Question of the Week—January 5, 2015

In his book Such Troops As These, author Bevin Alexander calls Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson “by far the greatest general ever produced by the American people.” Later, he refers to Jackson as “one of the supreme military geniuses of all time.”

Do you agree with him? If so, why?

If not, who do you think the greatest American general “ever produced by the American people” was?

26 Responses to Question of the Week—January 5, 2015

  1. I have not read his book yet so cannot agree or disagree with his particular points by which he supports his position. This is also a very difficult question for me (and perhaps it is presumptuous to attempt to answer it at all) as I study only the Civil War and am therefore not educated on the great American generals of other wars: Washington, Greene, Scott (well, maybe a little about him since we CW people necessarily delve into the Mexican War), Pershing, Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, etc.

    To start with, I think most anyone would automatically rank Lee ahead of Jackson, never mind other Civil War generals that one might fancy. And, of course, his non-performance in the Seven Days’ Battles stands as a major strike against Jackson. Another problem is his not having lived through the War; therefore, we don’t have an entire data set on him, for better or worse.

    With those caveats, I do not feel that the author’s statement is completely over the top. Jackson is undeniably a stand-out in American military history, as evidenced by many assertions that his Valley Campaign and Chancellorsville flank march are still studied in military academies. He won battles against great odds by sheer maneuver and steel will.

    Yet the perception of a general’s greatness is not merely a matter of his winning percentage. Look at General George Thomas, for example; he could be said to have prevailed in every battle he fought, some of them dramatically decisive, yet even his own superiors Grant and Sherman could barely tolerate keeping him on and (while many of us CW people hold him in the highest esteem) his name is barely known to history.

    What Jackson possessed was a rare and compelling mystique, and this is what defines a transcendent leader. He was so unique in this quality that people of the time attributed his success to special communion with the supernatural. In Maryland in 1862 “crowds were continually hanging round his head-quarters, and peeping through the windows, as if anxious to catch him at his “incantations,” for many believed he was in league with the Old Boy [Satan] and had constant intercourse with him. Others, again, actually thought that he was continually praying, and imagined that angelic spirits were his companions and councillors…” (“Battle-Fields of the South Volume II by T.E.C. An English Combatant In The Southern Army”, pp. 330-1).

    Some analysts may insist only on empirical assessment of military feats on the ground. But those rectangles on battle maps were comprised of men with hearts and the will to survive, and they looked to their leaders to instill courage and inspire their service and sacrifice with higher meaning. I believe the contemporary perception of Jackson as a complete devotee of God, an Old Testament warrior not subject to limitations of the flesh, combined with his natural and learned military abilities, placed him on a level above and beyond just about any other American general. Some, such as Washington, have we mythologized after their time, but Jackson was viewed in that light, by both his countrymen and the enemy, during the time that he fought.

  2. I agree whole heartedly with Ms. Warren. I too would place Lee ahead of Jackson, and also Thomas and Grant. But this is a Civil War ranking. I must give more thought to an overall performance considering other era generals. Based on this I doubt he will emerge as #1

  3. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not that a Civil War general could not have risen to the cause, but I am always amazed at Ike’s ability to run a war in almost all of Europe in WWII. He was the consummate commander, IMHO. His feel for planning, logistics, and attack are unparalleled, except maybe by Napoleon. Ike brought logistics to a fine art, and no one has equalled him until Schwarzkopf–and Schwarzkopf was never tasked with everything Ike had on his plate. So–much as I would have lived to say Grant, I gotta go with Ike.

  4. Years ago a British newspaper published a list of the world’s greatest generals. Unfortunately the list disappeared in a computer meltdown. Winfield Scott was the top American, ranking about 10th or so. Eisenhower was high up as was Grant. Lee ranked further down and Ol’ Stonewall was not mentioned. Why should he be? He was never higher than a corps commander.

      1. N, Amanda, I don’t. Probably someone like Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.

  5. OK, having spent the better part of the last decade of my life pondering American military leadership and military history, I’ll bite on Alexander’s hyperbolic bait. Applying the following criteria, I offer the following list of candidates as among the pantheon of Great American Generals. The sole criteria is demonstrated ability to command an army (or larger formation) in combat. They are listed in chronological order.

      1. Both luminaries for sure. Marshall (while one of the truly great Americans in history) does not fit the criteria of selection.
        I thought long about putting Pershing in, but gave Bullard the nod because Pershing himself (in actions, if not in so many words) indicated that Bullard was the most skilled army commander in the AEF.

