Life According to Stonewall Jackson; A Virginia Tech History Professor Has Compiled the Principles of Personal Conduct and Self-Improvement Espoused by One of the Great Confederate Generals

Insight on the News, January 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Life According to Stonewall Jackson; A Virginia Tech History Professor Has Compiled the Principles of Personal Conduct and Self-Improvement Espoused by One of the Great Confederate Generals


Byline: John Elvin, INSIGHT

Many of us try to model our lives after heroes, and it is helpful if those heroes left guiding words behind. Those who favor the heroic Southern general Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson as a guiding light have been without benefit of his reflections; a shot from one of his own sentries deprived him of the chance to leave memoirs. Of course, there are numerous biographies of the gentlemanly military genius, but the words of others are not the same as his own. In a small way, this vacuum has been filled by a new book, Stonewall Jackson's Book of Maxims, edited by James I. Robertson Jr. (Cumberland House, $16.95, 160 pp).

It seems that many a growing boy in early America had one quest in mind: to make the most of the opportunities this country presented. Not only were newspapers, periodicals and books loaded with maxims and essays dedicated toward self-improvement, but the boys often composed their own.

This was true of George Washington, whose Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation was composed at age 12. Benjamin Franklin made a cottage industry of producing practical wisdom in short, quotable bursts. Novelty wasn't the goal; the thoughts expressed often trace back to biblical proverbs and, no doubt, to the dawn of contemplative thought. The idea was more that in putting those ancient thoughts into one's own words, they became one's own, and that is just what Jackson did.

Jackson appeared destined to the life of a mountaineer farmer, but he determined to master that fate. Educating himself as he went, he secured and made the best of an appointment to West Point, rising from dead last among plebes in 1842 to 17th in the ranks of 59 cadets in the class of 1846. He was a model of singleness of purpose and dedication, devoted to the cause of becoming an educated gentleman. Those who recalled his early military career remarked on his social aloofness; he was a polite loner. He was organized, methodical and sought precision in all things a born military man, it would seem.

One factor distinguishing him from the stereotypical good soldier was that, in matters of the mind, he sought his own answers rather than accepting the conclusions or opinions of others. Spiritually he was devout without being imposing, though he could lecture on religious topics if called upon to do so. In 1848, writing in a blue academic notebook, he commenced his book of maxims, which he maintained for five years. …

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