VIENNA, Va, July 27, 2011 — The big battle reenactment and other activities out at Manassas National Battlefield this past sweltering weekend brought to mind a book I read not long ago about the inimitable General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, hero of Bull Run. It made me see him in a different light from only the brilliant commander and man on a horse.
The book is about Jackson’s beliefs as he sought to bring the word of God to the slaves of the antebellum era, furnishing the fuel for the fire of salvation. “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend” was written by Richard G. Williams, Jr. with a foreword by James I. Robertson, Jr.
Historians and history buffs alike have long struggled with the ambivalence of a man of Jackson’s moral fiber, who came from a slave holding family, owned slaves himself, and yet broke the prevailing laws of Virginia to conduct a weekly Colored Sabbath School, where slaves were taught to read and write while bringing them to a personal knowledge of the Christ.
Contradictory as that may seem to many, Williams’ book reconciles the contradiction. It begins with the uncertain years of Jackson’s orphan-like childhood and his devotion to “Miss Fanny,” who raised him from childhood into his teenage years and then on to his years at West Point and the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. Each aspect of his life showed his relationships with and care for the slave families he was exposed to.
Jackson himself struggled with the morality of a system that enslaved men and women with whom he shared a brotherhood as children of a loving God. Yet those same scriptures which taught salvation, also recorded centuries of slaveholding all over the world. For Jackson the rationale was simple in the extreme: If it is condoned by the Bible, it must be acceptable.
Williams’ book clearly points out that modern readers of books about Jackson and other figures of that era should view them through the lens of the 19th century, not that of the 21st, a mistake made by many students of the “peculiar institution.” Many difficulties in comprehension of the actions and feelings of Southern heroes arise from modern readers’ failure to view that period with 19th century eyes.
The source material is well researched and comprehensive, ranging from actual correspondence of Jackson and his contemporaries, to written material about the slave trade, to the output of black writers such as Ervin Jordan of the University of Virginia and Carter G. Woodson, considered to be the father of Black History month. If additional support for the book’s scholarly weight is required, the foreword by eminent Jackson biographer James I. Robertson, Jr. provides it.
Interspersed through the text are anecdotes and stories by and about former slaves and their families, as well as free blacks, all pointing to the fact that not only did Jackson broaden their literary knowledge, but also worked to save their souls. The fact that their descendants to this day praise his name further attests to the profound impact of the efforts of the Confederate general, a man best known for his lack of humor, utter dedication to work, and his strange eating and health habits.
Jackson secretly yearned to go into the ministry but felt he did not have sufficient education for it. In 1852 while he was in Lexington, VA, he wrote to his Aunt Clementine:
“The subject of becoming a herald of the Cross has often engaged my attention, and I regard it as the most noble of all professions. It is the profession of our divine Redeemer and I should not be surprised were I to die under a foreign field, clad in ministerial armor, fighting under the banner of Jesus. What could be more glorious? But my conviction is that I am doing good here, and that for the present I am where God would have me. Within the last few days I have felt an unusual religious joy. I do rejoice to walk in the love of God.”
Here is a different Stonewall, the man and the legend all wrapped in one, with his singular devotion to the highest of callings and his ongoing efforts to spread the gospel to the slaves.
In the vernacular of modern religious leaders, Jackson epitomized the concept of “thinking globally and acting locally.” He first held a Colored Sunday School for slaves in his own home, and later at the local church. These were well attended, even by neighborhood blacks, who wished to learn both how to read and how to learn about the Savior as explained by Jackson. It was his own quiet method of civil disobedience, but the blacks in the area knew that every Sunday afternoon at 3:00 p.m., they could gather to learn more about their salvation.
Jackson was then serving as a Deacon in the Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Virginia and his minister ultimately let him use a room in the church for his Sunday ministry to the local black population.
This is the Stonewall Jackson who would not go into battle on Sunday, if it could be avoided, and would not even post mail on the Sabbath. He considered himself to be on God’s business, wherever it might lead him. His life reminds us of the incomparable words of St. Francis of Assisi: “In everything you DO, preach Christ. If necessary, use WORDS.”
The story is told of the minister of Jackson’s church, who received an envelope from the general a few days after the Battle of Manassas, but before any authentic news of the battle had reached the people there.
The local post office was thronged with people as the mail arrived, and when the minister opened the letter from Jackson, hoping for the latest news, he read, “My dear pastor, in my tent last night, after a fatiguing day’s service, I remembered that I had failed to send you my contribution for our colored Sunday-school. Enclosed you will find my check for that object, which please acknowledge at your earliest convenience, and oblige yours faithfully, T.J. Jackson.”
The check was for $50.00, to be used to buy books for Jackson’s black Bible students. There was no mention of the battle.
Williams follows Jackson’s brief forays into Catholicism, the Baptist church, and the Methodist faith, before returning to his Presbyterian roots.
Possibly the most outstanding chapter in the book describes the author’s visit to Lexington, where he visits the descendants of some of the attendees of Jackson’s Colored Sunday School. From the white haired barber whose ancestor cut General Robert E. Lee’s hair, to other elderly descendants of the beneficiaries of Jackson’s religious devotion, their stories provide a rare look into the heart and soul of the Confederate general.
A special insight is also provided into the relationship between Jackson and his personal manservant, Jim Lewis, whose last duty was to hold the reins of Jackson’s horse during his funeral. Assigned thereafter to Colonel Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, his service was brief when Pendleton died.
The author’s arguably simplistic explanation of the dichotomy that existed between Jackson the moralist and Jackson the slave-owner was that he was “…no defender of slavery. He accepted it as the mysterious providence of God and worked to lift the existence of the slaves within his sphere of influence.”
The author lives in the Valley and states he has been a Sunday School teacher “to both white and black boys for over 20 years.” He comes from a Christian background similar to Jackson’s, so it’s easy to see why he is passionate about his subject and tireless in his research.
The book is very readable and generally well-laid out, save for redundant handling of Jim Lewis stories, which might have carried greater weight were they grouped together. A more comprehensive index would have been helpful to the reader, rather than an index only of names and places. Philosophical explanations and sermonizing are unnecessary: Jackson’s life and legacy speak quite well for themselves.
The 224-page book, published by Cumberland Press in Tennessee, is a fresh addition to the Civil War buff’s library and well-worth reading.
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