James I. Robertson, Stonewall Jackson:
The Man, the Soldier, the Legend. New York: Macmillan Publishing
USA, 1997. Pp. xxi + 950.
In his introduction to Stonewall
Jackson, James I. Robertson writes "The intent here is to see life as
Jackson saw it, to hear his words, to read his thoughts, to walk besides him
and know little more than he knew at a given time and place." Robertson
has studied Thomas Jackson so thoroughly that he believes he can tell us
what went on in Stonewall's head. He can even eavesdrop on Jackson's
conversations with God, as he relates Jackson's private prayers (p. 259).
That is both the principal strength and the principal weakness of his book
"Robertson writes the kind of 'vivid' history that, while popular
and novelistic, is not scholarly."
Of particular interest to Robertson as well
as to readers of this journal is Jackson's religious faith. Although much of his discussion of the
specifics of Jackson's belief is buried in his footnotes, he shows that
contrary to common impression, Jackson was not an orthodox Presbyterian,
at least not when he joined the church; his doubts about predestination were
so great that his testy brother-in-law Harvey Hill told him to go to the
Methodists. (p. 810, n. 9) Indeed, according to Hill, Jackson's
"repugnance to predestination was long and determined." (p. 134) This
certainly helps us understand Jackson's Presbyterianism, for otherwise it
is hard to understand how a man so devoted to remaking himself could accept
a denomination that so stressed man's inability to do anything of the kind
where it most concerned his soul.
Robertson treats the relationship between religion, ideology, and
Confederate service with care. In his introduction he explains, "Like many
men of the South in 1860, Jackson was convinced that Northerners had
violated principles of both the Founding Fathers and Christianity by
attempting to create a new society that lacked order as well as cohesiveness.
The North seemed to be striving to alter basic American structures. Such
activity flew in the face of God's preordained notion of what America should
be." (p. xii-xiii.) But his footnote for this passage does not concern
Jackson; instead Robertson cites Drew Gilpin Faust's Creation of Confederate
Nationalism. The one piece of direct evidence that Robertson cites for
this interpretation is a conversation Jackson had with his brother-in-law
Rufus Barringer in summer of 1862. "'I myself see in this war, if the North
triumph, a dissolution of the bonds of all society,' Barringer remembered
Jackson saying. 'It is not alone the destruction of our property, but the
prelude to anarchy, infidelity, and the ultimate loss of free responsible
government on this continent.'" (p. 514; Robertson also quotes this same
speech on p. 234.) For an argument so central to this biography, I wanted
more evidence, although I am delighted with what Robertson does provide;
the more Jackson's beliefs can be fit into the framework of conventional
white southern thought, the better.
Robertson provides a detailed and careful account of Jackson during the
secession crisis. On the issue of slavery, he concludes, with no evidence,
Jackson "probably opposed the institution." (p. 191) Robertson's
bibliography does not list much in the way of the history of southern
religion; for example, Mitchell Snay's study of the "sacralization" of
slavery is missing. While Charles Royster's controversial Destructive
War is cited, it is obliquely dismissed, not engaged. "The geniunely good
Jackson biographies number no more than a half-dozen and are unfortunately
dated." (p. xvii) Readers of this journal will spot many hares Robertson
started and then let get away.
Robertson has drawn an often persuasive
portrait of Jackson, but when
readers turn to the footnotes for evidence, they will often be disappointed.
Too often Robertson's argument consists of an "undoubtedly," as in
"Undoubtedly [Jackson's] appraisal of life at Puebla coincided with that of
a fellow artillery officer Lieutenant David Frost who declared. . . ."
(p. 61) Robertson writes the kind of "vivid" history that, while popular
and novelistic, is not scholarly. One wishes he had made a different
decision, as this biography of Jackson is rich in research and interpretation.
One also suspects that the academic community is not the community to
which Robertson addresses this book.