Indulge me for a moment as I think out loud. I don’t have an answer to the question I’m about to pose, so I don’t have a position to state. I’m more interested in the conversation than the conclusion.
A few weeks ago, I offered my reaction to Ty Seidule’s provocative book Robert E. Lee and Me, which traced the author’s journey as a Southerner reckoning with the myth of the Lost Cause. Then, earlier this week, I mentioned the Virginia Military Institute’s ongoing efforts to reckon with its own Confederate history, including its relationship with Stonewall Jackson.
Because I’m a Stonewall Jackson fanboy, I expressed disappointment that VMI was undoing many of its Jackson associations. I seemed less concerned, in my post about Seidule’s book, about Lee’s undoing. Indeed, I tend to be harder on Lee for his decision to fight for the Confederacy than I am on Jackson. This, as we’ll see, sits at the heart of my ponderings today.
Jackson’s no one I would have wanted to hang out with by any means, but his complexity—based, ironically, on his black-and-white worldview—fascinates me, and he makes a great case study for how complex the study of the Civil War is. One could make the same argument about Lee. There’s a lot we can learn from both men.
Unfortunately, the Lost Cause has mythologized Lee and Jackson to the disservice of both men, and because people don’t like to have their heroes poked or their mythologies questioned, critical examination of either man inevitably raises the hackles of their partisans. (Of course, critical examination is exactly what we need if we want to actually learn from history. If anything “erases history,” it’s the blind embrasure of the Lost Cause, which replaces fact-based history with wishful mythology.)
Anyway, as I continue to consider both Lee and Jackson, here’s my question:
Lee quit the U.S. army to cast his lot with Virginia. I have always recognized that as a difficult personal choice on Lee’s part. In making his decision, though, Lee basically reneged on his oath as a soldier to defend the country and Constitution.
Jackson, too, had once been a solider in the U.S. Army, but he’d resigned ten years earlier to take a faculty position at VMI, the military academy for Virginia. The student body is the official militia of the commonwealth. When Virginia seceded and called on VMI for cadets and officers, Jackson was professionally obliged by his position to answer the call. It was literally his job to go to war on behalf of Virginia, and he seemed to show no angst over it.
Is there any substantive difference—moral, practical, or otherwise—between the routes they each took to Confederate service?