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on October 25, 2003
This is an interesting and well-written biography, although not one that I found to be satisfactory on every level. Like John Kennedy and other public figures who died violently at the height of their careers, Stonewall Jackson entered into history in a kind of apotheosis which probably tended to exaggerate his achievements. Aware of the adulatory material that has been written, Byron Farwall is not exactly on a debunking crusade with this book, but he strives so hard for objectivity that readers have to wonder if he errs on the other side and exaggerates the shortcomings of his subject. It's no distortion, of course, to portray Jackson as a quirky personality - the historical record leaves little doubt about that. Like Ulysses Grant, George Pickett, and other military leaders who achieved prominence during the Civil War, Jackson went through West Point with a relatively undistinguished record. A rough country boy with minimal early education, Jackson had to work doubly hard for everything he did accomplish, and he had a reputation for being something of an odd duck and a bumpkin. Two enduring aspects of his nature already apparent at this stage, however, were ambition and a ruthless self-discipline, and he had managed to climb from near the bottom of his class to the top third by the time he graduated. Again like other future Civil War leaders, his first exposure to combat was in the Mexican War, where he was assigned as an artillery officer. He demonstrated a talent for command there, but what marked him more than anything was a utter fearlessness under fire and a hunger to distinguish himself, an objective he accomplished despite what was for Jackson the disappointingly short duration of the war. Assigned later to garrison duty in Florida, his frustrated ambition, no doubt aggravated by boredom, propelled him into petty but vicious conflict with his commanding officer, an ugly little affair in which Jackson revealed his propensity for sustained vendettas against people seemingly out of portion with any real offense. Disillusioned with the peacetime military, Jackson took a job as an instructor at the young Virginia Military Institute. He seemed happy enough in this job, which he held for ten years, even though by most accounts he lacked much talent for it, his stiff manner and inarticulate speech making him unpopular with students. He heard his real calling, of course, with the coming of the Civil War, and he lost no time in seizing the opportunity. It is in the depiction of Jackson's wartime military career that this biography fails for me. It's can't be wholly without reason that Jackson became the legend he did, and Robert E. Lee - nothing if not a judge of military talent - observed that the Southern Cause suffered more from the loss of Jackson at Chancellorsville than it gained from the victory. Yet even though Farwell acknowledges Jackson's "brilliance", even occasionally his "genius", these qualities really don't come alive in the narrative. In describing Jackson's victories, Farwell invariably focuses on the incompetence of his opponents, or on the valor of his soldiers, or on his "luck" in somehow being in the right place at the right time. Except in a couple of episodes, we don't really get a feel for the man in action. In contrast, Jackson's failures, such as during the "Seven Days" campaign in the summer of `62, are placed squarely on his shoulders, recounted for us in the context of his poor planning, rashness, compulsive secrecy, inability to accept advice, and his often dysfunctional relations with peers and subordinates. Farwell does a more balanced job, in my judgment, in depicting Jackson's personality and his private life. We certainly see the vindictiveness, self-righteousness, and eccentricity that often characterized his behavior. But Farwell reveals another side to the man as well. Numerous accounts survive that indicate a great deal of personal warmth and humor when he was relaxing with friends or family. Prior to the war, he spent time in New York and Europe, clearly enjoying cosmopolitan pleasures seemingly at odds with the stereotypical image of him as a dour Presbyterian fanatic. His relationship with his wife, while patronizing by modern standards, was intensely loving and faithful, and fully reciprocal. Apparently based in fact was the odd and touching story portrayed in the recent movie "Gods and Generals". During one lull in the fighting, Jackson spent time at a private home near Fredericksburg, where a little girl attached herself too him, coaxing out of him a playful and kindly side rarely apparent during the war years. To the astonishment of his staff, Jackson wept openly when news came to him later that the child had died of scarlet fever. After being wounded in a nighttime "friendly fire" incident in the very midst of his triumph at Chancellorsville, Jackson had an arm amputated and died from pneumonia contracted during his convalescence. The religious faith which led him to see the hand of God in every victory or defeat, allowed him to approach this painful demise with the same disregard he showed towards the prospect of sudden death in battle. This complex and contradictory portrait of Jackson seems consistent with his nature, and I found this dimension of Mr. Farwell's book to be highly enlightening. While I haven't read other biographies of Stonewall , I imagine that further reading is necessary to get a fully rounded picture of the man's role in the American Civil War.
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on July 25, 2007
Biography's of great historical figures are frequently given to exaggeration. Farwell set out to give an account of the "real" Stonewall Jackson, rather than an overly ballyhooed legend. In some respects he did that, painting Jackson as an oddball, eccentric, prude, who bordered on insanity. While the book succeeded in painting Jackson as being more human, I felt the overall tone of the book was far too critical and cynical. It seemed every good thing Jackson did was credited to other soldiers or blind luck...while every bad thing Jackson did was blamed upon his ignorance, stubborness, or lack of sleep. In all honesty, I came away from the book wondering if the author had and "ax to grind" against Stonewall Jackson. Overall the book was well written, and would provide a reality check to those who envison Jackson as being super-human. But just as there are numerous puff pieces on Jackson that make him better than he was...I feel this book to be somewhat of a debunking, which makes Jackson look much worse than he was. In reality, he was somewhere in between. He was a good and godly man who had an uncanny ability to lead men in battle. But he was hard to get along with and a little too bull-headed at times. For a much more accurate view, I would suggest "Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend" By James I. Robertson
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on February 25, 2012
Other reviewers have said just about all you need to know about this book, so I'll give my rating and a bullet list of my pros and cons

