Historians' attempts to understand legendary Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson have proved uneven at best and often contentious. An occasionally enigmatic and eccentric college professor before the Civil War, Jackson died midway through the conflict, leaving behind no memoirs and relatively few surviving letters or documents. In Inventing Stonewall Jackson, Wallace Hettle offers an innovative and distinctive approach to interpreting Stonewall by examining the lives and agendas of those authors who shape our current understanding of General Jackson.
Newspaper reporters, friends, relatives, and fellow soldiers first wrote about Jackson immediately following the Civil War. Most of them, according to Hettle, used portions of their own life stories to frame that of the mythic general. Hettle argues that the legend of Jackson's rise from poverty to power was likely inspired by the rags-to-riches history of his first biographer, Robert Lewis Dabney. Dabney's own successes and Presbyterian beliefs probably shaped his account of Jackson's life as much as any factual research. Many other authors inserted personal values into their stories of Stonewall, perplexing generations of historians and writers.
Subsequent biographers contributed their own layers to Jackson's myth and eventually a composite history of the general came to exist in the popular imagination. Later writers, such as the liberal suffragist Mary Johnston, who wrote a novel about Jackson, and the literary critic Allen Tate, who penned a laudatory biography, further shaped Stonewall's myth. As recently as 2003, the film Gods and Generals, which featured Jackson as the key protagonist, affirmed the longevity and power of his image.Impeccable research and nuanced analysis enable Hettle to use American culture and memory to reframe the Stonewall Jackson narrative and provide new ways to understand the long and contended legacy of one of the Civil War's most popular Confederate heroes.
Wallace Hettle, professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa, is the author of The Peculiar Democracy: Southern Democrats in Peace and Civil War.
Review of Inventing Stonewall Jackson
"It takes a skilled historian to uncover the sources of a heroic image and separate myth from reality. That is precisely what Wallace Hettle of the University of Northern Iowa does in this delightful and path-breaking book. Step by step, he charts how Confederate martyr “Stonewall” Jackson, second only to Robert E. Lee in posthumous fame, acquired his historic reputation for battlefield courage and dynamic leadership, and a personal reputation for piety and inscrutability."
Review or Inventing Stonewall Jackson
"'Stonewall' may remain a mystery, but if modern man has indeed played a role in inventing him, Hettle digs deep enough to prove we had plenty of raw materials with which to work."
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