American Culture

The legacy of May 2

Stonewall Jackson got me into this whole thing in the first place. I wouldn’t be writing about the Civil War—wouldn’t be studying it, reading about it, interpreting it, giving tours about it, nothing—if it wasn’t for him. My daughter, now 18, fell in love with Stonewall when she was four, and we’ve been following him ever since. This whole Civil War thing is his fault.

In all those years since, May 2 has never come and gone that I’ve not spent time thinking about “Old Jack.” This year was no different. No moment of silence, though. No votive candles. No special readings. Nothing like that. The closest thing came at 9:30 p.m. when a friend texted me: “At about this time 149 years ago, Jackson was shot. Looking up at the moon and getting chills.”

But I think about Jackson a lot on May 2.Some years I devote more concentrated thought than others. This year, I’m eyeball deep in a project about the Chancellorsville battlefield, so I’ve thought about Jackson today a lot. May 2 is the anniversary of his accidental wounding at the battle of Chancellorsville. By May 10, 1863 he’d be dead of pneumonia.

It’s a favorite activity of Jackson fans to speculate about what might’ve happened had the great Confederate general lived. People tend to oversimplify that question (as I’ve written here and here). Instead, I spend considerable time wondering what Jackson’s death means. Certainly it meant a lot at the time–it was a game-changer, for sure–but no, I wonder what might it mean now. Why does that story matter? Why does the larger story of the war still matter? (Maybe it doesn’t. Considering the historical illiteracy of most Americans today, I always have reason to question the importance of history.)

Plenty of people are still fascinated by the story of Jackson’s death—heck, I’ve been able to co-author a book about it—but I frequently wonder why, especially since the war is full of other fascinating stories, too. (I haven’t even been able to figure out yet why my daughter got fascinated all those years ago!)

Part of it, I’m sure, is that we live in a cynical time when people are desperate for heroes. Jackson serves that capacity so well for so many people. He’s a hero to me.

I hate to see the guy so mythologized, though—either as the quirky eccentric, the Christian soldier, the family man, the stern invincible fighter. He’s been draped in so many clothes over the years that anyone can take their pick. You could dress him as Superman (and I think, in their hearts, some people already have).

Such drapery makes it harder to see Jackson the man—and for so many reasons, he was a fascinating man. That’s how I learned to admire him. That’s how I was able to see him as a hero.

You see, like me, Jackson reveled in being a father. Family was particularly important to him because he’d been orphaned at a young age and so had to grow up without one. It was the thing in the world he wanted the most. Except for a few short days in April of 1863, though, he never got to live the joys of fatherhood. His daughter, Julia, never got to grow up knowing the joys of having a father.

When Jackson rode down the Mountain Road on the evening of May 2, 1863, and was caught in the rolling thunder belching up the line from the muskets of his own skittish men, the Confederacy lost one of its top generals, but Julia Jackson lost her father.

That’s what I think about on May 2. I think about a father and a daughter and the Civil War. Sometimes that’s Thomas and Julia Jackson in 1863; sometimes that’s me and my daughter now.

That is, at least in part, what Jackson’s story means to me.


Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

1 reply »

  1. Interesting write. I’m the Great Great Grandson of a civil war 7th Illinois Cavalry (Company D) trooper and love to read about his civil war journey. I have all of his archive papers from the U.S. Government and even know a little bit about the family he, at the age of 19, left behind in Knox County, Illinois when he as his trusty horse joined up in Springfield. I hope to one day vacation in that area and visit many the battle sites up and down the Mississippi River and into the south, where they ended up. It’s now been 150 years since those battles!

    Anyway, very interesting write. I enjoyed reading it and enjoy your page on facebook.