As discussed here, the version of my review of Still Standing – The Stonewall Jackson Story that appears in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War – on newsstands now – was edited about 35% for length. To perhaps (though probably not) nip in the bud any questions regarding my opinion of the film, I’m posting the original text of the review below. But don’t let this stop you from sending letters to the magazine.
Let me preface this by saying that I was predisposed to dislike the film prior to viewing, based on some things I had heard about it. This to me was problematic, so before viewing it I posted a question to the Civil War Discussion Group (CWDG), a Yahoo email group to which I’ve belonged since its inception about seven years ago. After discussing my problem with a few posters there, I determined that the proper course was to review the film on its own merits: what was the message it was trying to convey, and how well did it argue its case. The review is not a simple reflection of my thoughts on the message, and has nothing to do with liking or disliking, but is rather an analysis of the presentation. Note that each paragraph ends with an unexplored paradox.
Irony and paradox: those are the words used to characterize the life of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the documentary “Still Standing – The Stonewall Jackson Story”. They are used specifically to describe the story of Jackson as one of a very ordinary man, arising from ordinary, even humble circumstances to accomplish extraordinary things. Beautifully filmed, the DVD has a pleasant musical score and relies more on live action video of sites from the general’s life than on the Ken Burns trademark still photograph panning that has become S.O.P. for historical documentaries. All in all, this is an attractive package. But it is perhaps more rife with irony and paradox than the producers intended – paradoxes and ironies ultimately left unexplored or unconvincingly explained.
Focusing on Jackson’s spiritual life, and based on the book “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend” by Richard Williams, the program features a number of “talking heads”, first and foremost Jackson biographer James I. Robertson. Jackson’s story is broken down into chronological phases of his life, beginning with his traumatic separation from his mother at age seven to be sent to live with his uncle Cummins at Jackson’s Mill in what is now West Virginia. Robertson describes Jackson’s boyhood as one of solitude and loneliness, and tells us that he never got over the separation from his mother, that his uncle was an uncaring, selfish man and that, while he later said his uncle loved him, Jackson “did not know what love was.” At the same time, his boyhood is also described as shaped by his close friendship with future Union general Joseph Lightburn who, along with Cummins’s slaves, influenced Jackson to accept the gospel.
Jackson’s time at West Point is covered briefly, described as spent engrossed in study, and discussion of his Mexican War service is limited to his three brevet promotions, his dalliance with Catholicism, and the influence on his religious development of his superior officer Francis Taylor. As for his post-war career, we learn of his baptism while stationed at Ft. Hamilton and of his leaving the army to take a teaching job at VMI, but nothing of why he left or any role his ambition – later described by Dr. Hunter McGuire as “far beyond what ordinary men possess” – may have played in his decision. At VMI, while Jackson continued his personal voyage of faith, he distinguished himself as possibly the worst teacher in the history of the school. Despite that, evidence suggests that his students saw something special in “Tom Fool”.
While Jackson’s role at First Manassas and in the Valley Campaign is explored, there is really little analysis of his Civil War record. In fact, the film jumps from the Valley Campaign straight to Chancellorsville and his mortal wounding, avoiding entirely the paradox of Jackson’s spotty performance during the Seven Days.
At the center of the documentary is Jackson as husband, father, and benefactor of a Sunday school for slaves and free blacks in Lexington, Va. While establishing himself in the town, he joined the Presbyterian Church and married Eleanor Junkin. Fourteen months later, his wife and new son were dead, and Jackson’s faith is said to be all that pulled him through a difficult time. He toured Europe, and on his return quickly courted and married Mary Anna Morrison. By all accounts Jackson, earlier described as not knowing what love was, deeply, even romantically, loved his wife.
Jackson, who believed that every human being was a child of God, helped to fund a Sunday school to teach slaves and free blacks to read, in order for them to more closely follow the teachings of the bible. While in violation of Virginia law, he felt that God’s law trumped the law of man. Committed to the project, he sent his monthly stipend for the school from the battlefield of Manassas. This scenario presents perhaps the most significant paradox of Jackson’s life. While Robertson asserts that Jackson did not, in fact could not, fight for slavery, the fact remains that his actions helped sustain a government dedicated to the preservation of that institution; that while the beneficiaries of Stonewall’s bible school would become the freedmen of post-war Lexington, his actions helped delay their attainment of that status; that while Jackson was traumatized by his separation as a child from his beloved mother, his actions helped to perpetuate a system that methodically separated mother from child.
Perhaps a case can be made that for his time and community Jackson was in fact progressive in his views on and treatment of slaves and free blacks. However, “Still Standing” does not attempt to view Jackson in the context of his circumstances, instead boldly proclaiming him a “champion of enslaved men and women”. The glaring paradox is that he was at the same time on the battlefield a champion of slavery. That’s a paradox worth exploring.
Thanks to Senior Editor Tobin Beck for his kind permission to post this.
(UPDATE: Blogger Richard Williams, on whose book Still Standing is based, has “not commented” on this review here. He suggests that I can find explorations of all the paradoxes in the film in his book. As I said, I reviewed the film on its own merits. Sweet cross-marketing pitch though! I’m not sure what you found “curious” about my comments but no, I didn’t consider the review a “dreadful undertaking”, just a challenging one. As for my comments speaking for themselves, I sure hope they do – that’s what I was going for!)