Blogging about the American Civil War is like eating the first mince pie of Christmas. It is difficult to stop. Why is this? It is because, I believe, of the number of remarkable characters involved in that most terrible of conflicts. The list of these extraordinary figures seems endless, Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant, Semmes, Brown, Douglas, and the other abolitionists, matched by those wild southern Fire-Eaters- Southern publicists dedicated to independence at whatever cost. And incredibly not a few of these characters appeared on the same stage together. Many of the generals knew one another at West Point; and Robert E. Lee, later to be the South’s greatest general, was in charge of the security at John Brown’s execution.
Also present on that famous occasion was one John Jackson, a professor of mathematics and natural sciences at the military academy at Lexington Virginia. Jackson’s story combines deep tragedy, terrible pain, and almost inconsolable suffering. He was orphaned as child, forced to run from home, shattered by the death of his first wife, and tortured by the fact that he could not under church law marry her sister after her death. And yet his second marriage was one of deep happiness- his last granddaughter dieing as recently as 1991!
Had it not been for the Civil War Jackson would have remained an unimportant figure perhaps remarkable only for the Sunday school he founded and ran for slaves. For Jackson, of course, was a man of his place and time. While he was raised in a what is now West Virginia where slavery was not important, he and his wife were both supporters of the institution; and he owned six slaves- three of whom been given as wedding present, and three he had bought at their instigation.
For Jackson the crucial event which defined the rest of his life until he fell in battle, was the moment when he urged the students of the military academy at which he taught to- “Draw the sword, and throw away the scabbard.” Since he had not previously shown any interest in politics and had always opposed secession, this created a sensation, and launched him by degrees into one of the most extraordinary, although brief, military careers in history.
There is a lot that is troubling about the cause for which Jackson fought, and there is a lot which downright disturbing about Jackson. There is no need to reiterate the evils of slavery. They are well understood. For me though the ferocity of his old covenant religion, was even more disturbing to read about, than it was to discover that his wife simply placed their slaves alongside cattle and chickens as animate property. Jackson like John Brown was more comfortable with the Old than the New Testament. There indeed was something, but only something, of the Taliban in Jackson, as there was undoubtedly in Brown. In one terrifying letter Jackson even questioned whether the South should take prisoners. He executed a man that Jefferson Davis ( hardly liberal of the year!) wanted pardoned. And yet for all these terrible failings Jackson emerges from this biography as a sane and moral man.
These qualities though are not what separates him for all the other sons of Adam. Jackson’s importance derives entirely from his extraordinary skills as a general. I am no expert on military history, but reading Gwynne’s account of his campaign in the Shenandoah valley I could sense that with Jackson I was the presence of a master; in the company of someone who had discovered, almost perhaps to his own surprise, that he was he was almost uniquely gifted in the art of war. No wonder then he attributed his victories to divine intervention!
More precisely, what was it that distinguished him from his opponents? What did he have that they lacked. I think that it is summed up in his maxim: “Do not take counsel from your fears.” And that from a man who was fighting for the South because he feared servile insurrection! What a man, what a book, buy it!