by Charles McGuigan
Obsessions aren’t always a bad thing, though they’re seldom entirely good. But that’s not the case here.
Mechanicsville writer Ben Cleary spent four years living with, and half a lifetime studying on, one of the greatest military tacticians the world has ever known, a man who rode down the wrong side of history along a country lane in Hanover County that faces the modest rancher Ben has called home most of his life.
In his book, “Searching for Stonewall Jackson: A Quest for Legacy in a Divided America”, Ben examines, in fairly minute detail, just about every facet of this enigmatic, and tight-lipped wizard of warfare, a man of glaring contradictions.
A mediocre professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy (the equivalent of Physics in today’s academic parlance), Jackson exploded like a supernova on the battlefield, outshining every other general in either of the two armies engaged during the Civil War. After losing one battle at Kernstown, Virginia—in large part because of bad intelligence—he went on to win every battle thereafter until the time of his fatal wounding at Chancellorsville. Robert E. Lee called him “his right arm”. And though he was a harsh disciplinarian, his men adored him because he gave them victories.
Jackson owned enslaved blacks and fought for a confederacy of states that waged war against the Union to preserve that abominable institution. Yet, before the Civil War, he led a weekly Colored Sabbath School, where he taught enslaved African Americans how to read and write, which, in that era, was against the law. In Roanoke, Virginia, there’s a stained glass window honoring Jackson at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, an African American congregation. Rev. L.L. Downing, who served as that church’s pastor from 1863 till 1937, had the window installed in 1905. Turns out, Downing’s parents learned to read and write in Jackson’s Bible school, and became Presbyterians under his influence. But Jackson’s Sunday school teaching dovetailed perfectly with proslavery, white supremacist ideology. Their version of Christianity argued that black folk were incapable of managing their own spiritual lives; that they needed white folk to uplift them, to show them the Way.
Like a grandmaster of chess, Jackson had the uncanny ability to predict the next move of his opponent, and to read the terrain like a book. What’s more, he could move his Stonewall Brigade at near lightning speed, constantly confounding the enemy, and striking where they least suspected. In his own words: “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never give up the pursuit as long as your men have strength to follow; for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number.”
Ben’s book, a work of creative non-fiction that glistens with literary devices, follows Jackson’s Civil War military career chronologically, from First Manassas where he earned the sobriquet Stonewall to Chancellorsville where he was accidentally shot three times by fellow Confederates.
His research is scholarly and extensive with a bibliography of more than one hundred sources, and endnotes topping six hundred. But he transforms what might otherwise be simple expository writing into a compelling narrative by actually retracing the footsteps of Jackson. And as he visits various battlefields and historic makers, often with his wife, Catherine, in tow, Ben relates his encounters with contemporaries in those settings, and juxtaposes the place as it was then with how it is now.
About thirty years ago, I spent a fair amount of time at Ben Cleary’s house in Mechanicsville, sometimes housesitting for Ben and his recently deceased wife, Catherine Patterson, a woman of beauty, grace, intelligence, and wit. On around that same period, I wrote a weekly newspaper out in Hanover, and Ben and I would often get together at the Mechanicsville Drug Store and sit at a booth near the lunch counter where we would spoon down bowls of thick ham and bean soup, drink coffee, and jaw and jape for an hour or more.
We were like kids back then, suddenly eleven again. Some days we’d canoe the Chickahominy, portaging numerous beaver dams, and skirting its wide, marshy banks littered with slabs of concrete and old tires in some spots, and blanketed in thickets of greenbrier and bramble and stinging nettle in other places. The floodplain of this river is as much as a mile wide, and when you stepped out of the canoe the black mud would suck your foot down and cleanse it of a shoe with a brief popping sound, and then swallow it whole. I understood then why MacLellan had called it “the confounded Chickahominy”; it served as natural moat around Richmond to the north and the east.
Other days, we’d hike along nearby Beaver Dam Creek, hopping from bank to bank of this shallow sandy stream that cuts through a Civil War battlefield of the same name.
