Jackson’s Relations With Slaves

By Martha M. Boltz
April 7, 2007

By Richard G. Williams Jr., Cumberland House Publishing, $20.95, 224 pages, illustrated

Just when you thought there was nothing left to write about Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, along comes this book by Richard G. Williams Jr.

It is the story of Jackson’s desire to bring the word of God to the slaves of the antebellum era.

Historians have long struggled with the mystery of a man who came from a slaveholding family, owned slaves himself, and yet broke the prevailing law of Virginia to conduct a weekly Colored Sabbath School, where slaves were taught to read and write while also being brought to a personal knowledge of the Christ of Jackson’s heart and soul.

Mr. Williams’ book follows Jackson through an orphanlike childhood and his devotion to "Miss Fanny," a slave who raised him; to his teenage years; and on to West Point and the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. Each aspect of his life demonstrates his relationships with the slave families to which he was exposed.

Jackson struggled with the morality of a system that enslaved men and women with whom he shared a brotherhood as children of a loving God. Yet those same Scriptures that taught salvation also recorded centuries of slaveholding all over the world, which provided Jackson with the simplistic rationale that if it was condoned by the Bible, it must be acceptable.

Mr. Williams points out that Jackson and any other figure of that era must be viewed in the context of the 19th century rather than being judged by the standards of the 21st century, a mistake made by many when focusing on the "peculiar institution."

The book is well researched and comprehensive, ranging from actual correspondence of Jackson and his contemporaries to written material about the slave trade. It includes material from black writers such as Ervin Jordan of the University of Virginia and Carter G. Woodson, considered the father of Black History Month. Eminent Jackson biographer James I. Robertson Jr. provides an excellent foreword.

Interspersed are anecdotes and stories by and from former slaves and their families, as well as free blacks, all pointing to the fact that Jackson not only broadened their literary knowledge, but also worked to save their souls. That their descendants to this day praise his name further validates the efforts of a Confederate known in large part for his lack of humor, utter dedication to work, and strange eating and health habits.

Jackson always secretly yearned to go into the ministry but thought he did not have sufficient education for it. In 1852, while in Lexington, he wrote to his Aunt Clementine:

"The subject of becoming a herald of the Cross has often engaged my attention, and I regard it as the most noble of all professions. It is the profession of our divine Redeemer, and I should not be surprised were I to die under a foreign field, clad in ministerial armor, fighting under the banner of Jesus. What could be more glorious? But my conviction is that I am doing good here, and that for the present I am where God would have me. Within the last few days I have felt an unusual religious joy. I do rejoice to walk in the love of God."

Here is a different Stonewall, the man and the legend all wrapped in one, with a singular devotion to the highest of callings, and his ongoing efforts to spread the Gospel to the slaves of the era.

In the vernacular of contemporary religious leaders, he epitomized the concept of "thinking globally and acting locally." He first held a Sunday school for slaves in his own home and later at the church. These were well attended, even by neighborhood blacks, who wished to learn both how to read and how to learn about the Savior as expressed to them by Jackson.

This is the Stonewall who would not go into battle on Sunday, if it could be avoided, and would not even post mail on the Sabbath. He considered himself to be on God’s business, wherever It might lead him.

One story is told of the minister of his church in Lexington who received a letter from the general a few days after the Battle of Manassas but before any authentic news of the battle had reached the people there. The local post office was thronged with people as the mail arrived, and when the minister opened the letter from Jackson, hoping for the latest news, he read:
"My dear pastor, in my tent last night, after a fatiguing day’s service, I remembered that I had failed to send you my contribution for our colored Sunday-school. Enclosed you will find my check for that object, which please acknowledge at your earliest convenience, and oblige yours faithfully, T.J. Jackson." The check was for $50 to be used to buy books for the black students of the Bible. There was no mention of the battle.

Williams also follows Jackson’s brief ventures into the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church and the Methodist faith before returning to his Presbyterian roots.

A particularly outstanding chapter in the book describes the author’s visit to Lexington to meet descendants of some of those who attended Jackson’s colored Sunday schools. From the white-haired barber whose ancestor cut Gen. Robert E. Lee’s hair to others with a connection to Jackson, they provide a rare look into the heart and soul of the Confederate general. A special insight also is provided into the relationship between Jackson and his personal servant, Jim Lewis, whose last duty was to hold the reins of Jackson’s horse during the general’s funeral.

Arguably the author’s most simplistic explanation of the dichotomy that existed between Jackson the moralist and Jackson the slave owner is that he was "no defender of Slavery. He accepted it as the mysterious providence of God and worked to lift the existence of the slaves within his sphere of influence."

The author lives in the Shenandoah Valley and says he has been a Sunday school teacher "to both white and black boys for over 20 years." It is easy to see why, coming from a Christian background similar to Jackson’s, he is passionate about his subject and was tireless in his research.

The book is very readable, but a more comprehensive index, rather than just focusing on names and places, would have been helpful to the reader. No philosophical explanations or sermonizing are necessary — Jackson’s life and legacy appear to speak quite well for themselves.

This book makes a unique addition to any Civil War buff’s library and is well worth reading.