Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Wallace Hettle's "Inventing Stonewall Jackson"

Wallace Hettle, professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa, is the author of The Peculiar Democracy: Southern Democrats in Peace and Civil War.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory, and reported the following:
Here’s page 99: I include the whole thing to be sure I am not stacking the deck in my favor.
“an ambition as boundless as Cromwell’s, and as merciless.” Taylor viewed Jackson’s ambition, which was “vast” and “all-absorbing,” as the mainspring behind his squabbles with his subordinates. Jackson “fought it with prayer,” Taylor stated. Engaging in speculation rather than reporting, Taylor portrayed Jackson as haunted by ambition. He “loathed it, perhaps feared it; but could not escape it—it was himself—nor rend it—it was his own flesh.” Taylor’s highly subjective account was based on an ordinary human tendency to make broad judgments about personal character based on limited evidence.

Richard Taylor provided a scathing indictment of Jackson both as a man and as a soldier, reflecting genuine mistrust between the two men. Yet Taylor had neither the desire nor the ability to trash a dead Confederate hero. Instead, he exaggerated Jackson’s eccentricity with a tone that played Jackson for laughs. He portrayed Jackson as humorless, as having “no more capacity for jests than a Scotchman.” In fact, since Jackson was “of Scotch-Irish descent,” his “unconsciousness of jokes was de race.” Taylor several times referred to Jackson’s supposed penchant for sucking on lemons, portraying the general as an ascetic who “sucked lemons, ate hard-tack, and drank water” because “praying and fighting appeared to be his idea of the ‘whole duty of man.’ ” Perhaps Taylor presented Jackson in comic terms because he thought Jackson too strange to be an icon of the Confederacy. Still, Taylor vigorously praised Jackson as a hard marcher who won victories by surprising his enemies and who tragically “fell at the summit of glory.”

Henry Kyd Douglas was for a time the youngest member of Jackson’s staff. While in his memoir he criticized Jackson for squabbling with subordinates, which “detracted much from his personal popularity” with them, his overall view of the man combined admiration with irreverent humor. He fondly recalled the day Jackson climbed a tree in pursuit of fresh persimmons, only to find himself stuck and unable to descend. Jackson remained suspended above the ground until his staff, “convulsed by laughter,” brought fence rails and “made a pair of skids to slide him to the earth.”Douglas told a number of such tales, including one in which Jackson drank from a bottle, assuming that it was wine, without “stopping to taste.” To the amusement of his staff, the general soon became “incipiently tight,” having in fact taken a large drink of whiskey. Unaware of his intoxication and feeling warm, he commenced to discuss how rapidly temperatures changed in the Shenandoah Valley.
Page 99 unmistakably represents my approach. I argue that we lack enough direct evidence to fully understand Stonewall Jackson’s character. Jackson has long been known as the Cromwell of the Confederacy, an eccentric with strange ideas about diet and religion, among other things. But because Jackson did not survive the war or write enough personal letters, much of what we know about him comes from the memories of relatives, friends, and fellow soldiers. Memory is a peculiar and unreliable thing, and these biographers and memoirists had their own agendas. With many accounts of Jackson, myth-makers tell as much about themselves as they do about Jackson. The result is that falsehoods have found their way into today’s scholarly literature and contemporary popular works. I seek to debunk the mythology surrounding Jackson by assembling a collective biography of Jackson’s early biographers, examining them to illuminate both Jackson and southern culture. My book begins with Jackson’s image during the Civil War. It closes with an examination of the 2003 film centered on an idealized Jackson, Gods and Generals, which many historians believe celebrates treason and slavery.

Page 99 provides views of Jackson from fellow Confederate officers. Richard Taylor, a fabulously wealthy Louisiana slaveholder, portrayed Jackson as a great general but a distinctly odd man. In Taylor’s view, Jackson was weird: cruel to subordinates, ambitious to a fault, and strangely obsessed with sucking on lemons. The lemon myth, as historian James I. Robertson notes, cannot be true as lemons would not be available in abundance. The page moves to the young officer Henry Kyd Douglas, who wrote a memoir full of inaccuracies. The story of Jackson getting stuck in a tree cannot be fully credited. It is the kind of tale that makes Douglas’s book a good read but a lousy resource for historians. Douglas’s book should remind us that separating fact from fiction can be both crucial and difficult.
Learn more about Inventing Stonewall Jackson at the LSU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue