Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend

I love biography. That’s probably the tenth time I’ve begun a review with those words, yet it’s no less true now than the first time I penned them. The more I read of biography, the more I am enamored with it and the more I see just how valuable it is to my life and faith.

I was in Virginia recently, spending a week on vacation. I decided the occasion merited a biography of a Virginian. That led me to choose between Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In the end Jackson won in a shootout. I turned to the epic work by James Robertson. Written in 1997, this biography remains the definitive word on Jackson. I can’t imagine how it will ever be equaled.

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Over the years Jackson has been variously portrayed as a great general and a great Christian. It seems that few biographers have managed to do equal justice to the two most notable emphases of this extraordinary man. On the one hand he was a brilliant military strategist who time and again relied on speed and surprise to catch his enemy off-guard. On the other hand, he was a man who deeply loved the Lord and who cherished his relationship with the Savior. He was a man who suffered much from his earliest days to his final days. Fatherless at two, orphaned at seven, he also witnessed the death of two of his siblings, two of his children and his first wife. Some of his closest friends died and he was estranged from others by the war that devastated his nation. Yet through it all Jackson remained absolutely fixed upon the firm foundation of God’s sovereignty. Always he placed his trust in God and always he sought to submit himself to God’s will and to delight in God’s providence.

The facts of Jackson’s life are well-known so I will forego those to comment instead on the lessons I’ve learned from Jackson and to comment on what makes this biography so sublime.

Determination. I saw in Jackson the importance of determination, of being very serious about life. He determined that he could be whatever he would resolve to be. He was determined to rise above his circumstances and to make something of himself. Yet this would be difficult for a poor orphan boy. Throughout life, whether it was in the classroom, the sanctuary or in social situations, he was determined to do better, to honor God. And by God’s grace and by sheer determination, he did so, getting better and better at just about everything he put his mind to.

Love.  Jackson sought to obey Romans 12:16 which says “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” He was not too proud to work with slaves, the lowest of the low. In fact, he loved them as brothers and sisters and treated them with dignity. He was a man of his time, a person who could tolerate slavery even if he did not really approve of it. It is easy to portray him as some kind of a monster for having slaves. And yet we can’t deny his love for them, his desire to treat them well and to see them become brothers and sisters in Christ.

Trust. Jackson had total confidence in the will of God and the goodness of God. He knew the character of God and allowed that to be his starting point. He didn’t allow his pain to redraw the character of God so that God was shaped by pain and suffering. Instead, he knew and loved God and allowed God to speak, to comfort, to console him in pain. He studied God and walked with God in the good times so that his hope was firm in times of sorrow. Not only this, but he saw God’s sovereign hand in everything. Whether things went well or poorly, he saw God’s hand in it and willingly submitted himself.

Prayer. Jackson was a man of prayer. He prayed all the time. He would pray before battles and during battles, often holding his hands up in prayer, asking God to bless and protect his men. He would rise in the night, even when he had had very little sleep and he would pray. He was never too busy to pray. He would go to services held by his chaplains and pray with them. He prayed with his wife and prayed over his daughter. He never grew tired of prayer and always saw the need for it. He was a true prayer warrior who would do nothing, make no important decision, without taking it before God. He had a right assessment of both himself and God and knew the utter importance of being on his knees.

These are at least some of the lessons I’ve learned from his life, lessons I hope to apply to my own life.

As for what makes Robertson’s biography so sublime, well, that is an easy one. It is simply that I could glean all of this. In a biography about a general, a military man, I was able to peer deeply into his life to see not just his accomplishments on the battlefield, but more importantly, the heart of the man, the Christian character of the man. Robertson showed his subject at this best and worst, at home and on the battlefield. This is one of those biographies where to read it is to meet the subject. Jackson was a multifaceted individual and Robertson portrays him in all of his complexity.

I think this may well be the best biography I’ve ever read and if not that, it’s the one I’ve enjoyed reading the most. I enjoyed it so much that I followed it with three other books on Jackson: Stonewall Jackson’s Book of Maxims (a good look at the principles through which he sought to improve himself), Beloved Bride: The Letters of Stonewall Jackson to His Wife (enjoyable, but read the biography first) and Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend (an excellent look at Jackson’s faith and his relationship to blacks, both slave and free). Whether or not you are interested in Jackson’s military accomplishments, you will still find great value in reading about his life and learning from his faith, his trust, his determination, his love. Though by no means a perfect man, he is a man who showed clear evidence of his love for the Lord and his desire to honor him in all of life. And in that way, his life can serve as a lesson to any of us.

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