Those of us who tell the story of Stonewall Jackson’s death are often asked to share our thoughts on what might have happened had Jackson lived. (I usually respond by challenging the basis of the question, as I’ve explained here and here.) While often fun, speculating on counterfactual history is nearly impossible, so many of us try to avoid it, at least in a professional capacity. Instead, many of us dodge the question using a variety of sidesteps. One of the most common is to whip out a quote from former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
During a 1923 visit to the United States, George made a point to visit the building where Stonewall Jackson died—today known as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. “That old house witnessed the downfall of the Southern Confederacy,” George said. “No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived.”
George’s comment certainly frames Jackson’s death as a major turning point of the war, and many people who share that view use George’s comment to reinforce that perspective. However, I’ve had reason of late to reconsider George’s words.
If we unpack George’s comment a little, we can see that it’s quite literally true: “the history of America would have to be rewritten had ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived.”
However, the same exact thing could be said of virtually any major historical figure. You could say, “No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had Abraham Lincoln lived.” It doesn’t even have to even be a live-or-die scenario, either. No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had Abraham Lincoln never moved to Illinois, or had Abraham Lincoln never learned to read, or had Abraham Lincoln never been born.
Pick anyone. Pick any event, big or small, in their life. Had that event turned out differently, the person’s life would have turned out different; if that person’s life turned out differently, the story of American would have turned out differently.
So, George’s statement carries a sense of gravitas, but it’s actually a statement of the blindingly obvious. In that regard, it serves as a useful bit of rhetorical sleight of hand because it sounds so good.
Quoting George carries a particular weight. After all, as the former British prime minister during World War I, George knew a thing or two about war and the factors that impact it. He had a strong sense of history and understood the sorts of things that affected its ebbs and flows. So, perhaps his judgment about Jackson’s death did come from a place of particular insight.
That’s the logic, anyway—but I’ve come to wonder about that, too.
Recently while reading a biography of Winston Churchill—Thomas E. Ricks’ Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom—I came across a passage that made me reconsider the wisdom and insight I’d also given George credit for. Specifically, George called Adolph Hitler “a remarkable man” whose good sense “has not been turned by adulation.”
George would not have been the only person snowed by Hitler, by any means. But if David Lloyd George had such remarkably good insight about the flow of history, yet he got Hitler wrong, then perhaps I should not automatically assume he had special insight into Stonewall Jackson, either.
To be clear, I am not comparing Hitler to Stonewall Jackson. Rather, I’m challenging one of my own long-held assumptions—something we all should so once in a while. Perhaps David Lloyd George did not speak with the authority I always I assumed he had.
We’ll be exploring Jackson’s death as a turning point of the Civil War at this year’s Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge. Our Sunday tour on Aug. 5th will concentrate on Jackson’s wounding and death. Tickets are still available for the weekend for $155.