  6. Stonewall Jackson achieved immortality by his death on May 10, 1863, indeed much of his myth was because of his death in battle.
    We tend to think in terms of Jackson as the great independent offensive general, brilliantly handling his troops — and those of the enemy — as though they were chess pieces. The reality is quite different. Jackson had won his nickname, not for a glorious attack, but rather in a defensive mode, “standing like a stonewall” at First Manassas. Since then, in his first independent offensive, against Romney, his troops all but mutinied and practically starved because of incompetence in the Confederate supply system, problems compounded by the incompetence of Jackson’s staff.
    His next attack was First Kernstown, where, without bothering to reconnoiter the Federal position, he attacked overwhelming odds and was decisively beaten, almost losing the Stonewall Brigade in the process, and leading to a very messy and very public attempt to shift the blame to Richard Garnet. Looking back over a hundred fifty years, we can see the impact of First Kernstown on Federal strategy, but this was not as clear to those in Richmond who saw only the loss and the messy attempts to blame Richard Garnet, rather than Jackson’s assuming responsibility himself.
    After being forced out of the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson did return, and conduct an exquisite campaign against generals of the caliber of John Charles Fremont and Nathaniel Banks. But, for all of that brilliance, at the end of the campaign, Jackson was right back where he started, at Port Republic, with most of the Valley still in Yankee hands.
    Called to Richmond to support General Lee against McClellan, his entire performance during the Seven Days was dismal at best and incompetent at worse. Only Lee’s continued faith kept Jackson from joining Huger and Magruder in western exile. What Lee thought about Jackson can be shown by his post-7 Days reorganization: Jackson’s Wing was reduced from 14 brigades to 7 while Longstreet’s was increased from 6 to 28.
    At Cedar Mountain, against Commissary Banks, Jackson’s tactical performance was similar to First Kernstown. This time Jackson outnumbered the Federal forces but almost lost the battle. Those who praise Jackson for flanking Banks out of in May always forget to explain how the same General Banks, although with inferior forces, came so close to defeating Jackson in August.
    This is not much of a record to justify greatness: Romney a disaster, First Kernstown a defeat, the 7 Days, under the eye of President Davis, lethargic movements which may have made the difference between victory and defeat, and Cedar Mountain, almost a loss — and a loss, even though Jackson had the superior numbers, against the same general he had easily handled in the Valley.
    That kind of record was balanced unevenly against the defensive set piece of First Manassas and the admitted brilliance of the Valley Campaign. But even the Valley Campaign did not secure the Shenandoah for the Confederacy.
    After Cedar Mountain, came the flank march to Manassas. At Brawner’s Farm the unblooded Iron Brigade fought Jackson and his entire command to a standstill.
    Interestingly enough, Jackson fought 2nd Manassas in a defensive mode, as he had at 1st Manassas a year before. It was the overwhelming offensive assault of Right Wing commander James Longstreet that secured the victory. At Antietam, Jackson again demonstrated his abilities as a defensive general, moving his outnumbered forces around with the skill he was supposed to have had along. His biographers usually forget that Jackson recognized his defensive abilities, although Stonewall himself commented, “My troops may fail to take a position but are never driven from one.”
    A record of one good campaign, two defeats, one lethargic campaign, one almost defeat and two (three counting First Manassas) victories does not make much of a record! Today armies are less tolerant of mistakes and Jackson would have been relieved of his command after Romney or Kernstown at the latest.
    In the aftermath of Antietam, the Confederate Congress created corps with lieutenant generals to command them. James Longstreet had been 4th on the list of major generals: he now became the senior lieutenant general. Jackson was 5th senior major general: he dropped to the 6th lieutenant general.
    At Fredericksburg, it was Jackson’s corps that was pierced by the Yankee attacks, the only break in the Rebel line.
    Jackson did redeem himself at Chancellorsville but he was killed before he could grow further.
    One of the characteristics of a general officer is his ability to delegate authority but not responsibility. In this Jackson failed and continued to fail. His subordinates never knew what he was planning. He never rose above corps commander, and was not uniformly successful at that. As an army commander he would have been a total failure.
    As corps commander, he was not even at the top. Longstreet, Hancock, Hooker, Hardee, and others were far superior. Even Hood was more successful than Jackson.

    1. Bob, Very well stated. You skip over the Valley Campaign, calling it ‘exquisite’ but I think when examined closely there are issues there as well. Banks had inferior numbers at Winchester — it took Jackson 20 regiments to turn Banks’ 4 regiments on Bowers Hill and still Banks got away. On June 8 at Port Republic Jackson was surprised by Carroll’s cavalry raid, almost losing his wagons. The next day his management of the battle of Port Republic was poor, as he fed his force in piecemeal.

  7. I’m going to be both nitpicky and a bit ambiguous on my answer. Meg can attest to my tendencies in this regard ; ). I don’t think that I can pick a single best commander, though I’ll try at the end. From a strategic standpoint, I think that Washington, Grant, Eisenhower, and George Marshall would all deserve serious consideration. Operationally, I think that Patton, Lee, Sherman, and Jackson would all be great choices, as would Grant and Washington. Tactically, I like Forrest, Thomas, Hood, Creighton Abrams, and Holland Smith. If I had to pick ONE though, I think I’d probably go with Washington. As far as Jackson goes, since he is under discussion, I think his niche was what we now call the operational level, though such a distinction didn’t exist at the time. As a tactician, he was rather unimaginative and we really don’t know about his strategic sense, though I have my suspicions that he would have been competent in that area.

    1. Sorry to have posted twice. I had a glitch when I posted this first comment and didn’t think it went through. So I did another one, which I think is a little better anyway.

