide or rule me in my assessment of the man who was Jackson. What is analysis if tainted by personal and "imagined memory?"

On a connecte note, I often wonder what the '62 Valley Campaign would have been like had the Union commanders of 1864 been present in lieu of the lesser-tiered Union commanders of 1862.

Mark said...

Thanks for the insight! Regarding the Valley Campaign of 1862, we should all take a look at Cozzens' new book about it to get a fresh perspective. Remember Tanner's admitted bias, and that has been the main work on the campaign. Also, keep in mind that the inept Gen. Banks beat Jackson at Cedar Mountain

Phil LeDuc said...

Great post!

(That's "Richard" Ewell, btw)