The Lord Won’t Mind
By Peter Cozzens
University of North Carolina Press, 2008
|When 1862 began, the American Civil War (what Southerners, fighting in large measure to defend their right to keep human beings as slave labor, had the gall to call their “second war of independence”) was not going well for the Confederacy. The North had won a string of key victories in virtually all of the war’s theaters. New Orleans had been captured through the naval expertise of David Farragut, generals Grant and Buell had taken Tennessee, Kentucky had been all but abandoned as untenable, and at Shiloh the South had lost both its biggest toe-to-toe battle so far and arguably its greatest commander, General Albert Sidney Johnston. In early spring, Confederate morale was at rock-bottom. By early autumn, it was soaring as high as it ever would in the whole course of the war. What made the difference was one man and one campaign, and both are the subject of Peter Cozzens’ epic and engrossing new Shenandoah 1862.|
The man was Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and the campaign took place in the Shenandoah Valley, that gorgeous trough of land stretching north from Virginia to Maryland. Given the Valley’s location, it was inevitable that some crucial encounter should happen there, as Cozzens spells out right at the start:
War brought the Shenandoah Valley a strategic importance exceeding even its agricultural bounty. For the North, the Valley offered more problems than opportunities. Before it could take the war confidently to its opponent, the North had first to secure its own soil from outrage and its capital from insult. The Shenandoah Valley complicated both tasks. The national capital stood at the outer edge of the Federal domain, with only the Potomac River separating it from Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley offered Confederate armies a shielded avenue into the rear of Washington, D.C., and straight toward the fertile farmlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania; control of the Blue Ridge passes into the Valley would protect advancing Southern forces from interference. An invasion of the North, as improbable as that may have been at the time, brought with it the specter of European recognition of the Confederacy. At a minimum, possession of the Lower Valley would enable the Confederates to sever key Federal lines of communication and supply.
(In a peculiar usage, the northern part of the Valley, which is “upper” on a standard map, is referred to as “lower,” and the “lower” as “upper” … a distinction Cozzens seems to imply is unique in American nomenclature, which would come as a surprise to long-time residents of Cape Cod.)
|Cozzens is everywhere in his book a model of historical circumspection, but the scenario he invokes – a successful Southern invasion of the North leading to European recognition of the Confederacy (and its translation into armed assistance) – need not have been all that unlikely. In the spring of 1862, Washington was garrisoned by a middling-sized army that was long on self-esteem and short on experience and, as Cozzens points out, the ideal way to attack the Northern capital was to march troops down the Shenandoah Valley. Federal resistance would have been stiff, no doubt, but even in 1862, the South knew it was fighting for its life, and a nation’s capital only has to get captured once to radically alter the shape of a war. Had Washington been lost to the North – had, by some wild stroke of Confederate luck (of exactly the type they produced with annoying regularity), President Lincoln been captured – everything about the American Civil War would have turned out differently. Lincoln knew this, and you can bet Jefferson Davis knew it. Most of the commanders on either side in the Valley campaign must have known it, and it’s a mortal certainty Jackson knew it.|
Sauce for the goose: the Valley also made an excellent approach for Federal armies to the Confederate capital at Richmond. There were important rail-lines all through the area, and by 1862 Richmond looked to be almost entirely hemmed in by massive Northern armies. Jefferson Davis’ strategy to avoid losing his capital city was to keep the North worried about losing its own. In order to make Washington think twice about an all-out frontal assault on Richmond, Davis ordered feints at the Lower Valley, in order to draw armies away from his own doorstep and get them recalled to Lincoln’s. The commander he chose to make this happen was Stonewall Jackson.
He got his famous nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run, when the Virginians he was commanding refused to yield ground to wave after wave of Federal assaults. But then, the man’s physical courage had never been in question; during the Mexican-American war (the training ground for so many Civil War military leaders, North and South) he had shown conspicuous daring before the walls of Chapultepec, and his plodding efforts as an instructor at VMI could be cast as the flailings of a born soldier put in the wrong profession. His grasp of strategy (especially the use of terrain) was often uncanny, but his tactics were typical of the South throughout the war (rare cautious figures like General Longstreet excepted): reckless, headlong, man-wasting aggression, followed by either retreat or hastily-improvised logistical deployment. This combination of sage strategy and foolhardy tactics, a legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte, was the ultimate downfall of the South, just as it was the death of many thousands of men in the First World War, and the Confederates were saved from the worst of its failings in the 1862 Valley campaign largely by the ineptitude and timidity of Northern generals such as Nathaniel Banks, John Fremont, and James Shields.
