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Old Hickory and Stonewall

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier. a Narrative. By Allen Tate. New York: Minton, Balch and Company. $2.50.

Andrew Jackson: An Epic in Homespun. By Gerald W, Johnson. New York: Minton, Balch and Company. $3.50.

To his task of clothing the redoubtable figure of Old Hickory with flesh and blood Mr. Johnson has brought vivid imagination, a fresh philosophy of life, a keen perception of the dramatic, and above all, real wit and humor. He amply justifies his sub-title, for his Jackson is the representative hero of the saga of the opening of the great South-West. Though Mr. Johnson draws, as he must perforce, upon the anaemic Parton and the academic Bassett and Ogg for his material, he yet takes their findings as his starting point. Parton portrayed the Jackson of legend: the two latter the Jackson of the field and the cabinet. Johnson’s is Jackson the Man. From the premature infant, born in a hovel, of which the very loca tion was long a bone of contention between the two Caro-linas, the child of an immigrant father who had succumbed to the bitter task of conquering the wilderness with his bare hands, and of a widowed mother seeking in the pangs of childbirth a refuge under the humble roof of a kinsman in the Waxhaw settlement, Mr. Johnson leads us with augmenting interest through his life-stages. As Master Jackson, “he comes reeling into American history with a sabre cut on his head,” and, seeing little of the pomp and circumstance of war as patriot and Tory murdered and robbed each other in the border feuds during the last years of the Revolution, he had all illusion stript from his soul as to its real purpose, and learned the very practical lesson that it was but successful killing after all. As Mr. Jackson he becomes the always feared and respected, if hated, champion of law and order as he himself saw it, with Tennessee his oyster. As General Jackson, he fights all comers who menace the onward drive of white Americans. As President Jackson, true to the form of a lifetime, he “is whipped by the ladies and beats all the great men.” As ex-President Jackson, retired to his beloved Hermitage to die, he closes this strange eventful history with a stand-up fight with that Death he had faced so often and so scornfully, and holds him at bay through eight years of agony. Every page of Mr. Johnson’s story of Jackson invites to read. The style is a model for the subject: well balanced, succinct, at times matching in its hardbitten flavor the sting of the bullets that flew and the knives that flashed so often in the career of the protagonist. Of the dominant motif in Jackson’s life, his idolatry of his wife Rachel, Mr. Johnson writes at the close of his noble chapter “The Light Goes Out,” (the temptation to quote is irresistible): “Wednesday they buried her in a corner of the Hermitage grounds and every human being within reach of the spot came to pay her tribute: But all that passed before Andrew Jackson in a blur. People came up, shook hands, said indistinguishable things. No matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing would ever matter any more. . . . One must stand up. Andrew Jackson must stand up, while they committed his heart to earth and the finer, nobler part of his spirit to God Who gave it. . . . The love story of Andrew Jackson was over. It had passed unseen by, most and uncomprehended by any. Even among men who were friendly to him it had provoked more smiles than rhapsodies, and it has been the subject for jesting down to our day. But none the less it had provided happiness to one man and one woman because it was shot through with sacrificial devotion on both sides; and therefore it is as genuinely great as any of the glamorous love stories in which the race has taken delight since history began.”

