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Seminar Review - The Real Stonewall Jackson, presented by James I. Robertson, Jr.

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 7

Dr. Robertson came to the Smithsonian Institution in November to discuss his book, Stonewall Jackson, The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. He said that no previous book had enough original information to discuss the man's life fully, so that we are left with only a caricature. Using previously unknown original source material, Robertson hoped to clearly define the individual and separate him from the myth that has grown around him.

Robertson pulled us into this eccentric man's life, and excused his strangeness by emphasizing Jackson's lonely childhood, his religious fanaticism, and the early deaths of his family members (except for his sister Laura, who became a Union supporter and even gave aid to Federal soldiers). As a result, Jackson grows up to be hypochondriacal, shy, reticent, distrustful, as well as ambitious. He struggled to fit into normal society. And, he liked all fruit, not just lemons.

Jackson's desire to escape the family farm and his ambition to succeed at West Point compelled him to graduate seventeenth in the 1846 class of 59 graduates. In spite of his conspicuous bravery and three brevet promotions in the Mexican War, petty disputes with military command forced him to leave the army and take a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute. Just as he was blind to his own pettiness, he was blind to the fact that he was a mediocre teacher at VMI. But in Lexington, Virginia, he found religion, love, and happiness until the Civil War broke out.

Jackson was soon defending the Shenandoah Valley. He had the ability to turn Robert E. Lee's wishes into well executed attacks against the enemy. His brilliant leadership and unrelenting will made Union generals shudder and Confederates feel that they had a chance to win the war. Of course, all of that ended May 10, 1863, when “Stonewall” Jackson was killed at Chancellorsville, shot by his own men. But it didn't have to be that way, the way that Robertson told it and the way that Jackson lived it.

The problem is with Robertson’s premise that Jackson’s sad childhood formed him. Even though Jackson was orphaned, he was raised by relatives on a large family estate. Was this any worse than the lives of scores of nineteenth- century children? Just read Dickens. Or, compare this story to Abraham Lincoln's upbringing. Lincoln had no prominent family on whom to depend; he had no education provided to him at the government's expense; all those closest to him died at early ages; and, he was raised in the primitive western frontier. Lincoln’s raw upbringing made him a broad-minded and compassionate visionary, unlike Jackson’s more privileged childhood, which made him an uncommunicative religious fanatic who had no capacity for introspection. In this light, Robertson’s theory that Jackson’s lonely childhood explains the behavior of an eccentric man is too simplistic and unconvincing.

Nor does his theory excuse the fact that while Jackson was morally indebted to the federal government for his education, he arbitrarily renounced his oath to his government to fight for Virginia. Arbitrary, because he said he would fight on whichever side Virginia chose. So he fought for the South, because certain individuals in Richmond chose that side. Jackson must have had a sense of the true issues that caused the Civil War, but his lack of introspection made him blindly obedient to authority.

Many men have had sadder childhoods and worse upbringings, but did not renounce their country, nor assume that God was always on their side. With some personal insight, Thomas Jackson would not have fought for the South and would not have rejected the government that educated and employed him for most of his adult life. His personal ambition made him reckless, so it is likely that he would have died early in the war, regardless on which side he chose to fight. But if he had fought for the North, he would have been true to himself, to his Christian religion, and to his country.

Dr. Robertson’s research is exhaustive, and he is an excellent speaker and an even better writer. In both the seminar and the lecture, he made the ordinary events in Jackson’s life fascinating and absorbing. If you are a Jackson fan, you will be more so. However, you also will see that while the sad facts of Jackson’s life may have created a brilliant general, they do not excuse Jackson’s flaws as a man who had neither compassion nor circumspection at a time in our history when both were sorely needed.