(Shields, whose cowardice, incompetence, and mendacity Cozzens gleefully divulges at length, will never recover, as it were, from this book. Here’s just one sample, a dissection of Shields’ behavior after a major battle:
James Shields, on the other hand, appeared intent on ruining his own division’s high regard for him. His fractured arm may have prevented him from exercising command at Kernstown, but it did not keep Shields from claiming the victory as his own. The politician displaced the general, and truth mourned the consequence.)
In Shenandoah 1862 Cozzens knows full well the ghosts with which he must contend. The foremost is Robert Tanner’s popular and well-regarded 1976 study, Stonewall in the Valley, which makes for as exciting reading now as it did thirty years ago. Cozzens dispenses with Tanner – and, by extension, every other author on the subject – early on, with an emphasis it’s hard to gainsay:
Apart from his own confession [that the purpose of his work was to recount the campaign from the Confederate viewpoint], the extent of Tanner’s bias is demonstrated by the fact that every manuscript source he consulted and all but three printed primary sources are Confederate. Such a one-sided approach to a military campaign serves no good purpose; it is impossible to judge the true greatness, if indeed such a word is appropriate, of Jackson’s accomplishments in the Valley without an equally thorough understanding of the campaign from the Union perspective.
To say as much is to take on the entire myth of the valiant South, for no single man embodies that myth more fully than Stonewall Jackson, not even Jeb Stuart – not even Robert E. Lee, although the exactions in ruin and useless slaughter which the South would undergo on Lee’s behalf were ultimately far worse than anything Jackson was able to inflict before his own pickets shot him dead (by accident, they quite naturally later insisted) at Chancellorsville in 1863. And the Shenandoah Valley campaign is where that myth was born: a small army, artfully dodging in and out of the valleys and hollows around the Massanutten Mountain to harry, out-ride, and eventually run off far larger forces commanded by gutless and cross-purposed East Coast bluenoses. It was immediately recognized by the Southern press as the stuff of legends, and in that regard Jackson’s eccentricities (his religious zeal, his oddly otherworldly deportment, etc.) made him the perfect fulcrum for it all. Here was the ideal romantic contrast, acknowledged to an extent even by Cozzens:
Jackson’s former pupils had no trouble recognizing him; he arrived for war in the same dingy, ill-fitting blue uniform and blue forage cap in which he had strode clumsily about the grounds of VMI. But snobbish ex-cadets, green recruits, and easygoing militiamen and their pompous officers were in for a surprise. Jackson may have been an obliging man in pleasant society, but he was unyielding in an army camp.
Cozzens is careful to stress the limits of this idealization (“Jackson shared none of the prevailing ardor. He deplored war”), but there’s no getting around his central task: any re-evaluation of Stonewall Jackson must perforce be a de-valuation. This has been a long time coming and it’s totally deserved, but no matter how well-documented it is (Shenandoah 1862 is extensively end-noted), it will fail if the writer involved can’t pull off the task rhetorically. It’s an oddity of history reserved almost exclusively for the American Civil War that what you write is only ever just about as important as how you write it. A certain amount of mastery is called for here, and Cozzens is entirely up to the job: in addition to being the definitive account of the Valley campaign, his book is fast-paced, muscular, and never less than a joy to read. He manages to keep his prose right on the border between the formality of a Robert Stackpole and the fluidity of a Shelby Foote:
As the soldiers grabbed what rest they could [after a 20-mile march to the outskirts of Kernstown] among the trees, Jackson rode forward with aides … to reconnoiter the landscape. He intended to wait until the next morning to attack – offering battle on the Sabbath was repugnant to him, and, besides, fewer than six hours of daylight remained. But what Jackson saw on the horizon changed his thinking. Clearly silhouetted on Pritchard’s Hill were ten rifled cannons that [Federal colonel] Kimball had assembled; not visible were the three regiments of Union infantry standing in support on the far side of the knob. Neglecting to confer with [General Turner] Ashby, Jackson was also unaware of the nearly three thousand Federals east of the Valley Pike with whom his cavalry chief had earlier skirmished. Reasoning that the Federal gun crews on Pritchard’s Hill could observe his army spread along the pike and readily gauge his strength, and fearful that, if left unmolested, they might either deny him a lunge at the Yankee rear guard or call for reinforcements during the night and compel him to give battle to a larger force, Jackson elected to attack at once.
