The Complex Character of Stonewall Jackson

Thomas J. Jackson was one of the most compelling characters of the Civil War. He was a devout Christian (Presbyterian) who worked to improve the lot of the “least” of those in his community (black slaves), who also fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. In his work, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, author S.C. Gwynne unpacks the life of the man who became known as “Stonewall” and who, more than any other Civil War figure, shaped the future of the union.

            Jackson grew up in Clarksburg, WV (VA prior to the Civil War), and having spent my teen years just outside that town in the small dot on the map known as Lost Creek, I can attest that there is still a general pride in having produced a general of Jackson’s quality. But that quality was not seen early-on. Jackson lost both parents young and grew up with various relatives. He received little formal before working his way into West Point. Upon his arrival, he was the picture of a country bumpkin compared to the rest of the students. It is during the West Point years that his grit and determination began to manifest itself. He taught himself the subjects that he needed to know and slowly climbed the class rankings until graduating at a very respectable place in his class.

            After college, Jackson served well in the Mexican-American War, but like many veterans, floundered a little afterwards. He was finally awarded a teaching post at VMI, where he carved out a good life for himself, though he was not widely liked or respected as a professor. While in Virginia, Jackson married, but lost both wife and child. He would eventually re-marry and have one daughter.

            For the purpose of the book, this material is all background leading to the main emphasis of the work: the two years of the Civil War in which Jackson played a major role. Gwynne does an excellent job of portraying Jackson as who he was, an introverted, socially awkward man who faced a sizable learning curve (as did all US and Confederate generals) in coordinating the sheer numbers of troops they were responsible for. Jackson could be harsh and almost legalistic in his application of the rules, and yet was known for his tenderness and kindness in other spheres.

            The greatest contribution this book makes to the canon on Stonewall Jackson is the deep dive into the man himself. Jackson was as devout a believer as could be found on either side during the Civil War yet didn’t see slavery for the moral evil that it was. He doted on his wife, and showered her with affection and love, but had a sense of duty that led him to prohibit an officer from staying behind with a dying family member. His men hated him when he pushed them to their human limit on marches to outflank a Union army, but they loved him when he led them from the front, always pushing them forward and into the attack.

            I heard a pastor once state that he believed that God intentionally removed Stonewall Jackson from the Civil War because it was the only way the Union could win. Despite the utter incompetence of many of the Union generals during this time, I don’t know if that is true or not. I do know that when Jackson died, it felt as if the hopes of the Confederacy died with him. I encourage you to read this book. It is a well-written, well-sourced work that gives incredible detail and illuminating insight into the life of an incredibly complex character.