The Many Uses of a Stonewall

This guest post by Dr. Adrian Brettle is the first of two on Stonewall Jackson monuments in Richmond. The second will appear on Thursday. 

From the death of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 1863 until the unveiling of the equestrian statue on Monument Avenue in 1915, leading Virginians sought to realize their own ambitions and desires through the memorialization of the dead general. Interestingly, so did a number of Britons. The journey of Jackson’s memory highlights the ways that different people over time understood the past and harnessed it for their own uses.

Jackson’s mortal wounding in 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville served as a providential warning to Confederates who had placed too much faith in a mere man. “Little children,” North Carolinian Catherine Edmonston admonished, “keep yourselves from idols.”

  Richmond Dispatch , May 12, 1863

Richmond Dispatch, May 12, 1863

Such providential caution, however, did not deter Jackson’s fans in Great Britain. To many conservative English men and women, Jackson had represented devout faith (then under attack in England from scientists and secularists), the hope for financial investment in Confederate cotton, and the romantic enthusiasm for individual military prowess in the era of modern warfare and mass conscription then underway in Europe. Undoubtedly, a few relished a chance to demonstrate contempt for the democracy symbolized by the survival of Lincoln’s United States.

Within a month of Jackson’s death, English men and women launched the British Jackson Monumental Fund to raise money for a memorial to the general to be erected in Richmond. The Confederate newspaper outlet in Britain, The Index, published names of donors for the next two years. Enough funding had been raised, 4,000 guineas, or around $400,000 in today’s money, that the project continued despite the Confederacy’s collapse in 1865.

When the British Jackson Monumental Fund formally offered the bronze statue to the Commonwealth in 1875, Virginians had recovered from their concern about worshipping idols but remained politically divided. The Conservative Party had recently prevailed over Reconstruction Republicans in statewide elections, but did not have a unified agenda on debt and education going forward. Governor James L. Kemper saw the Jackson statue as a chance at reconciliation among Virginians. “His example belongs to mankind,” Kemper claimed, “and his deeds and virtues will be cherished, by all the coming generations of the great American republic, as among the proudest memorials of a common glory.”

Not everyone agreed. African Americans in the General Assembly, including USCT veteran and legislator from the Eastern Shore, Peter Jacob Carter, voted against accepting the statue. Nonetheless, Kemper continued to pursue political unity, inviting an African American militia company to participate in the 1875 unveiling festivities of the standing Jackson statue on Capitol Square.

 1875 statue on the Virginia Capitol grounds.

1875 statue on the Virginia Capitol grounds.

By the time the cornerstone was laid for the better-known equestrian statue of Jackson on Monument Avenue in 1915, the memory of Jackson had changed again. William A. Anderson, the former Virginia Attorney General and an architect of the 1902 Constitution which effectively stripped African Americans and poor white people of the vote, described Jackson as the exemplar of practical education honed by his experience as a warrior.

According to Anderson, Jackson exhibited attributes of a natural leader including a firm sense of duty and tolerance, possessing the “utmost charity and deference for the faiths and virtues of others.” Anderson had a particular interest in religious toleration in pursuit of educational reforms. He was at the time a Rector of Washington and Lee University and supported the severance of that institutions connection with the Presbyterian Church in order to develop as a national university. Jackson’s reputation as a dogmatic Presbyterian did not stop Anderson from deploying the dead general in his cause.

Anderson further elaborated on another of Jackson’s characteristics. In war, Anderson claimed, Jackson had “aroused his facilities and intensified and developed talents and aptitudes which were already existent but somewhat dominant in his nature.” Such an education in the arts of war might soon be at hand for Anderson’s audience. With World War One already engulfing Europe, and growing pressure on the United States to intervene after the German sinking of the Lusitania, Anderson drew attention to Jackson as the “incarnation of righteous and glorious war.” When “in times of stress and trial, when the well being, the virtue, and the liberties of the country shall be imperiled,” leaders such as Jackson were urgently needed.

From providential rebuke, symbol of individualism in the face of modernity, a potential political unifier, an exemplar of toleration, and as national warrior, Stonewall Jackson’s memory served many people for many different reasons. By the time the statue was finally unveiled on October 11, 1919, the nation indeed mourned the dead of another war.

1919 Statue on Monument Avenue.jpeg