Top positive review
28 people found this helpful
Portrait of a Strange and Brilliant Man
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.