Within the last short generation, American history has ceased to be written with an eye solely to the comparatively static conditions of the Atlantic seaboard, and has come more and more to find its key in the vast tracts of virgin forest and prairie across the Alleghanies. These, with their unbounded opportunities awaiting restless and adventurous men and women, beckoned to all who chafed at the artificial restraints inherited from the colonial period, and stratified by slavery, by hereditary wealth, and by, professional caste. Into the Tennessee of Jackson’s early manhood, slavery alone of these had penetrated—but even that sat lightly at first in the face of the fierce equality of opportunity, there offered on every hand. Absolutely representative of the masses who refused to beat longer against the iron doors of the Eastern civilization, Andrew Jackson, sick at heart for his family who had been wiped out by the scourge of the last year of the Revolution, and resenting the barriers erected by the social life of the two Carolinas, turned from the law office in Salisbury where he had spent the only, three months in his life of what may be called study, and set his face toward the turbulent new State of Tennessee. Just emerged from its ephemeral existence as the State of Franklin, fresh from its revolt from its parent State of North Carolina, the Tennessee of that day perhaps more nearly approached the condition of the Teutonic tribes as sketched by Tacitus than any other group known to history, in points of simplicity of life and outlook, of unrestrained freedom of the individual, of contemptuous disdain of human life, of lawlessness combined with high sense of personal honor and civic responsibility, and of generous response to the needs of the whole body politic in times of common danger. Given such an environment, and given such a young man as Jackson, his career was as inevitable as that of the stars in their courses. Indeed, they fought for him, more especially as he was so eager to fight for himself. And the raw material for fighting lay ready, to his hand. The Code Duello, hedged about in the older states by countless niceties of rank and punctilio, had taken on in the congenial soil of Tennessee a democratic form which, like the Irish fight, was not at all private: anybody could get into it, and everybody did. Furthermore, as if the fierce passions engendered by competition for political preferment were not enough, in Jackson’s case to the fire and tow of the general situation were added the torch of a consuming love affair and a hasty marriage whose very foundation afforded ground for adverse criticism ranging from the ready ribald jest of a crude civilization to blistering scandal mongering. Perhaps no outstanding historical character can be found who has fulfilled his destiny without some dominating feminine influence. Certainly Jackson’s love for Rachel Robards, and his ferocious eagerness to shield her fair name, run through every act and thought of his early and mature life. Mr. Johnson, picturesquely, enough, likens it, as a sure-fire provocative of further trouble, to Cyrano de Bergerac’s famous nose. After the tragically necessary second marriage-ceremony with Rachel, “Jackson got out a pair of pistols, cleaned and oiled them, tested their locks, and put them in perfect condition to use upon the first man who made a slighting remark upon the subject.” He did not have long to wait, for he was not one of the crack shots in East Tennessee. Of that craft was one Dickinson, a likable young fellow, but given to talking a little too much when in his cups. The topic of Jackson’s marriage was of course a favorite one in the taverns of that day, as would be the case, even now, in our more polished society. Dickinson’s first remarks were pardoned by Jackson on Dickinson’s frank and full apology. But others began to be reported to Jackson; complications set in about Jackson’s part in a horse race; and Jackson got the unchangeable Jacksonian notion that other and wiser heads were behind Dickinson and his remarks. The story is too well known to dilate upon; but its importance in giving the foundation of many of the stories of Jackson’s ruthlessness, and fixing the slant of the East toward him as he emerged upon the national stage, is incalculable. Men’s minds, too, were still full of Burr’s murder of Hamilton under the cloak of the Code, and Jackson fell very easily under the same ban. With a cool ferocity that seems diabolical, Jackson allowed Dickinson to fire first, and though severely wounded was saved by his extreme thinness, and by a very loose fitting coat. He then took deliberate and undisturbed aim, and mortally wounded Dickinson. “I should have hit him had he shot me through the brain,” said Jackson, years after. There was no further discussion of Jackson’s matrimonial venture, at least openly.

As the Dickinson duel and the incidents leading up to it mark most vividly the Jackson of the early years, so the terrible Quixotism of his nature took shape during his Washington period in the tragi-comic episode of “Peggy” Eaton. And as a Drinkwater might find fit material to his hand in the unbending will that sent poor Dickinson, whom Jackson mistook for his betters, to his bloody shroud, so might a Gilbert and Sullivan find adequate material in the tempest in the teapot aroused by the “impossible” Peggy, who convulsed the Capital city, a President’s Cabinet, and the Nation, and ultimately made the urbane Van Buren President. ‘Twere not to consider too curiously. Mr. Johnson’s treatment of this episode is perhaps the most delightful portion of the entire book. Not less so, its denouement in the only defeat Old Hickory ever sustained in his invincible career, when he bit the dust before the outraged and embattled matrons of the Washington Society of the day.

But it is to be feared that this review has dallied too long over the picturesque, and has forfeited any possible claim to be a serious study of the real meaning of the stormy career of Old Hickory. What phase of our national life did not Andrew Jackson touch, and with permanent effects? He cleared away the Indian menace of the South. He put the final coup de grace upon Spanish power and prestige in North America. He wound up the disgraceful War of 1812 by land with a blaze of glory, and gave a confidence to citizen soldiery that paved the way to the Mexican War, and had much to do with the lightheartedness with which we of the South entered the conflict of 1861. He broke into and up the uninterrupted Virginia Dynasty of a generation. He smashed the New England and Quaker Dynasty of Finance, and took the United States out of the banking business. He scotched Calhoun’s Doctrine of Nullification, and furnished ammunition for the Federal contention of 1861. He brushed into the Limbo of impossible things the Presidential ambitions of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun– “Very, Great Men, indeed.” And perhaps most enduring of his legacies, he left to the nation the spoils system in public office, and to the Democratic Party the Two-Thirds Rule.