And on more than one occasion, we would go to one of the quietest spots in the world, a place called Cold Harbor, and easily mount the remnants of earthen fortifications that had been constructed well over a hundred years before. Time, wind and rain had eroded them down so they could scarce give cover to a small dog, but on June 3, 1864, the earthworks were formidable, and the Confederates well-entrenched. It was some of the bloodiest fighting in the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. By some accounts as many as 7,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded during the first twenty minutes of fighting. They were just mowed down like cornstalks at Antietam, and after the battle, a small trickle of a brook that feeds into Gaines Mill pond would be christened Bloody Run. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” Ulysses S. Grant would later confess in his memoirs.
Unlike Ben, I am not a student of the Civil War, though I have read my fair share of books on the subject, and have visited numerous battlefields from Bull Run to Fort Fisher, from the Wilderness to the Crater. And, of course, Antietam and Gettysburg.
The three finest books I’ve ever read on the subject include “Killer Angels”, the second volume of Michael Shaara’s Civil War Trilogy, a historical novel about the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, which would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Shaara added meat to the bones of some of the “killer angels”, notably Confederate General James Longstreet and Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
The other two books are “Stillness at Appomattox” by Bruce Catton, part of another trilogy; and Shelby Foote’s three-tome history simply called “The Civil War: A Narrative”.
Alongside those books, I would now add Searching for Stonewall. Ben weaves a tight and contemplative narrative, focusing on one main character—Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson—and in some ways, himself, the modern man of flesh and bone who walks with the ghost of a long-gone soldier across Virginia.
Ben is neither critic nor apologist for Stonewall Jackson. He is more of an archaeologist, piecing together fragments of a life that when viewed as a whole illuminates the nature of the war itself, and humankind’s odd obsession with destruction.
A thread of gentle melancholy strings the pages together, generally embedded in Ben’s reflections of Jackson’s haunts in the here and now. Our fleeting mortality punctuates this entire volume, and reminds us that history, which is nothing less than packets of memory, outlives us all.
Toward the end of his book, Ben writes about the twelve years he spent teaching primarily African American teenagers in one of Virginia’s juvenile prisons. “A day didn’t go by that I wasn’t painfully confronted by the consequences of poverty and neglect, the legacy of the slavery that Jackson was fighting to defend . . .” he writes.
On one of the rear corners of the field behind his house, Ben, those many years ago, showed me a spot that was rich in artifacts after every plowing or heavy rain. One spring afternoon while I was housesitting for Ben and Catherine who were down in New Orleans, I strolled down to nearby Totopotomoy Creek to look at the wide almost pond-like expanse that in the summer would be covered with spatterdock and lily pads, where you could sometimes spot a snapping turtle or a water snake. Later, I hiked back up to the Cleary compound and made my way over to the back field.
I got down on my hands and knees and combed through the loose earth with my fingers. Within an hour I had found several shards of cobalt porcelain, dark brown pottery, and glass the color of amethyst. I’d also found the skull of a small animal (probably a squirrel), a rusted belt buckle, several nails, and an arrowhead of white quartz. And then I found what I’d been hoping to unearth—two Minie balls. One was pewter-gray, splayed and flattened, as if it had hit a solid object, bone or wood; the other was pristine with a chalky, parchment-colored coating as if it had just tumbled out of a cartridge box the day before. Those artifacts have long since been lost in kitchen drawers. Except for the two Minie balls, the agents of war.
Not four miles from Ben’s home stands Stonewall Jackson Middle School, which is just a stone’s throw from Lee-Davis High School. Hanover County is a Civil War-haunted place, and in recent years has become a stronghold for the tea party. Their massive conspiracy signs with block letters of black and red on a field of canary yellow dot the landscape. Not long ago, a conservative delegate representing much of Hanover County was Cantorized by his fellow Republicans for failing litmus tests administered by the tea party. That same delegate had told me during an interview on the eve of the last presidential election that in the rural reaches of Virginia Gadsen flags now hugged poles where the Stars and Bars had once flown. “In areas of the state where prior to Obama’s election there were Confederate flags, immediately after (the election) every single one of those became a yellow one because it was more politically acceptable,” he told me. “And that’s a tribal issue.”
More than fifty years ago, Hanover County made national news when its school board banned “To Kill a Mockingbird”. A board member by the name of W.C. Bosher deemed Harper Lee’s novel “immoral literature”, and recommended the book’s removal all public school libraries. The resolution passed unanimously. That school board member’s son, Bill Bosher, went on to become a teacher and a principal in Henrico County, and then superintendent of that district, and ultimately superintendent of public instruction for the entire Commonwealth of Virginia. As well as an educator and administrator, Bill was a reformer who earnestly believed that public schools had a moral obligation to educate all children equally, and to provide them with a nurturing and safe environment. When I interviewed him back in the late 1990s, he told me that “To Kill a Mockingbird” had always been one of his favorite novels. Some apples fall far from the tree that bore them.
