Historian James I. Robertson Jr. once remarked that Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (1824-1863) possessed all the “gifts of a supreme military leader” – “imagination, speed, boldness, determination.” He was “a military genius fighting for the Lord.” Jackson, the subject of at least eight biographies, joins Gen. Robert E. Lee among the gods enshrined in Confederate legend.
Now S.C. Gwynne, an award-winning journalist and author of “Empire of the Summer Moon,” joins the ranks of Jackson biographers. Do we really need another Jackson biography? Yes and no.
Gwynne dutifully slogs from one battle to another, from First Bull Run to Chancellorsville. His contribution, however, lies in capturing Jackson’s character, personality and historical significance. He interprets Jackson as a discipline- and God-obsessed social bore, yet one of the fiercest fighters and most brilliant minds in American military history.
Gwynne considers Jackson a “living myth,” a wizard who eluded larger Union armies by moving farther, faster and more secretly than his rivals. Gwynne identifies a “lethal” quality in Jackson – “something grim and unyielding and inexplicable and alarmingly single-minded.” He possessed a certain “dark magic,” understanding “how much raw suffering and death lay in the path of victory.”
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Southerners revered Jackson as an aggressive warrior. Gwynne documents that as early as 1861, Jackson favored “total war” – invading the North, laying waste to its armies, industries and cities. Jackson believed only a brutally destructive war would “force the people of the North to understand what it will cost them to hold the South in the Union at the bayonet’s point.”
Jackson ascended rapidly from nerdy artillery and physics professor at Virginia Military Institute to Lee’s audacious and seemingly invincible lieutenant. Once given command, “Old Jack” grew into one of the country’s foremost strategists and tacticians. He extended battle lines farther than his enemy could extend his, then turned the enemy’s flank, making him face fire from two directions.
Jackson proved fearless in combat, acquiring the sobriquet “Stonewall” for his bullet-shredded stance at First Bull Run in July 1861. During his 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Jackson’s “foot cavalry” employed lightning-fast, deceptive flank maneuvers, preventing reinforcements from joining Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s advance on Richmond.
Gwynne makes clear that for all his martial prowess, Jackson was an idiosyncratic oddball. Remote, socially awkward and reserved, he was inflexible in virtually every facet of his life.
A chronic dyspeptic, Jackson’s diet consisted of stale bread and cold water. A fanatical Christian, he raised his hand in prayer in the heat of battle. As a commander, Jackson proved to be duty-bound, unforgiving and quarrelsome. A stickler for detail, he often treated his soldiers brutally.
Tragically, troops from the 18th North Carolina Infantry mistook Jackson and his party for Yankee cavalrymen following the Confederates’ May 1863 victory at Chancellorsville, riddling the general with bullets. Determined to save his life, surgeons amputated Jackson’s left arm. Hearing the news, Lee lamented, “Jackson has lost his left arm ... but I my right arm.” “Old Jack” died soon after.
In death, Jackson came to symbolize “a myth of invincibility,” evidence that Confederate “notions of the glorious, godly, embattled, chivalric Southern character were not just romantic dreams.” Lee even hypothesized that had Jackson served with him at Gettysburg, he would have seized Cemetery Ridge and Big and Little Round Tops. “There would have been no Pickett’s charge,” Gwynne explains, “because Jackson would have held that ground before the battle started.”
Gwynne insists unconvincingly that Northerners, admiring Jackson as a Christian gentleman, grieved for the eccentric warrior. His death “triggered the first great national outpouring of grief for a fallen leader in the country’s history.” Unquestionably, however, it solidified Jackson’s place in the pantheon of Confederate heroes.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC-Charlotte.