Sunday, August 19, 2012

Just Finished Reading

When I began my fascination with the Civil War many, many years ago, one of the personalities that I couldn't get enough of was Stonewall Jackson. The stories that I read about his eccentric peculiarities led to an air of enigma that drove my curiosity to find out everything I could about the Confederate legend.

Year later, when I applied for a summer fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House, I did so partly for pragmatic reasons - it paid - but I also did so because my fascination with "Old Jack" continued, and still continues, to intrigue me.

Wallace Hettle's Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory did much to explain how we have come to know what we know about what was arguably the Confederacy's biggest hero at the time of his death. Hettle contends that early biographers of Jackson took much from their own personal stories and added many of their own personal values to tell Stonewall's tale. Subsequent authors, on into the present, have added further layers to the enigmatic man, many not based in any historic primary sources, but yet have continued to complicate a full understanding of the man.

Hettle focuses his study on a handful of both fiction and non-fiction authors that have wrote about Jackson since his death in 1863. Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian minister and one-time member of Jackson's war-time staff, was one of the earliest biographers. Hettle states that Dabney's book, The Life and Campaigns of Gen. T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson, published in 1866, was "an admixture of modernity and and proslavery moralism [and] would not only secure its influence on subsequent historiography, it would underscore the complex and ambiguous nature of southern conservatism in an age of social transformation."

Pre-war author and member of J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry, John Esten Cook, provided a romantic depiction of Jackson in his books on the man. "The writer's focus on a great general fit neatly with his romantic appreciation of the enduring ideas of individual genius and democratic ideals." Cook's works influenced many of the biographers that followed to show that Jackson was a man that all American's - both North and South - could find admirable in the post-war U.S."

Other authors such as Jackson's own wife, Mary Anna Morrison Jackson, also get a look. Mary Anna provided a domestic look at Jackson in her book, Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson, published in 1892. Ms. Jackson sought to limit depictions of her husband as a religious fanatic and promoted the idea that he was a loving and devoted family man. Hettle writes "By domesticating Jackson, she helped produce a usable past not only for white southerners in the Jim Crow era but for many Americans today."

Various soldier memoirs, southern novelist and suffrage advocate Mary Johnston, twentieth century literary critic Allen Tate, and even Jeff Shaara's novel Gods and Generals and the movie it produced, are covered by Hettle. In his conclusion, Hettle warns us that a "True understanding of Jackson cannot come through the kind of great-man history that mars too many accounts of famous warriors," rather, "To understand the Civil War, or any conflict, historians must paint on a big canvas that includes not just soldiers and civilians but also the vagaries of history and memory."

I enjoyed reading Inventing Stonewall Jackson and the perspective that Hettle provides. However, I was disappointed to see that the Stonewall Jackson House and its director Ms. Michael Lynn were not mentioned in his acknowledgements. I assume since they were not mentioned that Hettle did not visit this wonderful treasure, which not only has material culture relating to Jackson and would certainly inform on how he has been remembered in history, but also has a wealth of scholarship produced over the years by graduate fellows that have now become well recognized academic historians and pubic history advocates. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give Inventing Stonewall Jackson a 4.5.


  1. Tim:

    Thanks for your generous review. I had thought I was covering present-day mythology by looking at _Gods and General._

    But if I had it to do over again, I would include more material on Lexington, Virginia, which is such a historically fascinating town.

    I have visited the Stonewall Jackson House, and it is a good place. But that, paradoxically, was my problem with it. In a book on mythology, how do you deal with places like the Jackson House, or with NPS sites that largely get the story right without harming the thematic unity of the book? That was my thinking at the time, but I respect your thoughts on that subject.

  2. Hello Wallace,
    Wow! I don't think I have had an author comment on my thoughts about their book before. I am honored that you would take time to read what I wrote, and even more that you would respond.

    With my last paragraph I was not so much suggesting using the the Jackson House as an example of myth-making, but rather as a resource for primary and secondary evidence, especially on people such as Mary Anna Jackson.

    Thanks again for giving us such a great book.