“Look, men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer! Follow me!”
—General Bernard E. Bee, C.F.A., shortly before falling,
mortally wounded, in First Manassas
The era of the War for Southern Independence illuminates the present time for what it is, and is not. As J.O. Tate has said, “Everything in American history went into the Civil War, and everything since has come out of it.” Americans who agree with a well-known American magazine editor, now retired, that the crucial event in the national history is as irrelevant as the Wars of the Roses, probably ought not to be permitted to vote. It is just possible, however, that of those Americans who know that a war was fought at all, or when it was fought, a majority considers it worth knowing about. The publishers’ catalogues for the past several seasons list a substantial number of big books (Mr. Robertson’s included) about the Civil War, and Shelby Foote’s three-volume masterpiece, completed almost a quarter-century ago, is prominently displayed in most bookstores. Interest in the Late Unpleasantness shows no sign of diminishing; indeed it may well be increasing. It is tempting to speculate on the reasons for this. Surely the Second Reconstruction that leftists waged against the South in the 1950’s and 60’s has something to do with it. So does the current campaign, prosecuted by cynical politicians, black and white, to wipe every reminder of the Confederacy from the national consciousness, and also from the memory and awareness of Southern localities for whom it remains the defining element in their histories. With its legal and rhetorical onslaughts against the Citadel and the Virginia Military Institute (where Stonewall Jackson taught for ten years), the Bonnie Blue Flag, the Stars and Bars, state flags, state songs, and Confederate license plates, the left consistently generates the moral indignation it ordinarily expends on victims. Listening to it and watching it in action. one can almost believe that Grant had been drinking at Appomattox.
If a renewed preoccupation with Civil War history really is occurring, could it be a natural reaction to our contemporary civil barometer, which has been falling for decades and is now dropping like a rock? Do we hear new firebells in the night in response to judicial tyranny, intimidating acts by the FBI and terroristic ones by the BATF, and the rise of the militias? In the summer of 1860 Major Jackson and his wife spent some weeks at Norwood, Massachusetts, where the Virginia couple sensed “unhospitable elements” among the New Englanders who were their fellow guests at a popular water-cure establishment. This kind of social uncomfortableness is something with which contemporary Americans are increasingly familiar. Comparisons between the antebellum conflict over slavery and the late-20th century impasse regarding abortion, though the parallel is scarcely an exact one, have become trite. Yet abortion is only part of the broader picture, as slavery was also. When the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus devoted a recent issue of First Things to a symposium on the moral legitimacy of the American government, many readers, including certain of the magazine’s contributing editors, reacted as if the editor had touched off the first gun in Second Fort Sumter. The truth is, if the cultural and political divide in America today were drawn along regional or sectional lines rather than on social and economic ones, the Second American Civil War would have been declared long ago. This is a notion that certain people find terrifying—too terrifying, it seems, to contemplate. Others of us are made more sanguine, even sanguinary, by the thought.
At the time of the War for Southern Independence the American pohty, having reached its apex with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, was already in decline. American civilization, however—North and South—was in many respects in its fullest flower, a product of the colonial past brought to full maturity and unblighted as yet by the vulgarity, coarseness, and abstraction of industrial empire. I refer skeptics or dissenters to the record, the primary literature, of the Civil War period. That a modern-day reader can find solace in the history of his country’s hitherto greatest crisis as a people—not least for the nobility and heroism that our forebears were forcefully engaged in displaying a brief 130-something years ago—is testimony to the terrible condition of that country today. Southerners and Northerners, Union and Confederate, officers and enlisted soldiers, the men who fought the War Between the States were men indeed; offspring of a culture in which physical strength and stamina, resourcefulness, courage, and stoicism were balanced by cultivation, a little learning, fluency in self-expression (written and spoken), and the gentlemanly gentleness that used to be called gentility. These qualities were reciprocal, and reciprocated. Men who had been compatriots only months or a few years before remained brothers across the lines: the tragedy of this bungled unnecessary war is never more poignant than in the scores of instances, from First Manassas to Nashville, in which warriors paid homage to the bravery of their opponents—sometimes, as at Gettysburg, to the point of cheering them forward. It maybe too much to say that the American Civil War, the first war in which troops (Jackson’s) were transported by train to the front and the first that experienced trench warfare, was also the last major war to which the character of the combatants was intrinsic. But not by a lot.