The Lord would forgive him for bathing the Sabbath in blood.
The pattern of that excerpt occurs throughout the book: the broad emplacement of facts, the sharpening focus, the alleged conclusion pulling the paragraph to a close, and then the note-perfect finishing touch in the first line of the following paragraph. The attentive reader can’t help but notice a certain similarity; Cozzens has evidently been studying Jackson’s battlefield techniques for quite a while.
Kernstown, the battle concerned in the above excerpt, stares in the face of all Valley apologists (even Tanner cannot sidestep it): yes, Jackson’s armies might have achieved improbable and even stirring victories in later encounters at places like Front Royal, Cross Keys, and Port Republic, but at Kernstown Jackson was handed a bitter and entirely avoidable defeat, one that nearly cost him his army. He kept his overall plans to himself, not even confiding in his second-in-command, he attacked a Federal position that was too strongly held for his forces to take, he deployed those forces in a piecemeal and staccato fashion, and, most alarmingly of all in a commanding officer, he was hard to find:
Where was Stonewall Jackson while his main line of resistance was crumbling? His whereabouts are uncertain, but the evidence suggests that he spent much of the two-hour fight near the Rockbridge Artillery, well removed from the struggle on [General Richard] Garnett’s front. His probable location, lack of communication with Garnett, who it must be remembered knew nothing of the battle plan, and failure to inform his nominal second-in-command of his location implies that Jackson had entrusted Garnett with the defense of the stone wall and all decisions relating to it. Certainly that would have been a reasonable conclusion for Garnett to reach. But Garnett discovered that whatever authority he presumably possessed was illusory if it conflicted with Jackson’s fantasies – for it was sheer fantasy that compelled Jackson in the closing hour of the battle.
Once Cozzens begins to note flaws like this, he finds a bumper-crop of them, and this is the blatantly – and hugely successfully – defiant part of his book. The Stonewall Jackson who emerges from his pages is not a figure of legend at all, unless it’s a suite of legends far more mocking and ironic than Civil War historians are currently retailing. This is instead a deeply insecure man who only imperfectly understood the functions of command and utterly rejected the trusts incumbent in the position. This is a moody, tempermental religious fanatic who, as a direct result of his brutal treatment of his own men (those 20-mile marches were devastatingly common), lost twice as many troops to desertion as he did to combat. This is a Shenandoah commander whose luck was in his stumbling Union opponents, not in his own skill or bravery. And in the larger context, as Cozzens points out, this is a campaign predicated entirely on a strategic mistake: Lincoln letting his desire to exterminate Jackson’s after all insignificant army in the Valley distract him from the essential goal of overwhelming Richmond. Even in the impossibly cynical year of 2008, these are brave things for a historian to attempt.
Cozzens succeeds masterfully. This is an incredibly learned and absorbing exercise of history, the best single work on any Civil War campaign to appear in many, many decades. The only regret here is that Cozzens doesn’t go further: the Jackson who behaved with such bizarre and dire bad judgement at Kernstown didn’t vanish from the stage when the Shenandoah Valley campaign was over. You can find him in the following year at the Battle of the Seven Days, making one crucial mistake after another, disappearing at vital moments over and over again and receiving nothing for it but the sentimental thanks of his commanding officer, Robert E. Lee. Jackson’s behavior during the various battles of the Seven Days has always struck me as a textbook example of alcoholism, and although this almost certainly cannot be true (Jackson’s stringent personal habits are well known), a writer as thorough – and thoroughly fearless – as Cozzens might have uncovered something equally damning, had he cast his net so wide.
As it is, Shenandoah 1862 cuts a swath through the herd of sacred cows that has grazed in the Valley for lo, these many decades. Peter Cozzens strips the place of its legends almost as thoroughly as Union general Phil Sheridan stripped it of its livestock, when he laid waste to paradise in 1864. The Valley grew back; let’s hope the legends don’t.
Steve Donoghue served as an aide to the Union’s Minister to England, Charles Francis Adams between 1861 and 1868. Queen Victoria was said to be delighted by his “brassiness.” Like Adams’ private secretary, he has held a deep fascination with history ever since.