I’ve read a great deal about Thomas J. Jackson the last few weeks … and just about as much about what people think of him, how we should remember him, the impact of the emphasis placed upon his wounding at Chancellorsville, the cause of his death, and the place where he died.
I admit that I’ve never given a lot of thought to Jackson. As a child, he fascinated me more than any other Confederate general. I recall an image of him being hit at Chancellorsville in a child’s Civil War book and his profile (in blue) on a small calendar distributed by local stores marking his date of birth (why that would be I do not know). That blue image confused me a bit, although that may be why I was so interested in him … which side was he on?
It did not take long to resolve that confusion. Over time, however, I can’t say that my understanding of him changed all that much. It’s safe to say that I accepted without question that he was a brilliant if erratic, even quirky, general who was invaluable to Confederate success in Virginia until his death 150 years ago. The story of his having proposed an attack with men armed with nothing but Bowie knives and wearing nothing but what they came into the world wearing might be discredited, but that such a story even existed made one wonder about the man. Here and there I came across glimpses that suggested that he was something more, a man who was merciless in the way he waged war despite stories of his gentleness and Christian faith. There was the tale of how he disagreed with the notion of refusing to cut down a particularly courageous Union officer with the words, “Kill the brave ones; they lead on the others.” That smacked of Patton’s notion that the goal of fighting was not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his (or words to that effect). Then there was that comment at Fredericksburg where he reflected upon the horror of war but said that there was only one way to end it: “Kill them, sir! Kill every man!”
There was something fierce, cold-blooded, and unromantic about the man. There was something about him that suggested the Christian warrior with the Old Testament thirst for revenge. There was something to be said for his unsparing devotion to a cause.
And then it came to me just this week. When I thought of Stonewall Jackson, who else came to mind?
That’s right … John Brown.
Now I’m sure this will get some people upset. Wasn’t Brown a terrorist, while Jackson was a gallant soldier? Or wasn’t Brown a freedom fighter, while Jackson fought to secure the independence of a slaveholding republic?
Well, what you see depends on where you stand.
What I see are two very dedicated men who were unsparing in their assessment of what it would do to prevail as Americans struggled over what would become of their republic. They understood that to win, blood would be spilled, and they were starkly unromantic about that. Each is viewed as a fallen hero, a man whose greatest moment may have been his last.
Now, I don’t happen to venerate John Brown. However, I reject the notion that he was crazy, just as I reject the notion that the citrus-sucking Jackson was a few bricks shy of a full load. Brown’s plan to take Harper’s Ferry was nowhere near as successful as Jackson’s later campaign against it, and one wonders how it came together in his mind, but no matter. These were men who embraced violence and killing as a way to get what they wanted. Jackson wasn’t worried about whether he’d grow too fond of war if it wasn’t for its horror: he accepted it without flinching.
Both men read the Bible and believed in what it said.
And yes, I understand that both men had their gentler, compassionate side, at least as represented in celebratory art:
In short, these two folks had more in common than many people would like to believe, and some would say that it is precisely those common characteristics that help make them fascinating subjects for some to study and for others to venerate.