Ben’s book bares Jackson’s inconsistencies of character, and it reflects, intentionally or otherwise, the contradictions of the entire American experiment, where promised freedoms guaranteed for all have often been withheld from certain groups within our society, whether enslaved Africans, indigenous people, women, immigrants, or the disabled. And yet, in spite of these transgressions, including the two Original Sins of slavery and the extermination of native peoples, as a people we have inched always closer to a more perfect union.
Timing, as they say, is everything. The time couldn’t be riper for this book, and in today’s charged political climate, it was a risky one to write. In so doing, Ben exhibited an unflinching courage Stonewall would have praised.
When we most need a Lincoln to remind us of our common heritage and “to bind up our nation’s wounds”, we instead have a Buchanan who drives the wedge of division deep into the heartwood of our Republic. Fortunately, we also have history, and, if we’re patient, it can instruct, and remind us of our former follies.
Early yesterday morning, a biting and bitter wind whipped along Franklin Street, as I made my way with a couple of reporters and photographers down to Capitol Square. As we neared 9th Street, the crowd thickened, and we each went our separate ways. For the next four hours I nudged my way through a mass of people, many of them wearing camouflage and facial coverings of one kind or other. And this, too: almost all of them sported beards—the old, the young, the thin, the stout. Most of them wore holstered sidearms, or brandished assault rifles. They pledged allegiance, and sang of a star-spangled banner, though many of them carried other flags, those of the three-percenters or the tea party or state flags or black flags or red flags. Flags seemed particularly popular. And on the corners and the sidewalks, men and women sold various items—T-shirts featuring the sitting president flipping twin birds, MAGA caps, scarves, face masks, and so on. It was a cross between Comic-Con with warrior cosplayers, and a state fair without amusements on the midway. But the comparisons ended there, because at the gun rally many people carried weapons.
To say the least, it was surreal. I walked three hours through this crowd, up 9th to Broad, back to 7th, over to Franklin and back to 9th, then up Grace to 7th, and over to Broad and down 9th again. I would always stop at 9th and Broad streets to watch the protestors step down from the buses. Six buses would pull up on the east side of 9th in front of City Hall, and another six would pull up on the west side of the street. The passengers would file out and make their way over to Broad, where they were diverted west to 8th street. When the twelve empty buses pulled off 9th street, another twelve packed buses would take their places. That went on for more than three hours, and by the end of it, almost 25,000 protestors had been deployed—about the same amount of men who were killed at the two battles of Cold Harbor.
Only one arrest was made during the gun rally, which was held on a day honoring one of America’s greatest heroes who was shot to death in the prime of his life by a cowardly white supremacist who could not cut the muster in the U.S. Army.
Thankfully, there was no violence yesterday. But had it not been for the FBI, things might have turned out differently. Just days before the gun rally, the FBI arrested a number of white supremacists who had intended to disrupt the rally. One of them talked about using a thermal imaging scope on his rifle to ambush unsuspecting civilians and police officers. “I need to claim my first victim. If there’s like a PoPo cruiser parked on the street and he doesn’t have backup, I can execute him at a whim and just take his stuff.”
Another said this: “We could essentially like be literally hunting people. You could provide over watch while I get close to do what needs to be done to certain things.”
Still another looked on the rally as a powder keg that required just a single spark to ignite. “And the thing is you’ve got tons of guys who … should be radicalized enough to know that all you gotta do is start making things go wrong and if Virginia can spiral out to [expletive] full-blown civil war.”
In today’s cultural wars, certain politicians cavalierly toss around the notion of an impending civil war. This sort of prattle is both dangerous and ignorant. No one familiar with the history of the Civil War and the fact that 620,000 were killed would ever suggest such a thing. Never before has it been so important to understand our own history, particularly the four-year slaughter that began at a railroad junction called Manassas.
“Searching for Stonewall Jackson: A Quest for Legacy in a Divided America”
by Ben Cleary