Understanding the Jackson Statue Controversy

by Donald Smith

Perhaps you’ve noticed the discussion over the past year about the banishment… er, sorry, removal… of Stonewall Jackson’s statue from the Virginia Military Institute’s Main Post. Well, here’s another contribution. I will make the case that the powers-that-be behind the excision of Jackson’s memory from VMI weren’t trying to help the institute. They wanted to humiliate it.

The Barnes and Thornburgh analysts who studied the racial climate at VMI noted that many people attend VMI because they want a military experience.  Men and women who enroll at the academy are a lot like cadets or midshipmen at West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, the Citadel and Norwich.

Military schools, and military men and women, honor leaders who showed courage, determination and excellence in battle. Military schools are normally proud of the great generals and admirals they produced.

Non-woke historians universally accept Stonewall Jackson as one of America’s greatest battlefield generals. His Valley Campaign of 1862 was “as remarkable a campaign as the Civil War produced,” wrote Civil War historian Bruce Catton. S.C. Gwynne, a former bureau chief and editor at Time, wrote “Rebel Yell,” a biography of Jackson in 2014. The book’s cover said that in the Valley Campaign, Jackson had “engineered perhaps the greatest military campaign in American history,” and had become “one of the most famous men in the Western world.”

“According to the military textbooks,” said Catton in his centennial history of the Civil War, “no general should ever divide his forces in the presence of the enemy. This is a very sound rule in most cases, but it is a rule that was made to be broken now and then, and [Robert E.] Lee was the man to break it.” Twice, at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville, Lee divided his Army of Northern Virginia in the face of larger Union armies. Both times, Stonewall Jackson led the Confederates who flanked and surprised the Federal forces.

“Jackson’s strategic innovations shattered the conventional wisdom of how war was waged,” says the cover of Rebel Yell. “He was so far ahead of his time that his techniques would be studied generations in the future.” Lee could break the rules of war, and get away with it, because he had Stonewall Jackson.

In the midst of the George Floyd hysteria, activists focused much of their ire with VMI on Jackson’s statue and his admittedly larger-than-life presence on the campus. VMI’s Board of Visitors panicked after the bombshell Washington Post allegations of widespread racial insensitivity and intolerance. The Board’s first choice for a defense mechanism: offer up Jackson’s statue as a sacrifice. BOV members didn’t stand up for Stonewall; they threw him to the wolves.

Observers at West Point, at Annapolis — and also at Sandhurst (the British Army’s military academy) and St. Cyr (France’s most famous military college) — are probably puzzled by the activists’ laser-like focus on Jackson. He was not a plantation owner, much less a Simon Legree. To the contrary, the historical record shows that he treated his slaves well. He created and ran a Sunday School for slaves.

“From what evidence we have, Jackson was well-liked by blacks” in Lexington, writes Gwynne. Jackson even risked his community’s anger over the school. When three local lawyers threatened legal action against him for it, Jackson angrily challenged the men’s Christianity. The school stayed open for thirty more years. Those are the actions of an honorable man. (Exactly the kind of men and women VMI is supposed to produce).

VMI is littered with monuments to Confederates, most of whom are unknown to anyone but VMI alumni or Civil War enthusiasts. If VMI Main Post was “too Confederate,” as the activists claim, then remove those monuments. But, from day one of this affair, the activists have focused on Stonewall. This past spring, the VMI superintendent recommended and the BOV approved erasing almost every remaining tangible sign of Stonewall’s legacy from Main Post.

VMI has chosen to prioritize inclusion over greatness. Jackson was a quirky, and obviously flawed man. But, on the battlefield and in his community, he achieved greatness. At West Point, and Annapolis, and Norwich, and the Citadel, and Sandhurst and St. Cyr, they know that. They see the legacy of VMI’s, and one of America’s, greatest battlefield generals under assault by a crowd of activists — an assault cheered on by culture warriors who are wounded by trigger words and retreats to safe spaces.

Faculty at the European military academies must be shaking their heads in disgust at the spectacle. At Frunze, the Russian military academy, and Nanjing, the PRC’s, they’re undoubtedly laughing.

Perhaps that’s what the activists wanted all along — not to extinguish modern-day traces of racism but to humiliate an institution that openly celebrates patriotism, the martial virtues and the ideal of the citizen-soldier that made America the great nation it is today. One way to humble a community — or a corps — is to take away its heroes. The obsession with Jackson makes no sense to me otherwise.

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7 responses to “Understanding the Jackson Statue Controversy”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    It never ceases to amaze me
    how Virginans go ga-ga over Confederate generals like Leerand Jackson. They
    assume they “own” the narrative and must protect it. Any effort to bring truth
    and clarity to their manufactured histories is considered an assault on the
    precious Old Dominion.

    For instance, consider Thomas “Stonewall”
    Jackson, who was born and raised in Harrison County, W.Va., then part of
    Virginia. It happened that my family lived there from 1962 until 1969. I
    arrived as a boy of 11, just in time for the Centennial of the Civil War.

    West Virginians, however, did not deify
    Jackson. They did not consider him sacred. Every other public school and street
    was not named for him. There was a big statue of him in the middle of the
    public square in Clarksburg, then a working class coal and glass place. But
    that’s about it.

    One reason, of course, is that West
    Virginians, annoyed at Virginia’s plantation “aristocrat” ruling classes,
    resented Richmond. Many wanted to end slavery, which they considered evil (gee,
    it’s nice that Jackson was good to slaves). So, in 1863, West Virginia seceded
    from Virginia, became a new state and joined the Union,.

    As boys, we used to play Civil War but the
    guys were just as likely to want to be the Yankees as the Rebs. There was no
    shame in that. Union troops were on the right side of history and they actually
    won the war (the brilliant efforts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall notwithstanding.

    Years later, in 1999 I was a staffer at
    BusinessWeek magazine. There was to be a Ku Klux Klan rally in Clarksburg using
    the Jackson statue as a prop. I had grown up with one of the county
    commissioners who was very angry at the scare public resources about 11
    Klanspeople were using. So I covered it:


    Sorry about the paywall.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      But the white stuff on the statues says it all.

      Jackson educated his slaves as part of a preplanned product improvement. They bring a higher price. Curb appeal, so to speak.

    2. fortbuckley Avatar

      Well, bless your heart!

      1. Donald Smith Avatar
        Donald Smith

        I couldn’t agree more. A perfect Southern response.

    3. Merchantseamen Avatar

      For you woke people. Lee, Jackson are highly regarded by the U.K. for their battlefield performances. The German General Staff formed int he 1870’s studied the U.S. Civil War. Most Military Academies around the world study our Civil War and their strategies . The DemonRats put them on a “pedestal” to remember the “lost Cause”. They are as much as this country’s history as anyone and deserve to be remembered so as not to repeat what we are repeating at this very moment. This “purge” of our history is not a good thing.
      So maybe, just maybe you are not as woke as you think you are?

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Jackson will endure. His deeds and good name will be shared with generations to come.

  3. William O'Keefe Avatar
    William O’Keefe

    The people who attack Lee and Jackson also attack those who honor them on the faulty basis that only racists can honor them. They also glibly call them traitors even though in joining the Union states reserved the right to withdraw. At least one Northern state did consider doing so.
    These advocates and their cancel culture allies are killing history and the lessons we can learn from it.

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