Book Review: Searching for Stonewall by Ben Cleary

Searching for Stonewall-cover.jpgIt seems I’ve been searching for Stonewall Jackson in one capacity or another for more than 20 years, so, needless to say, Ben Cleary’s new book, Searching for Stonewall Jackson, caught my attention.

Cleary takes a Tony Horwitz-like approach to his explorations of Stonewall Jackson, combining a modern travelogue with biographical information. The intent is to let his modern travels shed light on the historical story, and ideally, vice versa.

As an intermediate-level wartime biography of Jackson, Cleary’s book is quite good. For someone who doesn’t want to wade through the massive tomes written by Bud Robertson or S. C. Gwinn, this book makes an excellent compromise. It follows Jackson’s wartime exploits with enough detail to satisfy a Jackson fan without getting bogged down or going microscopic. Cleary talks some about Jackson’s pre-war life, but the emphasis begins at First Manassas and ends just after Chancellorsville.

Cleary draws on a fair number of primary resources for the book as well as many secondary sources. He references both Robertson and Gwinn extensively, often drawing on them for historical analysis rather than offering analysis of his own.

The book is less successful as a travel piece. At the end of his first chapter, he reflects forward on his search. “I would learn as much about modern America as I would the past; as much about myself as I did Jackson,” he writes. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t deliver on this promise to any great extent (Cleary may have, indeed, learned as much about himself as Jackson, but if so, he doesn’t open up on the page about it in any way that’s meaningful to a reader.)

As an example, after walking the battlefield at Manassas, where he explores Jackson’s first major military action, Cleary rests on a bench beside a swampy stream. “Four cross-country girls ran past, their long, easy stride a mockery of my plodding,” he writes. “One of them was Asian, and I meditated briefly about what Jackson would make of our present-day diversity.” That felt like a ham-fisted way to use Jackson as a lens for learning about modern America.

The travelogue does have some nice moments, though. I particularly enjoyed Cleary’s uphill climb to the McDowell battlefield as he traced the Valley Campaign. His fording of the river on the trail of the Antietam Campaign was also fun. He does a good job of putting boots on the ground and going to the places Jackson went and sharing those adventures.

It’s when he tries to extrapolate that he left me wanting. For instance, after talking about the trenches in his woods and the minié balls he’s found in his back yard, he says, “It’s hard to imagine not being drawn to the past.” However, earlier in the book, he shared an instance where a landowner not far from his house had bulldozed a thousand yards of earthworks, then received a standing ovation for it at a public meeting. The disconnect between those two episodes disappointed me because such ambivalence about history is absolutely real and worth exploring and discussing.

Cleary seemed to miss opportunities like this throughout. “Fighting is a part of human nature,” he writes at one point. “We don’t really need a reason.” And…? I asked rhetorically. No answer came.

Cleary did warn “I would be left with more questions than when I started,” but I assumed that would mean food for thought rather than loose ends. The book’s subtitle, “A Quest for Legacy in a Divided America,” suggests that type of thoughtful exploration. Unfortunately, the book never quite gets there.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, in the wake of the surrender of Harper’s Ferry, Cleary shares an episode about a correspondent who’s more interested in writing a colorful account of Jackson at the expense of accuracy. “It’s a lot more fun to write—and in this case write very well—about Jackson the legend than it is to be accurate about Jackson the man,” Cleary observes.

To his credit, Cleary himself writes very well about Jackson—the man and the legend—and his book is enjoyable to read. That it did not deliver on one of its key premises did not detract from its value as a biography or even as a travelogue. The quest for legacy, unfulfilled, continues.

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4 Responses to Book Review: Searching for Stonewall by Ben Cleary

  1. Ryan Quint says:

    Sounds like he took Tom Huntington’s George Meade book and ran with it, tripping along the way. The titles are the same. “Searching for George Gordon Meade.” “Searching for Stonewall Jackson.”

  2. John Sinclair says:

    Chris: I think you are too kind in describing the book as a good intermediate-level wartime biography of Jackson. I have read the book – and promptly put it in my library donation pile. I wouldn’t even had done that but as a bibliophile I never throw a book in the trash can.

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