Saturday with Stonewall

Over at Civil War Bookshelf, Dimitri Rotov asks this provocative question:

Where is the historian who presents Jackson as slow, unresponsive, unpopular, harsh, double-dealing, generally confused, and usually unprepared?

Sounds good … but let’s set aside the premise about what historians think for a moment and ask whether this is a fair description before returning to why historians act as they do and why so many of them rely on stock stereotypes of commanders (and battles).

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41 thoughts on “Saturday with Stonewall

  1. While I know some great historians like Bud Robertson love Stonewall (and in fact my very first “landmark” book as a kid was about Stonewall Jackson), I never fully subscribed to the genius thing, or putting him on that pedestal.

    For one thing, look at the calibre of the Union commanders who faced him – Banks, Shields, McClellan, Pope, Burnside and Hooker. Almost any one with a modicum of military sense and the ability to motivate men could have defeated all of them. Shields actually defeated Jackson at Kernstown, and Banks ALMOST won the battle of Cedar Mountain – if Pope had moved in more troops.

    Secondly, Jackson’s men were motivated all right, but many of them downright disliked their odd and often so puritanically strict commander. It is said that his “fragging” at Chancellorsville was deliberate, as the regiment that fired on him and his party as they wandered through the wood that night was one he had severely punished earlier (I forget why and where) and many of the men bore a grudge against him.

    As the “what if” goes, it would have been interesting to see how Jackson, had he not been wounded and had he lived, would have fared up against Meade at Gettysburg, how he would have done things differently. AND IF he had survived and maybe even won at Gettysburg but NOT winning the war, so to speak, how he would have fared against Grant. Having visited Vicksburg recently, which caused me to re-read many histories of the battle, and how the Union commander handled it, I firmly believe Grant not only would have neutralized Jackson, he would have knocked him for a bit.

    Sure ol’ Stonewall was great, maybe even a genius to an extant, an intolerant one at that, but faced with a Grant or a Sherman instead of a McClellan or Burnside, he would have folded, not quite a deck of cards as there would have been a good fight there – but folded nonetheless.

    • I think you can’t go to far in judging a general based on his opponents, because in most cases when an army is defeated, the general’s mistakes have something to so with it. It could be said with perhaps even more justice that Grant only defeated weak commanders. He captured Fort Henry when it was all but abandoned, Fort Donelson was neary a Confederate victory until their incompetence stepped it, at Shiloh he was on the edge of being whipped, he spent months in fruitless attempts to capture Vicksburg, and Johnston left the way open for a siege with his refusal to attack. Chattanooga he didn’t do too bad but was helped greatly by problems with the Confederate entrenchments. When he arrived in Virginia Lee’s army was badly worn out, but that did not stop Grant from suffering heavy casualties and nearly being whipped until Lee’s army finally just died of exhaustion

      Now I don’t think that is actually true with Grant, but the story fits him about as well as Jackson

      • The difference is that the treatment of Grant by historians has always been a bit mixed. While the pendulum may have swung a bit far in the other direction over the past 50 or so years, there’s always been the “dumb butcher” image percolating out there. Jackson has long been portrayed as some kind of eccentric genius. A close examination of his tactical record from March, 1862 until his death 14 months later shows something else that has not been much focused on.

    • I put forth the following: if Jackson had been faced with odds even close to even, rather than the 2+:1 in his favor, he would have lost at Winchester. Some of his successes were more due to having the numeric odds in his favor than about how his opponent was, and the odds were a result of those higher up — Lincoln/Stanton vs Lee/Johnston/Davis.

  2. I believe most historians want to present history as it happened. To present Stonewall Jackson as slow, unresponsive, harsh, double dealing, generally confused and unprepared would be a lie.
    I become angry just thinking about it. I am not sure that historians do rely on stereotypes. Any good historian worth his salt seeks the truth.

