Icons, the merely famous, and us–some thoughts on Jackson on the anniversary of his wounding

From John Hennessy.

The Mountain Road Illuminated, May 2, 2013. Here Jackson fell wounded.

The Mountain Road Illuminated, May 2, 2013. Here Jackson fell wounded.

These are the first portion of the remarks I gave at the event marking the 150th anniversary of the wounding of Stonewall Jackson. More than 450 people gathered at the site, in the fading light and eventual darkness. My purpose was to talk about the man and our collective and ongoing relationship with  him. Greg Mertz and Frank O’Reilly brought visitors through the events of May 2, culminating with Jackson’s wounding at about 9 p.m.  It was a memorable evening.

It strikes me that one of the differences between our treatment of historical icons and our treatment of merely famous Americans is this: for merely famous people, we are satisfied to understand their deeds. For our icons, we seek a vision of the person, replete with personal details, almost all of them flattering. 

 Thomas Jonathan Jackson is an icon.  Not universally, but largely. You can visit his house, stand in his living room. Museums across the South are filled with items both military and personal, authentic and imagined.  One museum keeps a drawer full of items donated to them on the assertion that Jackson had them on his person the night he was shot—probably thirty pounds worth of stuff.

 Books on the Civil War, on the Confederacy, and on Jackson are full of stories that personalize him.  His Widow Mary Anna’s memoir was and remains one of the most popular books about Jackson, largely because it is full of stories large and small that paint an image of Jackson as a person.  Stories like this:

 Just two weeks before his mortal journey into these woods, Jackson for the first time saw his new daughter—6-month-old Julia–and took his first stab at parental discipline.  Julia had become fussy, stopping only when picked up by her mother.  When Mrs. Jackson returned the child to the bed, Julia started crying again. General Jackson exclaimed, “This will never do!” and instructed, “all hands off.”  Mrs. Jackson related, “So there she lay, kicking and screaming while he stood over her with as much coolness and determination as if he were directing a battle.”  When Julia ceased wailing, General Jackson picked her up; when she started crying again, he put her down, “and this he kept up until she was completely conquered, and became perfectly quiet in his hands.”

Jackson, taken at Belvoir just days before Chancellorsville.

Jackson, taken at Belvoir just days before Chancellorsville.

 The perfect soldier is also the perfect parent. Anyone who has ever had a baby will recognize the immensity (maybe the impossibility) of Jackson’s accomplishment:  conquering in minutes what mankind has sought vainly to master for centuries—soothing a crying baby.  [I read this and think, okay, let’s see how he would have done when she was a teenager.]

 He has also been hailed the perfect Christian, the perfect husband, and even a reconciler among races, though he owned or hired slaves himself and waged war for a government committed to perpetuating slavery. 

For our great heroes, for someone like Jackson, we presume, even demand, that the deeds that made them famous are matched by virtues that would make icons.  We want and presume universal excellence, virtual perfection—something that men like Lee and Jackson would have been the first to deny (and modern defenders the first to assert). 

 We gain a great deal as a nation by having and knowing our heroes.  But we lose something too when we forget that in more ways than not they were very much like all of us.  We are all a ledger book of virtues and foibles.

Without war, and very possibly without Robert E. Lee, we would not know Thomas J. Jackson.  Perhaps, in his hometown of Lexington he would be remembered, but then only as a common, pious, middling man of religious intensity, active conscience, and mild (often overstated) eccentricities who was largely deplored by his students at VMI, where he taught. 

Jackson, like most of our heroes, rose to excellence only when his particular form of excellence was demanded.  If Wayne Gretzky had been born in Florida, or Bryce Harper in Fairbanks, we would never have heard of them. Like Jackson without war, they both would be and perceived to be just like us.  And, of course, in most ways, our great icons are, though we insist otherwise.