A Visit with Stonewall Jackson on his Birthday

Jackson Bday Lemon 2019It’s 21 degrees in Lexington, Virginia—a cold morning for a cemetery visit. It’s Stonewall Jackson‘s birthday, though, and I’m passing through town on my way to St. Louis, Missouri, for a talk later this week. (I’ll pass through Lexington, KY, later today.) I thought I should take a quick stop in Stonewall Jackson’s hometown to pay my respects. Born in 1824, he would be 195 years old today.

When my daughter was little, we would stop at the local grocery store and pick up a lemon for her to leave at the gravesite. On behalf of that little girl (who’s now in her mid-20s!) I stop and pick one up, although it’s likely to turn into a lemon popsicle in today’s chill.

I wonder about taking a selfie in front of the statue, although it’s more than vanity that makes me consider this question. Statues of dead Confederates are well out of fashion these days, and critics are quick to make assumptions and jump to wrong conclusions. I am not a white nationalist or a neo-Confederate and don’t want to be misjudged as one.

Jackson Bday Lemons 2019Yet Stonewall Jackson is inextricably entwinced with my own “Civil War origin.” I came to the war because my daughter, when she was four, fell in love with Stonewall Jackson because he had a cool nickname and a cool statue at Manassas. We spent years learning about him and exploring his life, discovering many things about the man to admire well beyond the veil of mythology that tends to surround him. He is definitely not the guy portrayed in that statue at Manassas. Beneath the marble man is someone quite different and far more interesting.

Learning about Jackson as my first significant step in learning about the war gave me an appreciation for the differences between “individual motivation for fighting” versus “national motivations for waging war.” The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history, even then, because of its support of slavery, despite the century-and-a-half of postwar whitewashing to suggest otherwise.

However, that doesn’t degrade sacrifices of individual men, does not lesson their bravery or commitment to home or sense of duty. Those are things I have learned to admire. It is why I am sympathetic to Southerners who want to honor their ancestors in the same way I am proud of the military service of my own grandfathers in WWII.

In the months leading up to civil war, Jackson opposed secession right up until Virginia seceded, at which point he said it was time to “draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.” Once he was in, he was all in. He was loyal to Virginia and saw it as his duty to support Virginia’s decision.

That mindset is foreign to observers today looking back, but our inability to understand it is often clouded by the lens of presentism. His decision must be seen in the context not only of the time but of Jackson’s specific situation and character. He saw the world in black and white, which ironically made him a complicated person to understand today—which is doubly ironic because so many people today also see the world in terms of absolutes. Yet it’s hard for some of those same people to acknowledge the possibility of Jackson’s black-and-white worldview; to them, it seems too simplistic to be possible.

Similarly, Jackson disagreed with the idea of slavery, but he felt it was not his position to oppose the institution because God had supposedly ordained slavery and Jackson did not believe in opposing God’s will. He himself and six slaves, and during the war, employed a slave from Lexington, Jim Lewis, as his camp servant. Such contradictions are difficult for us to reconcile in the 21st-century, but Jackson’s believe in absolutes, along with his devout Christianity, allowed him to reconcile them perfectly.

In thinking about Jackson and slavery, it’s not lost on me that today is also the Martin Luther King, Jr., national holiday. There is a national conversation still to be had about the relationship between race and Confederate heritage, which are two sides of the same coin. Ignoring that fact—and subsequent conversation—comes at the peril of our own national ideals. This, more than anything, turns over in my mind as I stand by this cold gravesite today.

Thomas Jackson isn’t anyone I would have wanted to hang around with, but he is someone I have learned to respect and admire. He has earned my loyalty because of the central role he played in my relationship with my daughter as she was growing up. Some families have a hobby they bond over or a vacation home they bond at or other rituals unique to them that have become invaluable components of their lives. Stonewall Jackson was my daughter’s and mine.

In time, he also became a gateway into something larger—the broader study of the Civil War—and a useful lens for understanding the complexities of that war and how we remember it. He continues to give me much to ponder.

Jackson Bday 2019

21 Responses to A Visit with Stonewall Jackson on his Birthday

  1. Thanks for this post. I also appreciate the varied personalities and motivations of the men and women who lived through that time. If they can teach us anything, it should be the danger of making simplistic assumptions about people whose environments and experiences are so totally different from our own.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I agree 100%. We should not make simplistic assumptions about anyone, really, but especially about those whose environments and experiences are so totally different from our own.

  2. Jackson is easier to appreciate now that I read your piece, as are the stories of thousands of other Confederates, at least those who showed a reasonable amount to human sensitivity.

    1. I’m sure it helped that I learned about him as a person as much as I learned about him as a military figure. Another thing that has really helped me appreciate him that way has been my time interpreting at the Jackson Shrine. His death wasn’t just a national tragedy for the south, it was a personal tragedy for a wife and daughter. I always see that story through that lens because of my relationship with my own daughter.

  3. I have long been a fan of Stonewall Jackson. Not of his military life, but his personal life. He lived through many hardships and heartaches. I first learned about him in a book of rules he tried to live by… and then in a book of letters to his wife. He was a very deep and complex man. I often wonder what the future people will think of us and our world when they read about it. I think we need to read history with an eye to the world they lived in… not to excuse ugly truths but to understand the people.

    1. Yes, he lived the kind of sad life one finds in a Charles Dickens novel. I agree with you, too, when you suggest that we should read history with an eye toward understanding, not judgement. Judging the past doesn’t really accomplish anything; understanding it lets us learn from it.

  4. Stonewall Jackson has always been a fascinating character to me. Some apparent contradictions when it came to certain things, yet, upon doing the research, one finds that such ‘contradictions’ were, as Chris puts it, so easily reconciled within himself because of his belief ‘system’. He was certainly fallible as a commander at times, yet his successful accomplishments and campaigns and maneuvers make him one of the superstars of American military echelons.

  5. Excellent piece and especially interesting on this weekend. Life and war sure are complicated. I wonder how we will be judged generations from now if or when public opinion and support wanes for what now is legal and some consider their Right.

    1. Times change and so do priorities and values. As enlightened as we think of ourselves now, I’m sure folks in the future will look back at us and question some of our priorities and values, and we will be judged just as we tend to judge those who came before us.

  6. As an additional side note, his love for and devotion to his family was extraordinary. Every time I return to my Law School in Lexington, I drop in to see his resting place. His life really gives us a cautionary note in not judging just fragments of a life, but the whole man.

  7. Hello Chris,
    Every time I have the opportunity to lecture on an aspect of Jackson’s life, I am always amazed at learning something new. Recently had the privilege of speaking on his legacy there. Of course, we also stopped and left a couple of lemons too.

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