  3. If you cherry-pick your way through his record, you can find instances of all of those traits, much as you could with just about anyone, let alone most Civil war generals. Some exhibit one or more of those traits to a greater or lesser degree than others. So it is unfair, inherently unfair to characterize someone as “having those traits” [Well, who doesn't? Besides Dr. Simpson, I mean.] unless a deep investigation reveals them to be that way in ‘most’ instances. I know of no historian who does such with Stonewall. I have seen particular incidents, that when described, would fit one of those traits in one case. I have never heard of him depicted in that fashion.

    Much more fair, and legitimate is to look at the records and find instances of these traits, if present, and deal with them on a trait-by-trait, case-by-case basis, and see if there is not a reason for such incidences.

    Or, one could look at Jackson’s performance at First Manassas, and none of those traits would apply. One could look at his record of independent command and point to his Valley campaign and say that none of those traits serve to describe him there.

    You can’t paint a portrait with such broad brushes. Isolated anecdotes do not make the man, the sum total does.

    • I assume it has to do with Dimitri’s recognition that the Stonewall fetish is just that. First Kernstown, McDowell, Port Republic, the Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Brawner’s Farm, Day 2 at Second Bull Run, Hamilton’s Crossing at Fredericksburg – there’s a pattern. It’s called tactical mediocrity. For all of his skill at operational maneuver (frequently accomplished, of course, against the Union’s 4th line/3rd pairing in the Valley and in the Second Bull Run Campaigns), he repeatedly demonstrated tactical shortcomings, including middling reconnaissance and a bizarre inability to bring numerical superiority to bear in an efficient or timely manner. There isn’t much that’s been written about Jackson which emphasizes this pattern. Much has been written about his equally bizarre command relationships, but often in the guise of the “brilliant eccentric” rather than in terms of a guy who may have hindered his subordinates’ efficiency. Stonewall died at the right time (ironically from wounds which in part may have resulted from a chain of circumstances involving inefficient execution of the flank attack at Chancellorsville).

    • I can’t agree there. When he mentioned the recent Seward book he criticized it or panned it because it had a McClellan reference or two that he didn’t like. This is a book that has gotten high marks from specialists but in his usual way he threw the baby out with the bath water.

      • Dimitri’s mission as i see it is to shed light on sloppy, lazy practices in the publishing business when it comes to the Civil War. McClellan happens to be a handy subject because most historians have accepted an image of McClellan without going behind it. At times he puts up posts which seem designed more to provoke thought/discussion than to state a substantive conclusion. I disagree with some of the positions he seems to take regarding McClellan but even then he’s pretty good at ferreting out lazy “history practices”. It just so happens that his point regarding Stonewall has much factual support. .

        • I would say it’s more as he sees it than anything else. Many of his posts seem designed to just throw bombs. Moreover, he doesn’t seem to have the courage of his convictions by permitting people to comment on what he says. Although I read the blog from time to time, I take a lot of what he has to say with a couple of grains of salt.

    • Cozzens, Ecelbarger, and Krick do a good job of exposing Stonewall’s warts even in a campaign which gave him his reputation.

        • Tanner suffers a bit on the credibility side given his VMI background. His book really doesn’t take Stonewall to task as the others do.

        • I’d concur with Drew’s assessment. Krick more or less lets the facts speak for themselves in his very good book on Port Republic and Cross Keys (he does much the same in his equally good book on Cedar Mountain). Tanner in my view is what I would expect from a guy with VMI connections – decent job but focused almost entirely on the Confederate/Jackson side despite the title and not much interested in the tactical details which show the “Mediocre Stonewall” in action.

          • I have a different view of Tanner’s book. The title is ‘Stonewall in the Valley’ so naturally it would focus on the Jackson side, so not sure what mean by “despite the title”. I also feel that Tanner does shine light on Jackson’s shortcomings, concluding that “the primary criticism of Jackson’s leadership in the campaign must be his tactical handling of the army” while also highlighting some of his operational problems.

