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Robertson's Jackson biography uncovers new information

By Sally Harris, from an interview by Paul Lancaster

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 21 - February 20, 1997

Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson was a military genius and a devout man of God-a hard combination to overcome, according to James I. Robertson, author of the new biography STONEWALL JACKSON: The Man, The soldier, The Legend.

Robertson is alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and a noted Civil war historian. For the book, which will debut at Volume Two Bookstore February 22 and then be released nationally early in March from Macmillan, Robertson conducted extensive and complete research that uncovered previously unknown information about the Confederate general. (Robertson is scheduled to sign copies of the Jackson biography from 2 to 5 p.m. at the bookstore.)

Jackson, who was known for his fearlessness in battle, his clashes with some of his own officers, and his military acumen, was a mysterious figure until robertson's complete research offered answers to the mystery surrounding him. The book has been picked as a main selection by both the Book-of-the-Month Club hand the History Book Club.

Interested in Jackson since a fifth-grade term paper on him, Robertson did his doctoral dissertation on the Stonewall Brigade and had a lifelong desire to write Jackson's biography. He started his research from scratch, as if the previous biographies of Jackson had not been written. After 130 years, very little material had been found about Jackson, Robertson said.

Robertson sent inquires to more than 250 archives. "I was amazed at the material that came forth. For three years, I never looked at a book; I just examined manuscripts. I was sitting on a gold mine of material that would bring out the truth about this man."

Robertson was under a normal book contract of three years and 750 pages. "It ended up seven years and 2,200 pages, not because I was verbose, but because of everything that had been found."

At the George Davis Collection at Tulane, for example, Robertson discovered Jackson's little book of maxims in which Jackson, a socially unskilled mountain man, wrote inspirational sayings and information about how to live in society. Many thought the book was lost.

Robertson's five years of "exhaustive research, sieved through the insight of a lifetime of study" enabled him "to turn a cold, aloof, seemingly unapproachable figure into a very human, even appealing man," according to book notes by William C. Davis, author of Jefferson Davis: The Man and His hour.

Stonewall Jackson is "not a biography of a great general; it is the life of an extraordinary man who became a great general," Robertson said. It covers not only Jackson's military life, but his personal life, including the years in Lexington when he learned social graces and progressed from being the worst teacher Virginia Military Institute had ever had to a teacher who prompted one cadet to say, "There is something inside that man that makes me want to serve under him."

Robertson's book is "the indispensable first place to turn for anyone interested in the great Confederate general," according to Gary W. Gallagher of Pennsylvania State University, author of Stephen Dodson Ramseur: Lee's Gallant General. Gallagher said by phone recently that a combination of two things makes Robertson's book unique: "It's beautifully written and beautifully researched. {Robertson} put those two things together better than anybody else has who has written about Jackson."

In his research and writing of the book, Robertson "brings into focus better than anyone else this great Civil War enigma," according to Joseph T. Glatthaar of the University of Houston, author of Partners in Command: The relationships Between Leaders in the Civil War, in cover notes for the book.

Robertson discovered two foundations for the enigma that was Stonewall Jackson. First, the tragedies of his life help explain his reticence, determination, and shyness. Jackson, Robertson found, had an incredibly sad childhood and experienced other tragedies throughout his life.

Having lost his mother early, he was raised by a selfish bachelor uncle who provided security but no love or emotional nourishment. "I wasn't prepared for the childhood," Robertson said, noting that Jackson lost nearly everyone he loved."...In writing his childhood, I was moved to tears."

A mountain boy who went to West Point, Jackson realized his lack of knowledge and spent every waking hour studying, at the expense of having friends. His favorite maxim, then and throughout his life, was "You can be whatever you resolve to be."

He married and, 14 months later, his wife and unborn child died. Three years later, he married again, and their first child died when only a few days old. When civil war exploded, the only close relative left was a sister-and she was a staunch Unionist. Her stand created a painful schism between them.

The second foundation for solving the enigma of Jackson was the all-consuming religious faith he found in 1851 That faith was an outgrowth of his sad childhood, Robertson said. Jackson grasped at the love of God because he had nowhere else to turn.

That faith also helps explain Jackson's estrangement from his officers and his seeming ruthlessness in battle. "When you consider this deep faith-that he was living and working only for God and that earthly problems to him were only secondary, that explains a lot about the general, especially his poor relationships with his subordinates," Robertson said. It was not that the men were merely derelict in their duties, but that Jackson considered them blasphemous, Robertson said.

That same faith colored Jackson's view of the war. "He was the epitome of the Christian soldier," Robertson said. "He saw the Civil War not as a schism between Northerners and Southerners, but as a curse of God. God had split this nation for reasons he could not define, and the side most faithful would win. He kept saying, `I want to make my army an army of the living God.'"

Yankees were not just the enemy to Jackson; they were the infidels. To him, the Old Testament was one of the greatest of military documents. "He converted Old Testament fury into New Testament faith," Robertson said.

Stonewall Jackson covers Jackson's military genius-his mastery of flanking and partnership with Robert E. Lee that, in only 11 months, became a nearly perfect military partnership in which the skills of one complemented those of the other. From being considered a highly unlikely candidate at West Point, Jackson became a superior commander feared by the Northern armies and considered divine by the Southerners.

From being considered, in the first year of the war, "a loose cannon" feared for his Old Testament-type destruction, Jackson persevered through the Valley Campaign, bringing in victories when all the rest of the Confederate army was losing, giving the Confederacy hope again, and becoming the icon of the South.

Jackson was mortally wounded at the high point of his career, at Chancellorsville, winning a battle that, on paper, seemed impossible to win. Jackson's death was the greatest personal loss of the Southern Confederacy, Robertson said. "To the South, he was immortal."

On the battlefield, Jackson had displayed a reckless fearlessness and heroism, believing that God would take care of him. His death was "a crushing blow" to Lee, Robertson said, and Lee's army never was able to achieve the victories it had before. Without Jackson's flanking skills, the army lost its mobility and was reduced to "a slugging match" with the overwhelming Union forces, he said.

Robertson thinks Jackson's story will be an inspiration to readers because of its rags-to-riches theme, Jackson's perseverance, and his faith. If Jackson had lived, the war might have lasted longer, Robertson said. However, "I don't think Jackson could have brought Confederate victory," he said. "I think it was a blessing he did not see the end of the war. I am not sure he could have accepted defeat without its being a fatal blow to his faith in God."