A review of Wallace Hettle’s “Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory” by Joseph M. Beilein

Inventing Stonewall Jackson:
A Civil War Hero in History and Memory

By Wallace Hettle
Baton Rougle: LSU Press, 2011
$34.95 [Cloth]

Joseph M. Beilein, Jr. is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Wallace Hettle’s recent publication, Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory, offers two important contributions to Civil War history. As his title suggests, Hettle argues that the popular image of Stonewall Jackson was “invented” over time by writers who approached their subject from a variety of angles. A few of these men and women actually knew the general quite well, while others relied on second-hand stories, myths, and their own imaginations to craft their narratives of Jackson. By deconstructing the historical image of Jackson, Hettle adds a significant and heretofore missing piece to the canon of work devoted to Civil War memory. The second important contribution made by Hettle is his assertion that each of Jackson’s inventors constructed an image of the general that resembled him or herself as much as it did the flesh and blood Jackson.

Relying mostly on biographies of Jackson, but occasionally reaching out to soldiers’ diaries and correspondence, newspapers, census materials, and modern film, Hettle peels back the layers of the sometimes eccentric, frequently pious, occasionally fanatical, and almost always brilliant general. Confronted with Jackson’s hodge-podge of ill-fitting personal qualities, Hettle shows a full command of the source material as he tracks each of the general’s exaggerated and incongruent traits back to its literary origin. All the while though, Hettle never loses sight of the fact that underneath this caricature of literary design was a real man who possessed most of these qualities, albeit in more moderate doses.

The author’s ability to differentiate between Jackson the icon and Jackson the man is due in large part to his method. The author taps into the scholarship of martyrdom that suggests, according to Hettle, “that those who tell a martyr’s tale inevitably shape their story – in other words, that for every martyr there must be one or several mythmakers to recount the saga”(4). In the case of Jackson, who the author claims was seen by his early biographers as a martyr for the Confederate cause, a few of these mythmakers were the Presbyterian minister Robert Lewis Dabney who painted Jackson as a pious soldier consciously doing God’s work in defending slavery, Mary Anna Jackson who portrayed her spouse as a loving father and tender husband, and even the writer and Confederate cavalryman John Esten Cooke who described Jackson as a fearless warrior and lemon-sucking, “quirky genius.” Reading the respective biographies from Dabney, Mrs. Jackson, and Cooke through the lens of martyrdom, Hettle confirms his contention that “a martyr’s story reveals as much about the author as it does the subject” (4).

Certainly there are limits to what any historian can do, and given how tight and focused this work is it seems almost shameful to ask for more. Hettle makes a conscious effort to provide the reader with condensed chapters, but at times these self-imposed limits seem to truncate what could be worthwhile avenues of discovery (7-8). For instance, Hettle’s discussion of slavery more or less begins and ends with the fact that Jackson was a slaveholder (71, 84). Outside of what Mary Anna Jackson claimed in her biography regarding Jackson as a slaveholder, the sources tell us little about his relationship to his slaves and the institution itself. However, more could be made of secondary scholarship on slavery to draw conclusions about what the general could have been like as a slave owner. These conclusions would add an important dimension to our understanding of Jackson that would also strengthen the author’s analysis of Dabney’s Lost Cause rhetoric, Mary Anna Jackson’s assertions of her husband’s benevolent behavior toward African American children, and the problematic presentation of Jackson in the recent film Gods and Generals which Hettle illustrates is full of Lost Cause overtures.

On the whole however, Inventing Stonewall Jackson is an important book that leaves the reader with much to think about. Hettle closes by setting the course for some ambitious scholar. He says, “If all of these views of Jackson seem legitimate, and they do, the real question becomes how the soldier reconciled such contradictory personal qualities” (146). When the next man or woman inevitably decides to put the deconstructed Jackson back together, no matter how tempted they might be to see themselves in “Old Jack,” they must try to see Jackson as he saw himself.

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One Response to A review of Wallace Hettle’s “Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory” by Joseph M. Beilein

  1. MCH says:

    I wish this sort of “genealogical” examination existed with regard to several other notable wartime figures. Well done, Joe.

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