            • Regarding Tanner — I have an earlier version of his book (1976 IIRC) and he certainly does not whitewash Jackson. Points out his foibles, tactical mistakes, failure to communicate with his senior officers, etc. I have heard that he wrote a second version later which was much kinder, gentler to Stonewall.

              • Tha 2002 edition is the one I have. My assessment is that Tanner does indeed focus on Jackson’s flawed relations with his subordinates and his “eccentricities” in that regard but does not illuminate much in the way of Stonewall’s mediocre performances in actual combat – unlike the others mentioned.

            • Fair enough (in my post, I meant to focus on the book’s alleged purpose of discussing the campaign notwithstanding the tittle). Tanner falls well short of illuminating Jackson’s failings in the campaign, unlike the others mentioned. The other authors collectively have relegated Tanner’s book to secondary status, IMHO.

  4. Well, Lee thought he was worth keeping, even after the Seven Days, so there’s that…

    At the height of the Peninsula Campaign, after taking over from Smith, Lee had what amounted to ~90,000 men, under three major generals commanding what amounted to provisional corps – Longstreet, Jackson, and Magruder.

    There were six other major generals (Ewell, DH Hill, McLaws, Huger, AP Hill, and Holmes) in the theater at this time, as well, all acting (essentially) as divisional commanders, albeit some essentially independently. Overall, the force amounted to (roughly) 11 divisions with almost 40 brigades (not counting cavalry); about half of the divisions were commanded by senior brigadier generals.

    Even putting aside the internal political questions, with the manpower in the theater at the time, it is hard to see Lee doing better than Jackson and Lee as corps commanders. If he splits the army into thirds, presumably Magruder is the third choice, and each corps includes two divisions commanded by major generals and one or two led by senior BGs.

    Whether that would have been a better organization than the “wing” levels “commands” led by Jackson and Longstreet is undoubtedly debateable; it would seem to be more flexible, but places Magruder in a position that presumably Lee did not want him to be in…

    Including the senior officers (corps command level) serving in the West (Beauregard, Bragg, Polk, and Hardee) in the spring and summer of 1862, and I’m not sure who else is going to do better.

    There’s a question – given the need to staff two field armies and (arguably) six corps commands between Virginia and Missisippi in the summer of 1862, who gets what commands? Even if you put aside the question of who could actually work with Davis (and vice-versa), seems like Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson are the best of a mixed bag. Here’s mine:

    Eastern Army – Lee; corps commanders Jackson, Longstreet, and Magruder
    Western Army – Beauregard; corps commanders Bragg, Hardee, and (for lack of any other choice) Polk.

    With AS Johnston dead, JE Johnston wounded, and GW Smith relieved, there’s not a lot of options. Price? Van Dorn? Stuart as an infantry corps commander?

    Best,

    • I’ve always thought, however, that Lee might have benefitted from a “two-headed monster” in Jackson’s VA/Second Corps – one (Stonewall) to “get ‘em there” and one (who?) to take over the actual fighting. If Jackson had better relations with his subordinates and more self-awareness, he could have worked out a system like that on his own. I’ve always wondered whether Stonewall’s overused :”mystify and mislead” quote was directed at the enemy or at his own subordinates.

      • That just seems unworkable to me. Command relationships are difficult enough when those involved are experienced and the doctrine is clear; given the mobilization aspect and the lack of practical experience at the corps/army levels in 1862 that JD points out below, seems like it just getting a corps from point a to point b at the right time and getting its constituent troops into line and fighting was a solid accomplishment.

        Worth pointing out is that in 1862, the most “practiced” corps level commanders from the 1861 campaigns were JE Johnston and Beauregard on the southern side (both sidelined by the time of Lee’s ascendency), and McDowell and Robert Patterson (!) on the US side.

        I tried looking up all the division and brigade commanders from the Mexican War once, just to see where that experience went; most of them were dead or physically incapable by 1862.