  8. I’m going to be nitpicky and a bit ambiguous in my reply. Meg can attest to me tendencies in that regard ; ) I think it depends on how you view each commander. On the strategic level, I think that Washington, Grant, Eisenhower, and George Marshall would all deserve serious consideration. On the operational level, I like Lee, Jackson, Sherman, and Patton. Washington and Grant would be good choices here as well. Tactically, I like Forrest, Thomas, Hood, Creighton Abrams, and Holland Smith. I’m tempted to put MacArthur in there, based on his operational performance on New Guinea and Inchon, but his defense of the Philippines in 1941-42 and his pantsing by the Chinese in 1950 make me leery of him. I’m leaving off Scott and Pershing because I don’t know as much about them as I should. Since Jackson is under discussion here, I’ll say that I think his niche was on what we know today as the operational level, though such a distinction didn’t exist at the time. He was rather unimaginative as a tactician and we really don’t know anything about him as a strategist, though I suspect that he may have been competent. If I have to pick ONE guy out of all this, I’ll take a deep breath and pick Washington.

  9. Oh, tough question and topic, but I love the mental challenge.

    Jackson was great (most of the time), but Jackson had a unique brand of leadership. He won victories, made “impossible” campaigns, and executed flanking maneuvers that would’ve made Napoleon envious. But Jackson was not the best American general. I like Jackson very much and could (do) read his biographies and battles for days on end, but I know he had some glaring leadership flaws. #1: Lack of Communication – his secretiveness was infamous, but it was sometimes disastrous, leading to doubt from his subordinate generals and staff. He was also stuck on the “letter of the law” and would not move from a position unless told, a good and bad thing. I don’t think he would have been a good commander of the Army of N. Virginia; corps commander was enough – and would like to know what he would’ve done in the Gettysburg Campaign. (He might have been in Vermont before Lee crossed the Potomac, and who knows where Stuart would’ve been then…off topic…sorry)

    So, if Jackson was not the all-around best general who was? Ugh…I don’t know. They all had flaws of some sort or another…however, one of my favorites and one whose military record is pretty close to perfect is General Dwight Eisenhower. He was amazing! Douglas MacArthur was also very good, but the Truman and the Korea issues are a problem. Washington was a campaign genius. (Oh, and what about McClellan…just joking… 🙂 )

    Conclusion, Jackson was a good commander and deserves the attention he received, but he is not necessarily the best general America ever had. Very, very hard to narrow down one perfect American general, but for tonight, I’m voting for Eisenhower – he was a calm leader, excelled at communication and strong diplomacy, and did everything he could to encourage his troops. His control of the European Theater is amazing and America was blessed to have his wisdom and military leadership.

    I almost wrote a book here, sorry. I hope “Questions of the Week” continue. It was fun to see what other historians thought and everyone’s commenting nicely. Thank you!

    1. After reading/watching this question, I think our questions should involve the Civil War AND its extensions into other wars, other places and times. The Sesqui will end this year, and we need to broaden our collective view. I want to truly deserve Joe Truglio’s comment. Huzzah!!

      1. I hear you there, Meg, and you’re right. For anyone reading this, search “Civil War Echoes” on this blog and you’ll see some things tracing exactly that.

  10. I agree Meg, but the Civil War era as a starting point for the questions is fun. I think the CW is really turning point in US history and it’s interesting to view the rest of history with some knowledge of the military/social/political/economic changes coming out of the CW!

    One of the things I love about this blog is the great CW history and the occasional beyond 1860 view. Thanks to all the contributors!

  11. Great discussion. I find the proposed title a bit hyperbolic and agree with many of the comments. Jackson is in any case one of my favorite characters.

    But I have a question for you experts: Everyone talks about Jackson’s brilliance at Chancellorsville. What about Second Manassas? The flanking movement at Chancellorsville was excellently conceived and executed, but wasn’t it after all reactive, ad hoc, almost a “hail Mary”?

    Hooker had taken the initiative, flanked Lee, and pulled him out of his strong position at Fredericksburg into the Wilderness. Lee was in trouble and saved by Hooker’s hesitance as well as by Jackson.

    However, for Second Manassas, Jackson had the initiative throughout the campaign: He got way behind Pope between him and Washington, captured a major depot, disrupted Union supply lines, fell back into a strong defensive position, waited for Pope to find him, and then held him off until Lee and Longstreet snuck up on Pope’s flank and almost destroyed him.

    I’m not clear how much of that was Lee’s thinking and how much Jackson (or just a great team), or how much was planned or just good decisions at each point,. But as a campaign, it seems near perfect and better than Chancellorsville. What do you think?

      1. Chris: Absolutely. Thanks. Ever since reading Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy a number of years ago, I have wondered why Second Manassas doesn’t get more recognition as one of the great ones, strategically and tactically. Another essay maintained that, while Lee had the general idea, Jackson should get most of the credit. In researching the naval and international side of the war, I found that the English thought a lot of him too. His death caused an extraordinary outpouring of grief there, probably more so than for any foreign general in British history. Who doesn’t love Jackson?

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