Book Review: A Constant Reminder To All: Stonewall Jackson, the Lost Cause, and the Making of a West Virginia Idol

Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson is the subject of more than a dozen biographical books and countless articles. So is there any new slant in approaching this famous Virginian?

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

5 Responses to Book Review: A Constant Reminder To All: Stonewall Jackson, the Lost Cause, and the Making of a West Virginia Idol

  1. No matter what state he is associated with, I will always admire the great man that I believe he was. Stonewall Jackson was an amazing man with a great love for his family and for Freedom and for Jesus Christ. Yes, he was on the Confederate side of the line. I was born in New Jersey. And I don’t believe that slavery was ever a good thing. But neither was the treatment of the Irish, Italian, Chinese and other laborers who helped build America as we know it. They were starved and beaten and abused but the north doesn’t like to talk about that. Neither thing makes anything that happened on either side of the Mason-Dixon right. I am of Scottish ancestry and have Cherokee blood in my veins. The English and the Romans were well known for their horrific treatment of the Scots. Watch Braveheart and you will get just a small idea of that. Most Americans have heard of The Trail of Tears. So in my own family history, there are plenty of horror stories of treatment by the “other side”. I am happy that someone is celebrating the life of Stonewall Jackson. I am sad that the people of Virginia couldn’t let the name of a cemetary be as it was. All of the tearing down of the past statues leaves us with nothing … we don’t remember the good or the bad. History has many lessons to teach. One of them is that none of us, past or present is perfect. Except for Jesus. Stonewall was a great General and many leaders have copied or studied his techniques. But the destruction of monuments and the changing of names does not change anything. It just marrs the present. It does not create a desire for positive change. There were many “good” and “bad” actors on both sides. The General who burned down Atlanta is not admired by many. I am sure he harmed the innocents and many slaves in the process. General Sherman, in my mind, was heartless. I don’t know of many places named after him. Nor have I ever seen a statue of him. There probably are some. But I wouldn’t want to tear it down even though I don’t like him. We can learn far more by learning the lessons of History from all of the angles and persons involved. Learning from all that we can helps us to change the present and future. If you want to know more about slavery, read the history of Israel and their time in Egypt. If you want to know more about slavery in America, watch Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce. Guess where Americans got their slaves ? People from their own countries sold them to the English, French and other countries. And we got ours from our ancestors. Those who first came here from other nations, either made friends of Native Americans or they killed them. Which approach do you think worked better ? None of us are guilt free. We have all mistreated or enslaved people of other places that we lived in or settled in or conquered. That is the truth of history. We have the responsibility to learn from history and not make the same mistakes. Including the history of Socialism, Communism, and Fascism. None of those ideas helped free people. The United States, which started as 13 colonies… with the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights, and The Constitution… has helped free more people than any country before or since. Yes, we had strife. Yes, we are far from perfect. But just as Virginia and West Virginia have honored or rejected Stonewall Jackson… we now seem to be rejecting much of our good and true history. That is a very dangerous and foolish mistake.

  2. Emerging Sillyness Blog. There were 650,000+ people who died in the Civil War. Union and Confederate monuments were erected along the same timeline in the decades after to commemorate the war, remember the dead and reconcile. It is immoral to rip down monuments erected by people generations ago.

  3. There is a lot of historical misperception here, in review and book. This is part of a phenomen I call “take that away from West Virginia”. I’ve seen it in discussions of the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” where people insist that the song is about Virginia and not West Virginia, even though the writers have said that it is about West Virginia. They will take away the coal, timber, minerals, gas, any accomplished West Virginian, in return for environmental waste, public assistance and EBT cards and giving us full credit for something like the Wonderful Whites.

    First of all, I don’t think the reviewer realizes that half the counties in West Virginia supported Richmond (or the Confederacy, if you wish), and they did not have “little esteem” for Jackson, rather the reverse, The first Confederate monuments in West Virginia were not late 19th century, the first was erected in Romney in 1867 and holds the title (along with the Cheraw, SC, monument) as the first erected in the US.