        Taylor’s division commanders included Twiggs (went south), Worth (dead), Butler (neutral), and Patterson (loyal); Scott’s division commanders included Worth, Twiggs, Pillow (went south), and Quitman (dead); Wool (loyal) can probably also be counted as such, given his position as second to Taylor.

        Taylor’s brigade commanders included John Garland, HJ Wilson, Thomas Staniford, PF Smith, Thomas Hamer, Quitman, Thomas Marshall, and Gideon Pillow. SW Kearny and Joseph Lane presumably would qualifiy as brigade commanders, as well; Scott’s RA brigadiers included John Garland, Newman Clarke, PF Smith, and Bennet Riley, who all died before 1862, as well as Pierce, Cadwalader, Shields, and Harney.

        Seems like Shields and Cadwalader performed useful service for the US, but that’s about it.

        All in all, setting aside those who were already dead or physically incapacitated, and those whose names are recognizable, the number of “missing” Mexican War divisional and brigade commanders by the Civil War era were fairly small – Pierce and Joseph Lane are about it; Butler lived until the 1880s, but he was born in the 1790s.

        Again, not a whole lot to choose from.

        Best,

        • Fair enough and i agree that It probably was unworkable. I was engaging in a bit of hyperbole to emphasize Jackson’s too often-discounted shortcomings on the tactical end. His apologists might be able to use “fatigue” as an excuse for the Seven Days failures but that doesn’t account for how he handled the other fights. And if he was too “fatigued” to command his wing competently during that last week of June, he had a duty to go to Lee and work out an alternative. The solution was not to take a siesta on the afternoon of June 30 while his forces and the Yanks stared at each other across White Oak Swamp.

    • It sure wasn’t going to be Price in the West due to his meeting with Davis. I think there is something important to note here in that the generals on both sides in the Civil War were doing something that was beyond the scope of what training they had including the West Point grads. No Americans had commanded anything approaching a corps, let alone an army on the scale of what was going on by 1862. All they had was theory from the European wars to go by. There was a lot of learning going on in the early years at every level and bad decisions led to lost battles on many occasions.
      Developing a staff meant weeding out officers until one had a staff capable of doing the jobs. Toss in the political issues on both sides and you saw mistakes made there too.

  5. Well, folks, there are already a bunch of replies here so I don’t know what I can add or detract. My question has always been, “Which Stonewall?” The Stonewall of First Manassas, the Stonewall of the Seven Days (ouch!), the Stonewall of the Valley (having spent a week there last fall I am quite convinced that he was lucky) or the Stonewell of Chancellorsville/Second Manassas. Seems to me there are a whole bunch of Stonewalls. Guess you have to pick and choose.

    • Well, the Second Bull Run Stonewall mishandled Brawner’s Farm and the big fight, Day 2 (following Longstreet’s successful attack). People tend to forget those tactical errors because he had ably out-manouvered Pope in the preceding days. The real dichotomy was “Operational Stonewall”/”Tactical Stonewall”.

  6. Fair to say that all involved had their good days and bad.

    Except, to bring it home, when did McClellan ever have a good day in the field?

    • Crickets on that one….Although those in whom he “trusted” told him he fought Antietam “brilliantly”. I’m not sure what they were looking at when they told him such, however.

      • Well, he really didn’t. But it was only after I read Rafuse and Tapp that I finally got a handle on McClellan — who he was, why he acted the way he did, etc.

        • Rafuse, Tapp, Roland, Harsh and others make a good effort, but anybody trying to explain certain aspects of McClellan’s behavior between June 24 and July 2 is in for a challenge. The word “manic” comes to mind when I read the extreme poles taken by his communications in that time frame. And then there’s the good old story of “Glendale and the Galena”….

  7. Mr. Rotov – Nice to see you here.

    I understand you have strong opinions in favor of GBM’s record as GinC and CG; what would you describe as his most significant sucesses and failures, and to what influences would you lay the failures?

    Best,

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