A Romantic's Civil War: John Esten Cooke, Stonewall Jackson, and the Ideal of Individual "Genius"

By Hettle, Wallace | The Historian, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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A Romantic's Civil War: John Esten Cooke, Stonewall Jackson, and the Ideal of Individual "Genius"


Hettle, Wallace, The Historian


IN 1996, the Civil War novel Gods and Generals was a bestseller. The book portrayed Confederate General Stonewall Jackson as a man full of peculiarities, from his plain uniform to his alleged penchant for habitually sucking on lemons in the midst of battle. The image of Jackson and the lemon has long endured, and pilgrims to Jackson's grave today sometimes still leave behind lemons. Author Jeff Shaara, who attempted in his novel to be true to historical sources, did not invent the story of Jackson's odd fondness for the fruit: he appropriated a well-known feature of the general exhibited in numerous biographies. Jackson's strangeness, exemplified by a dingy uniform, strict observance of the Sabbath, and hypochondria, has been such a historical staple that a popular biography of Jackson for young readers perfectly captures the conventional portrait of Jackson in its title, Stonewall Jackson: The Eccentric Genius. (1)

How did Americans come to see Jackson as both strange and odd, an admixture of personal qualities captured indelibly in the image of the lemon-sucking warrior? The original source for the story comes from the Virginia writer John Esten Cooke, who wrote both fiction and nonfiction on the Army of Northern Virginia, and whose work sometimes blended the two genres. Jackson's campaigns received massive attention in the Confederate press, but accounts of his eccentricity are few prior to Cooke's depiction of Jackson in a series of articles for the Southern Illustrated News. (2) Jackson's authorized and most thorough biographer, Robert Lewis Dabney, whose work first appeared in 1864, never portrayed Jackson as peculiar or unusual. Neither did Jackson's wife, Mary Anna Jackson, who wrote an account of her husband in the 1890s, nor did the Confederate press while Jackson was still alive. (3) Those close to Jackson, and those most vested in the fortunes of the Confederacy, had more interest in emphasizing the general's piety and military brilliance rather than his strangeness.

Yet by focusing on Jackson's alleged oddities, Cooke could charm publishers and readers. Seeking a colorful picture of the Confederate warrior, Cooke originated what Jackson biographer James I. Robertson, Jr. calls the "myth" of the general sucking lemons in the heat of battle. The image later reemerged in the lively memoir by Confederate general Richard Taylor, whose portrait of Jackson closely mirrored Cooke's. Building on these sources, later historians adopted a similar image of Jackson as eccentric. Therefore, it became an enduring feature in biographies of the general. (4) Gods and Generals did not so much get the story wrong, as it followed an apocryphal detail that had crept into the historical literature.

To examine how that image became prevalent in shaping popular understanding of a great military leader, it is worthwhile to examine Cooke, its original purveyor. Before the Civil War, John Esten Cooke was a genuine rarity: a self-supporting southern man of letters. He wrote essays for southern periodicals such as the Southern Literary Messenger, Northern magazines such as Harper's, as well as numerous novels. The best of Cooke's fiction won both popular acclaim and critical approval. Cooke was the best-known novelist of the day to fight on either side during the Civil War. His service, which stretched from First Bull Run to Appomattox, combined with his able pen to make him a leading literary representative of the Lost Cause movement. His work had been enthusiastically received: in the early twentieth century, one literary critic exaggerated only slightly when he described Cooke as "the most widely known and most popular novelist the South has ever had." (5) As a professional writer and staff officer under J. E. B. Stuart, no one was better positioned to write a great book about the Civil War.

Cooke never produced such a masterpiece. The literary critic Daniel Aaron has written that "for over a century the War as a subject has not powerfully attracted many of [the South's] finer talents" and complained instead of the widespread practice of "pseudo-historic" hagiography.

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