It takes a skilled historian to uncover the sources of a heroic image and separate myth from reality. That is precisely what Wallace Hettle of the University of Northern Iowa does in this delightful and path-breaking book. Step by step, he charts how Confederate martyr “Stonewall” Jackson, second only to Robert E. Lee in posthumous fame, acquired his historic reputation for battlefield courage and dynamic leadership, and a personal reputation for piety and inscrutability.
Hettle introduces us to Thomas J. Jackson’s background, his popular image while the war raged, and the questionable circumstances surrounding the origin of his memorable nickname. The author turns from here to the men and women who shaped the general’s legacy in histories of the 19th and 20th centuries. It turns out that the chroniclers of his life, those who knew him well and those who admired him from afar, are nearly as interesting and provocative as the subject himself.
Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian clergyman related to Jackson by marriage, served as a noncombatant staff officer under Jackson during the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862. He retired from the battlefield after a short stint, but went on to write copiously in defense of the South’s cause; his 1866 Jackson biography was so fervent that even Robert E. Lee considered it incendiary. In spite of its self-righteous tone, Dabney’s authority was rarely doubted in the postbellum years.
Then there was John Esten Cooke, a southern man of letters with a national audience. Before the war, he wrote for the Southern Literary Messenger and Harpers, and was the author of several novels. It was Cooke who first characterized Stonewall Jackson as an eccentric - drawing on the literary trope that genius was often accompanied by personal peculiarities. Jackson supposedly went to bed “booted and spurred,” and took icy-cold showers “in puris naturalibus” (stark naked).
A less questionable source for information about the “real” Jackson was his widow, Anna. Her own memoir, Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson, was issued in 1892, and portrayed him, predictably, as a loving husband and father. The author, properly critical of the widow’s somewhat dreamy rewrite, does a careful study of the Jacksons’ domestic economy, bringing clarity to their life together at the moment war called him away.
In the spring of 1863, hearing that her husband was gravely injured, she was able to bring their baby daughter to his side shortly before he succumbed to his wounds. Anna Jackson never remarried, declaring: “I would never give up my name.” In Victorian parlance, this meant that she could maintain her public visibility as well as a spotless moral reputation.
Over the course of the narrative, Hettle shows that “Stonewall” was by no means opposed to the lionization he received in the newspapers during the war, and that his wife wrote because she sorely needed the money. As time passed, a sense of the real Jackson yielded to murky depictions and mixed messages as to his character and judgment. Nostalgia always does damage to the quest for honest history. One who fought under Jackson reflected that the men saw the general as their “idol” and would “follow him anywhere”; the “faded gray cap” he wore proved that he felt himself on a par with the lowliest soldier.
Hettle sets the record straight. Jackson, he shows us, was a strict disciplinarian, equally loved and feared by his troops, a man who shot deserters and disciplined lesser generals.
Inventing Stonewall Jackson is short but comprehensive, and all the more valuable given the fact that the paper trail, as the author explains, is “remarkably thin.” This well-written book makes an enormous contribution to “Lost Cause” literature and forces the reader to think deeply about the war as it persists in American memory. Professor Hettle has done as much as anyone can or will to get to the bottom of one of the great mystery men of the Civil War era.
Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American political culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.