Any study of Stonewall Jackson inevitably draws down upon its author a contrast with the monumental work of Colonel Henderson; and if it essays to portray Jackson the Man, that field is preempted by Colonel Dabney’s charming and illuminating biography. Both these standard works suffer, perhaps, from a very natural and highly commendable tendency to hero-worship. Mr. Tate has thrown himself with all the boldness of youth into the arduous task of showing both sides of Jackson. His picture of Jackson the man emerges clear-cut, life-like; though a reviewer not Southern-born might perhaps find him drawn in, after the first chapters of struggle against the current, to the inevitable chorus of general praise. Not that Mr. Tate, or any other student, can be justly blamed for succumbing to it. Given the slow, plodding Jackson of his early years and the markedly eccentric Jackson of the Virginia Military Institute period, the transcendent warrior of his last two years of life must by sheer dramatic contrast alone sweep away any but the most phlegmatic mind.

Mr. Tate’s study of Jackson can hardly be rated as entirely successful on the more historical sides. He does, however, make the contribution of freshness of treatment to a well-worn theme, especially in his earlier chapters, where he lays the foundations for the chorus of adverse criticism that attended Jackson on his first entrance upon the stage of actual warfare. The emphasis this gives to the man’s indomitable will is valuable to the understanding of him as a world figure. But it is to be anticipated that the severe Muse of History will have several crows to pick with Mr. Tate for the historical basis of many of his scenes. On this score, this reviewer is content to leave him to the tender mercies of the professional historians. Especially does this strike one as he turns over Mr. Tate’s vivacious pages. Perhaps they are ben trovati—but none the less trovati, with scant foundation in the austere Jack-son of reality. Indeed, to speak the dialect of the street, Mr. Tate has attempted to “jazz up” his Jackson. The effect is interesting, true: but such a scene as the following: “As Jackson rode into Woodstock, mounted on Little Sorrel, his mangy cap down on his nose, a little boy ran out into the road. He yelled to the general: ‘Where are you going, General Jackson?’

” ‘Little boys shouldn’t ask questions,’ said the general, giving his lemon a reflective suck”—is hardly in character, to say the least. It may be remarked, en passant, that we have seen and heard the legend of Jackson’s addiction to the lemon-habit strenuously combated. Perhaps Mr. Tate is here, as elsewhere, following too closely Miss Johnston’s picture of the uncouth Jackson of “The Long Roll,” a picture which, older readers will recall, raised a storm of protest.

The truth seems to be, that no explanation of Stonewall Jackson’s military genius is possible. As ever, the wind of genius bloweth where it listeth. Out of a slow youth, and an eccentric maturity, he burst, a veritable fulmen belli, upon an astounded world, a meteor that flashed athwart the skies, that terrified, that passed by the thunder of his own guns as swiftly as it arose. What he might have done, as the irresponsible commander of great bodies of troops, and not as the subordinate leader of a homogeneous unit electrified by personal contact with him and flushed by a chain of uninterrupted victories on a narrow stage, all this is one of the insoluble puzzles in the tangled skein of historical might-have-beens. His most fittingly, dramatic exit, slain by his own men by perhaps the only mistake in orders he ever made and just as he was sweeping to one of the greatest victories ever recorded in the annals of war, in Bacon’s fine phrase, extinguished all envy. Men forgot their sneers at his half-crazy ways and appearance, their hostile criticisms of his unexplained delay at the opening of the Seven Days Battles; and comrade and foe remembered only, in one chorus of acclaim, the simple soul who feared only his God, and, once aroused, rode on the whirlwind and directed the storm.

Mr. Tate does not attempt to examine, psychologically, as does Gamaliel Bradford in his wonderfully incisive short study “Lee and Jackson,” the fascinating problems of the mutual relations and indebtednesses of those two colossal figures; nor the legend of Jackson favoring the raising of the black flag on the soil of Virginia, and thus mercifully shortening the titanic struggle; nor the equally legendary story, of his wishing to sweep Burnside’s shattered regiments into the Rappahannock by a terrible night attack with only the cold steel. Perhaps these problems do lie outside the province of a popular treatment of Jackson, such as Mr. Tate has given. But, with the new spirit in writing history that is now in the air, he might at least have attacked them, and so have brought his book palpably nearer to a definitive life of the Happy Warrior.


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