She stood staring into the room, tears streaming down her face. The quiet tick of the clock in the background was an appropriate melody for the sad scene. The woman mourned the loss of a great man who one hundred fifty years earlier had rested his tired body in the bed just feet from where she was standing. Today this site is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP in Woodford, Virginia. It is the death site of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, located twenty-seven miles south of the Battlefield at Chancellorsville where the famous Confederate general was shot. But the greater question is not where, but why. Why, after so many years, are people still mourning the loss of Stonewall Jackson?
Stonewall Jackson was an incredible phenomenon during his lifetime; he was one of the most well-known generals of the Civil War and his death on 10 May 1863 even made Northern newspapers. But what makes Jackson so appealing to people today? In many ways Jackson’s story is reminiscent of the American spirit, for it finds its beginnings in humble roots but ends in glory. Jackson was born in what is today Clarksburg, West Virginia (at that point still Virginia) and shortly after birth became an orphan. (1) He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, but only after another Virginia man returned home, thereby creating an opening. (2) By the end of Jackson’s four years of military education, the young man who had been woefully unprepared for West Point graduated in the top half of the Class of 1846. (3) Jackson would go on to gain recognition in the Mexican War, but it would be the American Civil War that brought true fame to Jackson.
Since the conclusion of the Civil War, the mythology of Jackson has taken on a life of its own, virtually creating a new man. Perhaps the most obvious myth in the Jackson story is the belief in Jackson’s love of lemons. Henry Kyd Douglas, author of I Rode With Stonewall, is attributed with creating the myth of Jackson sucking on lemons, though it is widely acknowledged that the general did like fruit. This myth has taken on epic proportions, from people leaving lemons on Jackson’s grave in Lexington, to leaving lemons at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, and finally to the availability of lemon stress balls at the bookstore of the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, VA. Even though the Jackson House makes it clear that Jackson’s love of lemons is an invention of postwar collective memory, there is obviously still a market for these lemon stress balls.
The example of the lemons is perhaps the most glaring example of misunderstanding of Jackson’s character, but other distortions of Jackson’s life are far subtler. In the hearts and minds of many people, Jackson has become an almost mythical character. There is even a journey called the “Jackson Pilgrimage” taken by many who not only love, but adore, the general. Many “pilgrims” start at Chancellorsville where Jackson was shot, move on to where his arm was buried, then on to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, and finally end in Lexington, Virginia where the general is buried. Some travelers even add additional sites to their journey through Jackson’s life, such as Manassas and Clarksburg. Visitors also pay their respects to Little Sorrel, Jackson’s preserved horse at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. The very fact that it is referred to as a “pilgrimage” and that sites along the route include a birthplace and deathbed imply a very religious aspect to the journey.
Jackson’s life has been idolized for so long that his very humanity has been lost. Rather than being a human being who made mistakes, Jackson has become the godlike general who never did anything wrong. This is not only wildly incorrect, but almost unfair to the man. History has ceased to see Jackson and instead sees only a symbol of Jackson. To many Americans who adore Jackson, he is not a man, but a pillar of the Lost Cause. Therefore the mistakes of his military career, including his lackluster performances at Second Manassas and Antietam, are glossed over. (4) Jackson’s religion also becomes a focal point for believers of the Lost Cause—he could not have failed because he was a “great and holy man.” If Robert Lee is the Lost Cause’s God, then Jackson can be none other than Jesus Christ himself.
These depictions of Jackson are not only wildly inaccurate, but also shade an important facet of Thomas Jonathan Jackson as an individual. In characterizing Jackson as a mythological figure, part of Jackson is lost, for he was a man with thoughts and emotions, fears and hardship, and moments of great joy. What was Jackson’s first marriage like? How did he suffer the loss of his first wife? Why did he turn to an evangelical form of Christianity later in life? What compelled him to choose Virginia over his duty to the United States Army? In the modern interpretation of Jackson, these questions are either left unanswered or their answers are sterile. No one seems to care to get to know the inner workings of Jackson, a somewhat odd man who would make a fascinating study and whose mistakes would tell us equally as much about the man as his successes. Before a study of Jackson could be undertaken, though, members of both the academic community and the general public need to start seeing Thomas Jonathan Jackson the man, and not only the over glorified “Stonewall.”
1. James Robertson, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing USA, 1997), 7.
2. Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 24.
3. Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 44.
4. See the Civil War Trust page on Stonewall Jackson for further information: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/thomas-jackson.html