Pros:
Lots of well researched information
well written
Adequate number of maps

Cons:
Overly critical of the man in an attempt at objectivity
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I felt I knew a lot about Stonewall Jackson. When I started reading this book I would read parts of the chapters over for all the information. This book is by far the best biography out today. It makes me wish I could go back in time to meet Jackson myself!! You will know all the men who liked and disliked Jackson. This is one history book every Civil War buff should have!
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on February 26, 1999
I could not put this book down. Mr. Farwell can certainly write. The Stonewall of his book comes across as a real person, warts and all. Jackson's mistakes are here along with his many victories. The author explodes a few myths, but objectively, and in the end deepens our understanding of the man and the general. There were two nits I did see in the book: The CSS Merrimac (really the Virginia); and the 1862 date for Chancellorsville. But these are minor. Read this book.
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Farwell's biography is a good comprehensive read of one of the most famous Civil War figures and covers many events in his life.
Among the areas Farwell focuses on include:
1. Early childhood (and rough years they were)
2. West Point years(met many future Civil War generals there).
3. War with Mexico (many instances of bravery).
4. Prewar years at VMI (not well-liked by the cadets).
5. Marriages and family life (tragic yet happy years).
6. Religious faith (strong Christian).
7. Early Civil War service (mainly successful)
8. Emergence as a brilliant general (2nd Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, etc.).
While Farwell is sympathetic to his subject, he pulls no punches when describing Jackson's weaknesses (uncommunicative to fellow generals, willingness to hold on to grudges, sometimes cold-hearted).
All in all, a fair and objective biography of a brilliant leader.
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on November 16, 2004
I gave the book three stars for the information but the author's opinions make this book less valuable then it otherwise might have been. For instance he claims the fact that Jackson never lamented his decisions meant he never thought he made a mistake. Jackson wasn't the type of person to go around talking about feelings so no one knows if he did or not. Also the author claims he must have an child out of wedlock and cites sources (just the word sources and not actual people) while at the same time discounting others who claimed the rumors were a lie. The author is just a bit too judgmental and quick to believe things without any proof to back them up. The information may be okay but I found it hard to read with so many of the author's opinions being paraded around as facts.
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on February 21, 1998
I had a special time when I would open this book to read. It was right before bedtime. I truly enjoyed the book and plan to read it again and again. It's like one of your favorite movies that you never get tired of. The book was easy to read, it flowed smoothly throughout. I recommend any Stonewall Jackson fan to definitely add this book to their bookshelf...but read it first! Jim T. Smith
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on December 23, 2009
Stonewall: A Biography of General Thomas J. Jackson
By Byron Farwell

It was interesting being given additional information on an epoch in 19th Century American history, which has had a large impact on political and military developments many years afterwards. The book on "Stonewall" Jackson focuses on many of his major achievements as a General, but gives an insight into his personality and private life as well. This supplements the description of his military career during the Civil War and also before 1861. His formative years, especially his military training, are described in meticulous detail. The book also gives thorough information on the positions and movements of the Union and Confederate armies when it comes to the major battles General Jackson was involved in.

General Jackson's stay in Europe and his time in Mexico together give some background on the development of his military and political horizon. His perception of various medical and religious topics deal with a way of thinking adding insight of a mid-19th Century outlook in a most personal way.

The author also gives an accurate timeline on the developments in the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and their interaction with central political and military figures, both in the Union and the Confederacy. One weakness may be that the book may be somewhat too detailed when it comes to certain facets of "Stonewall" Jackson's military career such as listing most of his results from various exams in military and non-military subjects during the pre-war era. The main impression, though, is that the book tries to give a rather objective overview of a chapter in American history which is not that far away.
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on August 21, 2013
Just read this biography of Jackson. First off, the author writes well and holds your interest. I found the presentation of Jackson's life fascinating and downright gripping once the Civil war begins. The story pulled me along to see what happens next, even though I was already familiar with the subject. The portrait Farwell paints of Jackson is of a religious zealot, mostly deaf, rude, unable to get along with subordinates, overly secretive, and frequently sleep deprived. The fact that Jackson was so stunningly successful in spite of (or maybe because) all this is what makes him unique. I was surprised to lean that Jackson, was a more worldly, well rounded person than I had assumed. I never knew that he was stationed for two years in Fort Hamilton New York, had spent spent three months traveling through Europe on a leave of absence from VMI to broaden himself, married in succession the daughters of the presidents of Washington and then Davidson colleges, and took both his wives to Niagara Falls, New York, on their honeymoons and had a sister who became a devoted unionist after the Civil War started.

The book is very well researched and examines many of the myths surrounding Jackson in a very clinical even handed manner. No idol worship here, but the author backs up his viewpoints, by quoting and weighing, sometimes conflicting, original sources. One recurrent theme about Jackson that the author uses, is that a good part of Jackson's success was due to "luck". I believe that luck always favors the resolute, aggressive commander, which describes Jackson. The author believes that Jackson's reputation through the years has remained so high, because he was killed at the acme of his success and was not present for the inevitable decline and defeat of the Confederacy. He states that Jackson probably would not have made a very good Army Commander anyhow, and was best suited for Corps command. I'm not sure I agree with this, Jackson exercised independent command very well in the Valley, at Cedar Mountain, and at Harper's Ferry. William Tecumseh Sherman had many odd traits too, even came close to being cashiered for madness, but became an incomparable Army Commander. I think had Jackson lived, he might have duplicated Sherman's rise.

I do have a couple of nits with the book. The maps leave out the troop alignments with the one on Antietam being almost blank, and the one on Harper's Ferry out of place by a couple of hundred pages (did the author or a subject matter expert look at the final galleys?). Also, the author may sometimes be confusing Division Commanders D.R. Jones and J.R. Jones, and it doesn't help when he sometimes uses just "Jones".

Still, this is a book to sink your teeth into and it pleasantly takes you along on the life of an extraordinary individual. I highly recommend it.

Stanley R. Schneider
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