Virginia-based writer and teacher/historian Cleary takes on a thorny modern issue: How do we commemorate those dead who fought for the Confederates?
Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson spent a decade teaching at Virginia Military Institute, a job for which he was perhaps not entirely suited. “Then suddenly, with the war,” writes the author, “he came into his own: commanding, organizing, fighting.” Beloved of his soldiers and honored by foe Ulysses S. Grant as “a gallant soldier and Christian gentleman,” he fought doggedly for the Confederate cause in what he called “our second War of Independence” while, as Cleary notes, never apologizing for or openly supporting slavery. (Jackson did, however, own six slaves.) The author’s investigation into Jackson’s life and times begins with our own, with a Virginia monument that park rangers called “Stonewall on steroids,” which was sculpted just before World War II and has the feel of an anti-Axis superhero. While an antihero to many, Jackson is revered in the South, especially among Virginians. On that score, Cleary gamely recalls a showdown with a New York academic who disparaged Southern boorishness: “My assertion that I was a Virginian—which to a southerner would have stopped her diatribe immediately—did nothing to check the flow.” Yet, of course, that New Yorker had a point to make. Furthermore, writes the author, who spent many years teaching mostly African American students in the juvenile justice system and laments the “consequences of poverty and neglect, the legacy of the slavery that Johnson was fighting to defend,” that point needs to be heard out in Southern quarters. Cleary, who observes that “interest in the Civil War is a middle-aged white guy kind of thing,” is both sensitive and sensible, and readers along the way will learn both of Jackson’s gallantry and the essential wrongness of the enterprise for which he died.
An honest, searching book sure to tread on the toes of supremacists and iconoclasts alike.