A historical perspective on a Confederate general

By Leanne Vastbinder, Staff Writer

As a history major, I love studying humanity’s past: the people, the places, the events.

When I was in high school, I was given an assignment to write about a topic related to the American Civil War. Among these topics, I randomly chose Stonewall Jackson. At that time, I didn’t know much about him. As I began to read a few books about his life, however, I realized that there was so much more to his story than I could have imagined.

I was surprised to learn about the challenges he faced as a young child and even into adulthood with the deaths of his parents, siblings, wife and child. I also found out about his military service in the Mexican-American war, which preceded his involvement in the Civil War.

It seemed like I had discovered a hidden treasure, the life story of a man many people had never heard of, and most knew very little about. So I continued to uncover more information about the events of his life and I have been intrigued ever since.

However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the backlash I received after giving a presentation of my research on Stonewall Jackson at a history conference. While I knew that any topic related to the Confederacy might cause some tension among the crowd, I was not expecting the first audience respondent to compare General Jackson to a Nazi soldier from the Holocaust.

Needless to say, my presentation was met with much emotion and frustration from the audience. The controversy seemed to be sparked by my belief  that we should be willing to examine the lives of  soldiers from the Civil War, including Confederates like Jackson, and learn from their successes and failures, their strengths and their weaknesses.

As someone who values history, wants to investigate it and seeks to preserve it, I was saddened by the reality that participants at a history conference found it difficult to even have a respectful discussion about this general’s life story. It was almost as if talking about his life and sharing examples that displayed some of his good character qualities was not acceptable.

To be clear, I don’t sanction Stonewall Jackson’s involvement in the institution of slavery.  It is offensive and unacceptable to believe that human beings should be treated as property to be bought and sold. What I am trying to say is that there is more to Jackson’s life than his involvement in the Confederacy.

Just as our founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners, Stonewall Jackson shares similar moral incongruity and complexity. It takes an intentional decision to examine history in light of its cultural context, but we must do this to gain a fuller understanding of Jackson’s character and personality.

In the last few weeks, I have had time to reflect upon the emotional and hostile responses that were directed towards me at the history conference.  My desire was to present some little known background information about a man from Virginia. It has caused me to wonder about the future of studying history, particularly the Civil War. I am concerned that in the name of healing and restoration, we might have unwittingly traded historical dialogue for emotional diatribe.

The Civil War is an egregious part of our nation’s past,  but should our response be to pronounce the supporters of the Union as having totally honorable intentions and proclaim those in the South to be utterly devoid of any integrity?  The presuppositions we bring to an examination of past events and people may handicap us in studying and preserving history. An attempt to carefully examine history means we don’t glorify the winners or the losers of a war, but rather we engage in scholarly research of historical cultures, events, locations and people.

Can we have constructive conversations about controversial topics, such as men like General Stonewall Jackson or General William Sherman, without vilifying or justifying them for being on a particular side of history? By its very nature, human history is a record of the best and the brightest, the vilest and vicious who have walked on this planet. Moral incongruity and complexity abound.

Are we willing to join together to engage in respectful and logical discourse, willing to learn about people, places and events that impact us? Can we examine the various attributes, decisions and actions of people in both the North and the South during the Civil War? These were real people, who, like us, made good decisions and bad ones.  And, like us, sometimes, they were confused and uncomfortable with the events that occurred during their lifetimes. Are we ready to embrace our messy past, to examine it and learn from it? Or are we destined to repeat it?

PHOTO: Courtesy photo,