Stonewall Jackson by Donald A. Davis (Palgrave Macmillan (2007), Hardcover, 224 pages)
Stonewall or Oddball?
I have to come clean immediately and confess that I have difficulty with the description, ‘tough fighting generals’. What they are describing are heartless individuals who send men to death or mutilation with reckless abandon. Let us remind ourselves that wars are started by politicians, fought by generals and won by soldiers. The American Civil War was the exception: the generals prolonged that one. Before you cast me aside as a peace-nik lefty, let me assure you that I saw action as an infantry officer, and know a little of what I speak.
Books about wars: and this is a book about a war more than a biography of an individual, are either from an officer’s perspective, or the enlisted man. Donald Davis is the exception being quite at home writing about either. His best seller ‘Lightening Strike’, records the active service of a gunnery sergeant. However, I could find little sympathy for the fighting man in this volume. Mr Davis wrote with touching tenderness of the separation of General Jackson from his wife and new baby girl. A separation that didn’t last long as the general called them to his side. Tens of thousands of ordinary soldiers from North and South would have thought precious, just a moment with their loved ones. Rank has its privilege it seems.
Davis’ detailed descriptions of the various battles are excellent, if a little tedious.This is due perhaps to a lack of information about Jackson who was such a secretive individual, that it’s a wonder Davis was able to write the book at all.
Born at ClarksburgWest Virginia on January 21 1824 into an attorney’s family, he preceded by four months another general and West Point chum who saw the light of day at LibertyIndiana in May: a future adversary, Ambrose Burnside.
After a very unsettled childhood, he entered West Point more by luck than judgement. He struggled to keep up but had an almost eccentric ability to focus unswervingly on the subject at hand. This paid off and he was able to move up the rankings graduating 17th out of a class of 59. This was not good enough to get him into the esteemed engineers, but it did get him into the artillery as a second lieutenant.This single minded eccentricity bordering on autism became more apparent when he was under fire during the Mexican Way. Observation of his reckless valour caused him to be bumped up the ranks to acting major. Another manifestation of his disturbed mental state was his inability to work in harmony with others. His unresolved dispute with a brother officer while stationed at FortMead in Florida, resulted in him leaving the army and taking up a teaching post at LexingtonVirginia.
The general consensus was that Thomas Jackson was a poor teacher, but the eight years there gave him the opportunity to meet and marry two wives.
The Civil War found him back in the army and up to his neck in muck and bullets in the battles so precisely delineated by Mr Davis. His eccentricity (or mental disturbance), new no bounds and he and his soldiers went from victory to victory even if it killed them. He even had one of his generals (A.P.Hill), dragged along behind a cart on an interminable march for some undisclosed actus reus.This so damaged the general’s tender feet that he was out of action for some time. Not the action of a sound mind you might think; particularly when it concerns one of your better generals.
Jackson continued to carry the whole war on his shoulders, confiding in no one until he experienced a nervous collapse. From then until the end of his life he was conspicuous for his ability to fall asleep anywhere. On one occasion he was summoned to see his boss Robert E Lee, and promptly fell asleep before he saw him.
Thomas Jackson was a religious zealot who spoke more to God than anyone else. However, he did not practice what he preached, nor anything anyone else preached as he didn’t stay awake long enough. He had no compunction in raking artillery fire into Mexican civilians when Mexico City failed to surrender in 1848, or later when he gunned down a retreating Mexican army.During the Civil War he showed no reluctance to destroy fellow Americans be them from the North or the South, and insisted that his officers do likewise.
To experience fear while in the presence of danger is normal. To some extent it is possible to hide that fear. Jackson did not hide it; he did not have any fear. He constantly took needless risks and in front of his troops defied the conflagration to kill him. That was until Chancellorsville on May 2 1863.Throwing caution to the wind as usual, he took his staff beyond his own front lines to reconnoitre the enemy positions. True to form he omitted to inform anyone of his intentions. Upon his return he was fired upon by his own soldiers and hit three times. Six of his staff were killed outright. He however was not killed but was stretchered to an aid station falling off the stretcher on the way. The chief surgeon of Jackson’s army, Dr Hunter McGuire, amputated his left arm, but did not notice General Jackson complaining about chest pain. The pain developed into pneumonia from which he died on May 10th 1863.
Google Books list over 4000 entries for General Jackson, and most of them suggest that had he lived the result at Gettysburg would have been different. The generals lost the battle for the Confederates by their bickering and lack of direction. Jackson would have only added to the confusion. The soldiers of the South fought their hearts out at Gettysburg only to be betrayed by their officers.
Donald Davis’s book is a myth breaker, and a ‘must read’ for anyone who has an interest in the first modern war.