Yes, there is—by approaching him as a West Virginian, as shown by Steven Straley, a resident of the Mountain State, in his Stonewall Jackson…the Making of a West Virginia Idol. The author’s intent is not to emphasize Jackson’s life-story, which has been well told, but to demonstrate “how and why Jackson is remembered in West Virginia.” He succeeds admirably.
To be sure, Stonewall was dead and buried at the time Lincoln recognized West Virginia as a state in June 1863. And while Jackson is most closely linked with Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley, Straley points out that while he was born in 1824 at Clarksburg, Virginia, the place is now in West Virginia—and that therefore the famed Confederate general should really be considered a West Virginian.
It’s a noble (if rather academic) effort, given General Jackson’s association in the popular mind with the Old Dominion. Jackson spent much of the 1850s at Lexington; raised his illustrious Stonewall Brigade from regiments hailing from the Valley; laid the basis of his Confederate fame in the Valley Campaign of 1862; and is interred at Lexington. For residents of the Mountain State—and Mr. Straley is one—all of these facts seem to be so much impedimenta that can be removed by home-state boosterism.
Becoming a “West Virginia Idol” took a long time for Jackson, as the author shows. While the Confederate press was lionizing Stonewall for his wartime exploits, there was little esteem for Jackson in the fifty-odd western counties that would make up the new state. Indeed, “the Union-dominated state press—much like Northern newspapers—regarded Jackson with disapproval,” the author states. In December 1865 the Clarksburg Telegram wondered why anyone would want to raise a statue of Jackson, when as a Rebel general he had made so many widows and orphans.
It wasn’t until the social movement creating a “Lost Cause myth” in the 1880s and ‘90s that West Virginians began erecting Confederate monuments. The author counts seven sculpted memorials to Southern soldiers dedicated in the state between 1899 and 1908. I personally regret that Straley felt compelled to mention the remark of a Harvard professor that Confederate monuments had more to do with turn-of-the-century racism than with memorializing the Confederacy.
A Constant Reminder traces West Virginians’ use of Stonewall Jackson’s name through the 1950s and ‘60s up to the present. A local phone company, for instance, issued a directory with Old Jack’s picture on the front. The author notes that these associative efforts at times also reflected state leaders’ drive to portray West Virginia as more than just a home for Appalachian hillbillies.
Indeed, Jackson has been commercially co-opted in any number of ways. One of my favorites—I wish Straley had mentioned it—is a Coca Cola ad running in the Saturday Evening Post in the ’30s. While Stonewall and his men take a breather from one of their legendary marches, the caption reads, “Stonewall Jackson taught us what ‘the pause that refreshes’ really means.”
I have to say that, given Jackson’s association with the Old Dominion, the author’s emphasis on his subject as a West Virginian seems a bit overdrawn…sort of like the speaker in Clarksburg at a 1911 Jackson statue dedication who extolled “the unselfish devotion which he had for the people of his state”—forcing Straley himself to comment, “he failed to mention that, for Jackson, that state was Virginia.”
With all of Straley’s zealous cataloging of the schools, bridges and highways in West Virginia bearing Stonewall Jackson’s name today—a really commendable feat—the author overlooks the fact that recently the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Lexington has been renamed to take out the Stonewall Jackson part. With all the effacing and erasing of Confederate related-nomenclature these days, I suppose it’s only a matter of time before West Virginians do the same with their Jacksonian labels. When that happens, Thomas Jonathan Jackson will remain what most of us already know him to be—a Virginian.
A Constant Reminder to All: Stonewall Jackson, the Lost Cause, and the Making of a West Virginia Idol
By Steven Cody Straley
35th Star Publishing 2022 $15.95 paperback
Reviewed by Stephen Davis