A rigid, duty-driven, almost painfully serious man, Thomas Jonathan Jackson appears at first look as one of the war’s less chivalric commanders, more a model of the modern military man established, perhaps, by Cromwell. As a fighter. General Jackson was all business. Rather than praise the valor of opposing troops, he once remarked to a subordinate who had expressed regret at having to shoot gallant men in action that he would kill every man, as he did not wish the enemy to be brave. At least one review of Robertson’s book I have seen speaks of a contradiction between Jackson’s relentlessness in battle, and his stern piety. In fact there was no contradiction on account of that very sternness, as I think Robertson himself would agree. Unlike Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson was no Tidewater aristocrat but an orphan from the hill country of northwestern Virginia, where he led a lonely hardscrabble existence before winning admission to West Point Academy. Taciturn and shabby beneath an old forage cap—he wore his blue VMI faculty uniform into the early months of the war, at the risk of drawing friendly fire—Jackson forewent Lee’s quiet elegance in dress, even more Jeb Stuart’s sartorial flamboyance. In many ways, he was more of a Roundhead than a Cavalier, whose strict Presbyterianism translated in the American setting as a Southern type of New England Puritanism. Jackson had hoped that war might be averted; when it came, he understood the crisis in theological terms. The infidel North intended the destruction of his sacred homeland, a country entrusted by God with His purpose. “Now,” Robertson says, “he could begin the long but holy task of lifting the Almighty’s scourge from the country and obtaining God’s blessing on the most faithful side.” However, as a professional military officer Jackson was acutely aware of the disadvantages the Confederacy was under in its defiance of the Ignited States of America. “We cannot stand a long war,” he told his wife. Yet the price of defeat was terrible. “I myself see in this war, if the North triumph,” his brother-in-law recalled him saving, “a dissolution of the bonds of all society. It is not alone the destruction of our property, but the prelude to anarchy, infidelity, and the ultimate loss of free responsible government on this continent.” Therefore, the South must not lose.
And so Jackson urged upon Lee that small bands of Confederate troops be organized to mount a series of invasions to the north, holding cities for ransom, paroling prisoners, attacking and retreating everywhere. “I would make it hot for our friends at their homes and firesides, all the way to Kansas.” In laying his proposal before Lee, Jackson, as Robertson observes, “was advocating ruthless, uncompromising war with the enemy. His precedent was the Old Testament; his justification was the freedom of the God-loving people of the South,” who after all were fighting a purely defensive war. At bottom, he was arguing that a weaker government could not defeat a far more powerful one, using the means of conventional warfare. “That premise,” Robertson remarks, “was current but unacceptable to Confederate authorities.” Therefore, deprived of the chance to pursue what he considered the most effective and economical (in lives as in materiel) of possible strategies, Jackson was for hitting hard—killing every man—that the war might end as soon as possible, and the troops on both sides return to their homes and families. Jackson’s own wife, Anna, gave birth to his only child to survive a few months before the events at Chancellorsville.
One aspect of Jackson’s faith is, undeniably, disturbing. On a night late in 1862, while the destruction of the railroad between Harpers Ferry and Winchester was in progress, Jackson had a long conversation with Surgeon Hunter McGuire about religion. “I have no fears whatever that I shall ever fall under the wrath of God,” he stated. “I am as certain of my acceptance, and heavenly reward, as that I am sitting here.” Jackson’s assuredness on this point suggests the degree to which his admired, and admirable, righteousness pressed close upon self-righteousness, as it did on a number of occasions in his life and career. Most godly, even saintly, men and women, profoundly conscious of the inevitability of human sinfulness defiling those lives most humbly, conscientiously, and heroically dedicated to doing the will of God, have felt reason to fear falling under God’s wrath. That Jackson believed divine punishment, in the case of himself, to be unimaginable is less suggestive of the unshakableness of his Presbyterian faith than of its imperfect formation.
That is, however, a personal consideration. The broader one has to do with Jackson’s devotion to the Cause. For Stonewall Jackson the fact of his being a God-fearing man and his country a God-fearing nation produced the unquestioned, and unquestionable, conclusion that God was a Confederate. Now it may be that this sort of theological and moral certainty is necessary to men confronted by the intense suffering, privation, and sacrifice that war demands of them; also to their families at home. On the other hand, it is always bad theology—even if God is a Confederate, hi our day of banished religion, relativistic morals, weak principles, and loss of nerve, the reality of a government supremely confident in the rightness of the society it represents, and a society equally well-assured of itself, appears to us as a dream too good to be true. Yet such self-assurance may have contributed crucially to the South’s weakest element, its quality of brittleness. No individual, and no country, should be too confident of having read God’s will aright. It is doubtful that the more sophisticated Lee shared his subaltern’s unblinkered faith in the Southern cause, since he himself opposed the war until the moment when Mr. Lincoln sent federal troops across the Potomac and, in its closing months, confided to his son the belief that his compatriots would live to regret secession—and soon. The Confederacy had legal, constitutional, and moral right on its side; also, as the more civilized of the two opposing cultures, it had the more humane vision, slavery or no slavery. But did God really wish the Confederacy to win the war? For that matter, did He hope to see the Union—the future bastion of abortion, napalm, and criminalized prayer—the victor? Who knows what God wants? What we do know is that the South lost its bloody bid for independence, and that with the death of Stonewall Jackson—shot by his own men in the Wilderness around Chancellorsville—shocked and grieving Southerners wondered, for the first time, whether God might really acquiesce in their defeat. Something else we know: that triumph, in this world, is only rarely a sign of the Lord’s favor, but rather its opposite.
James Robertson’s Stonewall Jackson is a long book with too-short paragraphs and a spare, plain style that exactly suits its reticent, laconic, supremely heroic subject. It is a splendid addition to the enormous literature on the Lost Cause that never was lost, the conclusive war that did not end but has continued to the present day when it continues to be fought, under different flags (some of them), and in a multiplicity of forms and guises.
[Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, by James I. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Macmillan) 950 pp., $40.00]