Wednesday, May 02, 2012

`How Can We Praise?'

I was eight years old at the start of the centennial of the American Civil War, and observed it more assiduously than any historical event during my own lifetime with the possible exception of President Kennedy’s assassination. I didn’t need Benedetto Croce to tell me all history is contemporary history, especially during the heroic years of the civil rights movement. Even as a Northerner by birth and temperament, I found much to admire in the Confederates and their romantic devotion to the “Lost Cause.” In an anti-heroic age, some of us, and not only children, still look to heroes. Chief among them is the doomed Maj. Gen. Thomas Jackson, named “Stonewall” after First Bull Run for the way his brigade fortified a crumbling Confederate line. Jackson judged slavery immoral, never owned a slave and became the tactical hero of the Valley Campaign.

On May 2, 1862, one hundred forty-nine years ago today, Jackson’s martyrdom solidified. In the early evening, the general was shot by at least two Confederate skirmishers as he returned to their lines from a forward observation of Union positions near Chancellorsville, Va. The sentries mistook Jackson and his staff for Union cavalry. The general was hit by three bullets, two in the left arm and one in the right hand. Doctors amputated the arm and Jackson died May 10 from pneumonia and complications of the field-hospital surgery.

In 1928, Allen Tate published his first poetry collection, Mr. Pope and Other Poems (which includes the great “Ode to the Confederate Dead”) and a biography, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier. It was from Tate that I learned, among other things, the name of the horse Jackson was riding when he was shot – Little Sorrel. And the message General Lee sent after Jackson’s arm was amputated:

“Give him my affectionate regards, and tell him to make haste and get well, and come back to me as soon as he can. He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.”

Poets North and South wrote about Jackson – most famously, John Greenleaf Whittier in “Barbara Fritchie.” So did Georgia-born Sidney Lanier, who served in the Confederate signal corps and wrote “The Dying Words of Stonewall Jackson.” Here’s how another Jackson biographer, Byron Farwell (Stonewall, 1992), reports those dying words and concludes his volume:

“Jackson now sank into unconsciousness, murmuring disconnected words from time to time. At three-thirty that afternoon, quite distinctly and cheerfully, he said: `Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.’ Then his fetaures sank into repose and he died.”

Herman Melville wrote two poems about the Confederate hero, collected in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) -- “Stonewall Jackson” and “Stonewall Jackson (Ascribed to a Virginian).” In the former, Melville says Jackson was “True to the thing he deemed was due, / True as John Brown or steel.” Jackson was present at Brown’s hanging on Dec. 2, 1859, as commander of cadets at the Virginia Military Academy. In the same poem, Melville expresses a rare understanding of the fine moral distinctions posed by a man like Jackson, as he does in “Lee in the Capitol.” Of Jackson he writes: “Even him who stoutly stood for Wrong, / How can we praise?”

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

The Confederate generals may have read the classics and treasured what was beautiful. So did the Nazi generals. Both groups lent their courage and sacred honor to a foul and dishonorable cause. May Stonewall Jackson rest in disquiet rather than peace. Given what we know of him his choice may have been morally discordant but it was still a conscious choice. There is thus little parallel between the friendship of Lee and Jackson and that of, say, Achilles and Patroclus.

Richard Freeman