Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a Soldier

This book was written by John Bowers

I picked this book up a couple months ago at Jerry Musich’s Rare & Collectible Books” at 86th & Ditch on the north side of Indianapolis.  This was the seventh U.S. Civil War-related book that I have completed this year  (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Storm Over the Land, Gone With the Wind, The Red Badge of Courage, Company Aytch, and The House Divides are the others).

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a biography, and I’d forgotten how enjoyable a good one can be.  I learned a lot more about the legendary Civil War general (whose mother is coincidentally buried in the town that my own mom was born in – Ansted, West Virginia).  I admit also, that I didn’t know too much in detail about Stonewall (Thomas J.) Jackson aside from the popular legends.  (Below: a picture of Stone Mountain, GA, where the likeness of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson are carved)

He was a ‘simple man’ who saw things simply in black & white – or right or wrong.  Also very religious, he hated fighting on the Sabbath and would often take time out to pray as part of his preparations for battle.  As Bowers put it, “Jackson loved the regulated life, loved to know what to expect and to do his duty to the almighty.”

There was also much in this book that reminded me of two of my other Civil War books – The Red Badge of Courage, and Company Aytch.  Both spoke to the chaos of the battlefield could leave one with the impression that “no one really knew what was going on.”  Bowers cites The Duke of Wellington’s thoughts on this: “…battles, if not history itself, could never be recalled with total accuracy.  He compared the past to a grand ball, where everyone in attendance sees but little moments, and all have different reactions and never the definitive picture.” This seems a very apt analogy to me.  Bowers puts it into his own words as well:  “Battlefields are not sports arenas – a designed region, there for the purpose of a refereed engagement.  A battlefield is not neatly set up with markers saying what is in and out of bounds.  Battlefields come into being when a general decides “Here I’ll stand”; when armies stumble over one another; when a marauder seeks out his prey and pounces; by wild chance or divine providence, depending upon viewpoint.” In short, once again I was reminded that “War is hell.”

There is a ‘glorious’ side to war too, of course. Why else would – across countless generations of history – there be a seemingly limitless supply of volunteers?  As Robert E. Lee said (quoted in this book, though I was already familiar with the phrase): “It is well that war is so terrible.  We should grow too fond of it!”

In another section – chronicling what became known as the Seven Days’ battle – I was reminded of a phrase you hear often these days (though most often related to sports) which is “No excuses, no explanations.”  Jackson and Lee meet, after Lee had failed to appear at the proper place and time earlier in the conflict.   The meeting was summed up thus: “Well, forget the delay, and what had taken place; never apologize, never explain.”  In other words, there was work to be done in the here and now, we can worry about the past later.  A sound policy, widely applicable, not just in war.

“We will give them the bayonet.”

I think the reason Jackson was so successful (he was studied by future generals, including Patton & Rommel, and his tactics were supposedly the basis for Germany’s concept of “Blitzkrieg” warfare) was that he ‘understood’ war.  Where others would maybe cling to ‘peacetime values’ and let them temper decisions and actions, Jackson realized those must be suspended in the face of battle.  He was ruthless with deserters (they were shot) and did not tolerate those who would not follow orders.  A good summary of Jackson’s strategies, related by John Imboden who served closely with him:

“he often said there were two things never to be lost sight of by a military commander: ‘Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit so long as your men have strength to follow; for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed  by half their number. The other rule is, never fight against heavy odds, f by any possible maneuvering you can hurl your own force on only a part – and that the weakest part – of you enemy and crush it.  Such tactics will win every time, and a small army may thus destroy a large one in detail; and repeated victory will make it invincible.”

All in all, a very interesting book.  It’s made me want to read about many of the other historical figures I encountered within…

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2 Comments

  1. Sak said,

    August 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    I’m not sure I would enjoy the book as much as your summary of it. I fear that you may have hit on the best parts. But reading the post makes me want to read this book.

    Like

    • stentorpub said,

      August 1, 2010 at 5:13 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Sonja. Knowing what I do about your reading tastes, I don’t think you would enjoy this book – some of its descriptions are – I suspect – a little too graphic for your tastes.

      I may move on to a biography of Robert E. Lee next. I downloaded one (written by his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, who also participated in the Civil War) recently and may give it a try. I’m still on schedule to read 12 civil war-related books in 12 months this year!

      Like


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