Why does the South adore Stonewall Jackson? He was not a particularly lovable man. And he was certainly not a romantic, dashing cavalier, like Jeb Stewart; a stainless aristocrat calmly daring all the odds, like Robert E. Lee; or even a wizard of the saddle, like Bedford Forrest. Yet at Stone Mountain, Georgia—the Confederacy’s Mount Rushmore—it is Jackson who is memorialized, with Lee and Jefferson Davis: the odd, eccentric, dour, stern Presbyterian, who during the invasion of Maryland “locked himself in the parlor to write a dispatch to Lee and to escape the admiring crowds, [who] would not be denied. They called to him through the shutters and doors. They pulled hairs from his horse’s tail until a staff officer drove them away. . . . After a shutter was broken and the windows were endangered, Jackson gave up and admitted the mob, mostly women and children, who swarmed over him, throwing red and white roses. . . . ‘Really, ladies,’ he protested, ‘this is the first time I was ever surrounded by the enemy.'” It is also the litigious, unyielding, rough-visaged hero, who, a month after Antietam, was accosted by a young mother who w anted him to bless her 18- month-old son:

Jackson, astride [his mount] Sorrel, seemed no more surprised, said Captain Charles Blackford, “than Queen Elizabeth at being asked to touch for the ‘King’s Evil.'” He took the infant tenderly in his arms, “until his graying beard touched the fresh young hair of the child.” To bystanders he seemed to be praying. Soldiers standing about removed their caps, and the young woman bowed her head on Sorrel’s shoulder. Then he handed the child back without a word and rode off down the road.

Byron Farwell’s Stonewall is a meticulously researched, well-written, if dispassionate reassessment of this Cromwell who rode with Virginia’s cavaliers. The picture Farwell paints is not an entirely attractive one. Jackson was completely unforgiving with subordinates but prone to lapses himself, particularly in the battles of The Seven Days. He was a poor judge of men, preferring to surround himself with parsons and favorites than with talented professionals. And the secrecy with which he guarded his battle plans could appear less as justifiable security than as a means to dodge blame and responsibility. But there is something poignant about Jackson, the self-made man who triumphed over his early lack of education and pushed through West Point by sheer force of will; the unlikely professor whose fading eyesight led him to avoid reading in the evening and instead to concentrate in silence, staring at the wall as he memorized his lecture for the following day; and the brave veteran of the Mexican War who with his poor hearing and hypochondria (the latter of which disappeared whenever he was campaigning) would have been remembered by his students at the “Virginia Military Institute as “Tom Fool” Jackson if the War Between the States hadn’t given him his opportunity for fame, glory, and success. That fame, of course, came at a bloody price, swallowing up hundreds of thousands of lives, including Jackson’s own.

Like Lee, Jackson had been a Unionist, and at one point during his tenure at VMI, Jackson had even come to doubt the morality of war, except in a defensive cause. (For him, and for many another Southerner, the Civil War was, without the irony that surrounds this phrase today, a War of Northern Aggression.) Like Lee also, Jackson was no bigot: he had admired the women in Mexico, he liked to pepper his letters with Spanish words (he considered Spanish a more romantic language than English), he was thoroughly Protestant in his own faith but never countenanced anti-Catholicism, and he was famously the energetic and ardent pastor of a black Sunday school. But Jackson was unwilling to see abolition forced upon the South at the point of a bayonet. For him, slavery was justified and tempered by the laws of the Bible.

Jackson was unhesitatingly prepared to defend the South, its spiritual and constitutional liberty and its way of life against an aggressive federal power—and to do so with Old Testament fury. The men he led, as described by a female Unionist observer, were not slave owners or masters, but poor, Southern good old boys, who arc still recognizable today:

. . . were these dirty, lank, ugly specimens of humanity, with shocks of hair sticking through the holes in their hats, and thick dust on their dirty faces, the men who had coped and countered successfully, and driven back again and again our splendid legions. . . ? I wish you could see how they behaved—a crowd of schoolboys on a holiday don’t seem happier. They are on the broad grin all the time. Oh! They are so dirty!


They were very polite, I must confess. . . . Many of them were bare-footed. Indeed, I felt sorry for the poor misguided wretches, for some were limping along so painfully, trying to keep up with their comrades.

These were the men who endured the true, awful violence and ugly horror of Americans fighting Americans, with men torn apart by stinging bullets and screaming artillery, men pummeling each other with rocks and clubs, tearing at each other’s flesh with bayonet and knife.

Jackson showed no fear with bombs bursting and bullets whizzing all around him. And he certainly showed no sentimentality in his gruesome business. When it came to taking Yankee prisoners, Jackson believed it was “cheaper to feed them than to fight them.” But he also shed no tears for gallant Union soldiers. When asked how his outnumbered forces could hold back the Federals at Fredericksburg, he shot back, “Kill them, sir! Kill every one.” This was the man who, in an after-battle letter to his wife, admonished her, “You must give fifty dollars for church purposes, and more should you be disposed. Keep an account of the amount, as we must give at least one tenth of our income.”

It is his psychological complexity, perhaps, that makes Jackson resonate so profoundly in the Southern soul—the faith, disciplined good manners, and formal courtesy behind which lay violent impulses eager to defend the civilization that nurtured all these virtues. In his highly individual character is the glory and the tragedy of an entire region of America. When he died, a victim of the fog of war, shot by his own men, a Confederate soldier, Alexander Tedford Barclay, expressed the thought of many in a letter to his sister: “A deep gloom is over the camp over the death of Gen. Jackson. He was taken away from us because we made almost an idol of him.” Today, Stonewall Jackson is long gone. But in the hearts of the ever-nostalgic South, the idol remains.


[Stonewall: A Biography of General ThomasJ. Jackson, by Byron Farwell (New York: W. W. Norton & Company) 512 pp., $29.95]