stonewall jackson opposed the war -- 10/15/14

Today's selection -- from Rebel Yell by S.C. Gwynne. Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was perhaps the most brilliant and stalwart military leader of the American Civil War, inflicting devastating defeats upon the Union Army time and time again. He was also a deeply religious man and physics professor who was strongly opposed to the war -- and who attempted to organize a national day of prayer to avert the conflict:

General Jackson photographed at Winchester,
Virginia 1862

"Behind the pomp and circumstance lay the curious fact that [Stonewall Jackson] ... had done everything in his power to prevent the war that he was now marching off to fight. He hated the very idea of it. His conviction was in part due to his peculiar ability, shared by few people who landed in power on either side -- Union generals Winfield Scott and William Tecumseh Sherman come prominently to mind -- to grasp early on just how terrible the suffering caused by the war would be, and just how long it was likely to last. The detail-obsessed physics professor's embrace of such a large abstraction is perhaps an appropriate introduction to the man himself: Jackson's brilliance was that he understood war. He understood it at some primary, visceral level that escaped almost everyone else. He understood it even before it happened.

"In the months leading up to the war Jackson had remained a confirmed Unionist. He opposed secession. Though he was a slave owner, he held no strident, proslavery views. Indeed, his wife, Anna, wrote that she was 'very confident that he would never have fought for the sole object of perpetuating slavery.' He had attended West Point, had been in combat under the flag of the United States of America, and had later served in the country's peacetime army. He was a patriot, in the larger sense of the word. As a Christian he was shocked by what he saw as the ungodly and inappropriate enthusiasm on both sides to settle their differences by fighting. 'People who are anxious to bring on war don't know what they are bargaining for,' he wrote to his nephew.

"In February 1861, the failure of a Virginia-sponsored peace conference in Washington made Jackson so fearful of war that he called upon his pastor, the Reverend White, to talk about what might happen. 'It is painful to discover with what unconcern they speak of war, and threaten it,' Jackson told him. 'They do not know its horrors. I have seen enough of it to make me look upon it as the sum of all evils.' His wife, Anna, offered a striking summary of his beliefs in those early days. 'I have never heard any man express such an utter abhorrence of war,' she wrote. 'I shall never forget how he once exclaimed to me, with all the intensity of his nature, "Oh, how I deprecate war!"'But there was more to it than that. According to his sister-in-law, Maggie Preston, who was perhaps his closest friend, Jackson also recoiled physically at war's violence. 'His revulsions at scenes of horror, or even descriptions of them,' she wrote, 'was almost inconsistent in one who had lived the life of a soldier. He has told me that his first sight of a mangled and swollen corpse on a Mexican battlefield [during the Mexican American War of 1845] ... filled him with as much sickening dismay as if he had been a woman.'

General Jackson by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau

"And now he was prepared to do what he could to stop the imminent horror. His chosen form of activism was characteristic of the man: prayer. He would pray. He would petition God, and God would stop the madness. When he had thought about it some more it occurred to him that he could do even more than that. So he went to the Reverend White with a proposal. 'Do you not think that all the Christian people of the land,' he asked White, 'could be induced to unite in a concert of prayer to avert so great an evil? It seems to me that if they would thus unite in prayer, war might be prevented and peace preserved.' Jackson believed in the power of prayer; now he was proposing to harness the entire nation to that power, a gigantic, country-sweeping petition sent up to God: a national day of prayer to overturn the political idiocies of the past half century. White encouraged him, and Jackson did what he could to make it happen. Since none of his correspondence on the subject has survived, we don't know how far he got with the plan. We do know that other Christians in other churches, perhaps sharing his sense of desperation, had proposed the same thing. He pursued it as best he could, writing letters to clergymen in the North and South. His name eventually appeared on several communications from Northern churches supporting the day of prayer. The event never came to pass. Jackson prayed ardently over it anyway. When he was called on in church to lead prayers, the wish he invariably expressed was 'that God would preserve the whole land from the evils of war.' ...

"If Jackson could seem at times like a Quaker pacifist in a country that was lunging eagerly toward war, there was also a hint, in a letter written in January 1861 to his nephew Thomas Jackson Arnold, of a darker, more complex view. In it he repeated his desire to avert war, but added a qualifier that Arnold found so disturbing that he later edited it out of his own reverent biography of Jackson. 'I am in favor of making a thorough trial for peace,' wrote Jackson, 'and if we fail in this and the state is invaded to defend it with terrific resistance -- even to taking no prisoners.' Taking no prisoners. That idea was well outside the mainstream of American political and military thought at the time; no one in a position of power on either side was seriously considering a 'black flag' war in the spring of 1861. Jackson went on to say that if 'the free states ... should endeavor to subjugate us, and thus excite our slaves to servile insurrection in which our Families will be murdered without quarter or mercy [a fear that stemmed from John Brown's raid of Harper's Ferry], it becomes us to wage a war as will bring hostilities to a speedy close.' By that he meant making war so brutally expensive for both sides that they would quickly sue for peace. He meant instant, total war. Amid Jackson's ardent peace prayers, these harder-edged, less charitable thoughts dwelt also."

with thanks to RCR


S. C. Gwynne


Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson


Scribner a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Copyright 2014 by Samuel C. Gwynne


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