It’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.
Yet 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.