Stonewall Jackson, by James L. Robertson Jr.

Major Thomas Jackson landed in Lexington, Virginia, after service in the Mexican war and duty thereafter in Florida. He was a native of what is now West Virginia, but his time at VMI in the 1850s made Lexington his true home. A West Point commission was his only after another young man from his town left the Academy after one day. Jackson was next in line to go. He struggled through his classes and nearly flunked, but learned to study by the time that he was an upperclassman. He was making such progress that they said that he might have been top of his class if he had just had a few more years there.

In Mexico, he showed his fearlessness in battle and in peace. While stationed in Mexico City, he decided to investigate the Catholic religion. He made an appointment with the archbishop and questioned him about it. Jackson left Mexico with a love for tropical fruit and the Spanish language, but he was true to his Scotch-Irish roots in matters of religion.

In Lexington, he became a faithful member of the Presbyterian church and could be found there every Sunday. Without fail, he slept through the sermon. He started and taught a Sunday school for black children, which he faithfully continued to remember during his war service. His first marriage ended in his wife’s death during the birth of their first child, who died as well. He went on a tour of Europe and the Northeast and returned to Lexington and a happy second marriage.

Jackson was not one of the first to call for secession, but he knew his duty. It was time to “draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.” He led a troop of VMI cadets and reported to duty in Richmond. He was nearly put in a desk job, but his valor in Mexico was remembered, and he was sent to the field. At First Manassas/Bull Run he earned the name Stonewall, though he always insisted that his brigade properly owned the name as a group. During the Valley Campaign, he received a fan letter addressed to “Stone W. Jackson.”

The legend grew in the Shenandoah Valley, where he was more successful than he should have been. Robertson details Jackson’s constant movement; he pushed himself and his men to the utmost. Jackson would often have the men move out at 2:30 a.m. (“early dawn,” he called it) on cold rations. He slept in fence corners and on tree roots. He tried to observe the Sabbath throughout the war and even was reluctant to post mail on Sunday. He had no sense of humor and was ruthless to the enemy and deserters, though Robertson is thorough enough to find him making some exceptions.

The book stays close to Jackson. There are no digressions into war policy, economics, or politics. Jackson is never offstage. The book is thoroughly researched in the primary sources; it seems that the author has mined every letter and diary entry by Jackson and those in his service.

Robertson makes some excuses for Jackson at Seven Days, based on his lack of sleep, which Robertson seems to have calculated himself. He also points out where Jackson missed opportunities along the way. Still, it’s a sympathetic portrait of an American character. Jackson and Sherman may never have met, but Jackson seems to have agreed with Sherman’s view of war. It was only because Jackson fought almost entirely on his home ground that he did not take the fight to the civilians. He was not afraid to urge his men to use the bayonet, though they almost always found a way to avoid it.

He was shot in the arms during the dark confusion after his brilliant flanking attack at Chancellorsville. (Robertson is sufficiently fair and sober to note that it is disputed whether the plan was wholly Jackson’s, or Lee’s, or a joint project.) He lingered long enough to see his wife before a happy death. His arm is buried near Chancellorsville, in a shrine that I visited years ago off of Interstate 95. The rest of him is in Lexington.

Lee is in Lexington, too, having gone to Washington College as president. What if Jackson had lived? Imagine the faculty meetings and the stories they would have told.

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