    Jackson was fully aware of his ties to the west, he requested posting to West Virginia in 1861 but was turned down. “The Valley”, in 19th century Virginia, included 6 West Virginia counties, and those West Virginians composed about a regiment and a half of the Stonewall Brigade. Those men as well as Jackon, were both Virginians and West Virginians.

    Memorialization of Jackson in West Virginia began as early as 1862 and in the simplest form, in the naming of children. Benjamin Wilson of Clarksburg, formerly a delegate to the Richmond secession convention, named his newborn son Stonewall Jackson Wilson. This practice occurred all over the state, my own great grandfather, born in Guyandotte in 1863, was named for Stonewall.

    To say that memorialization of Jackson was somehow foisted on to gullible West Virginians is a dubious piece of historical gerrymandering. I think it will be a long time before Jackson is erased in the west.

  4. I have said this before and will continue to expound the point:

    The Lost Cause is not a ‘myth’; the Lost Cause is a historiography, that is, a school of historical studies.

    There is a variable measure of validity to at least a fair number of its tenets; there are also inset errs and limits to how much history this particular historiography can satisfactorily explain. And yet, even wherein it is of limited historical accuracy, or plain wrong, it can still provide useful historical insight despite this, (for example, showing how exactly a phenomenon was made sense of/committed to social memory/etc).

    As with many historiographies, the Lost Cause is pilloried on a keen sense of historical grievance. With this and all the rest of the above, it shares a large amount in common with other historiographies such as-

    -The Settler Colonialist school and thesis of Aboriginal/Colonised Peoples’ history by Patrick Wolfe, Lorenzo Veracini, Leigh Boucher, etc. This school is very much in vogue today.
    -The Australian Legend school and thesis of Russel Ward. This work was so influential, that even those who either argued against it, such as Humphrey Ward whom offered the ‘New Britainia’ counter-school and thesis, and W.E.H. Stanner, (who coined the phrase, ‘the Great Australian Silence’, for how Aboriginal Australians had been written out of the vast of Australian history), had to acknowledge Ward had proffered the original starting point as a basis to explain how Australians made sense of their history and country.
    -The Laurentian school and thesis of Donald Creighton about Canadian history. The overall greatest critique of this school was said that it was written by the camp orators, ‘who emerged victorious in the development of Canadian Confederation and were unable to imagine themselves as anything but the victors’. Nevertheless, it possessed a fair degree of accuracy and was found its mark as a counterweight to its historic rival school, below.
    -The Chez Nous School of Quebecois Separatiste and thesis. This school argued that Canada had been founded by two races, the British and the French and from the time of ‘La Conqueste’ in 1760, the British/English-speakers had tried to render extinct the French/Francophones, (aka, cultural genocide), thereby rendering the weaker French population justified in its attempts to preserve itself as a distinct society. This school was heavily influenced by the works of such as Francois-Xavier Garneau, Henri Bourassa and Rene Levesque.
    -The ‘Irregular’ school and thesis of Anti-Treaty Irish and IRA history. This school was bolstered by the long duration in political office by what opposing Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan has described in his works as, ‘the losers of the Irish Civil War’. This school argued that Michael Collins had blindly and unforgivably allowed genuine Irish sovereignty to be sacrificed, when it had been nearly won, and vowed to never be relented, in the Easter Rising and Anglo Irish War. This school, in addition to pointing out the attrocities of England and Britain upon Ireland through history also sought to negate any responsibility or criticism upon the latter-day IRA attempts to restore Northern Ireland to the Republic. Its’ prime authors were Eamon De Valera, Ernie O’Malley, Lord Longford and Gerry Adams.

    With all of these above schools, the various arguments, themes, works, etc, that they produced were not w/o objective merit and they did advance critical reflection upon their respective subjects. However, it is important to note that these refused to acknowledge their own inset-errs and limits of explanation.

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