- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

On May 10, 2007, another teacher and I were driving some 8th-grade history students to Charleston, W.Va. After stopping in Lexington, Va., to tour the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University, I suggested a quick trip to the town cemetery to visit the grave of the famed Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a person whose life we had studied and discussed quite a bit that year in class.

As it so happened, that day marked the 144th anniversary of the general’s death, and when we arrived, the local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy were midway through a ceremony honoring the man whom Gen. Barnard Bee, at the height of the Battle of Manassas, dubbed with the unforgettable moniker — Stonewall.

While watching the solemn proceedings, I was glad that the children had the unexpected opportunity to witness the reverence that many in the Old Dominion and across the South still hold for the great Confederate hero.

Although Fred Bloom, the speaker that morning, reminded those present of Jackson’s illustrious military career in both the Mexican and Civil wars, he also emphasized the general’s close walk with Christ.

In the new DVD “Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story,” director Ken Carpenter presents a side of the man that few know.

Adapted from Richard G. Williams Jr.’s recent book “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend,” the documentary, while highlighting his military achievements, focuses on the progressive development of Jackson’s strong Christian faith and his own fruitful efforts to increase Christ’s kingdom.

Beautifully filmed on location in Lewis County, W.Va., and parts of Virginia, including Guinea Station, Lexington, Manassas Battlefield, and the Shenandoah Valley, the movie is narrated by Barry Scott, with commentary by noted Jackson scholars such as the general’s pre-eminent biographer, James Robertson Jr.; and Mr. Williams, interspersed with remarks by various local historians.

Visually complementing the narration and personal observations is film editor Joel Fisher’s skillful blending of period sketches, paintings and photographs throughout the film. Composer Tom Howard’s first-rate score is a real treat.

Most authors and filmmakers usually give Jackson’s early days only cursory treatment. In “Still Standing,” however, Mr. Carpenter gives a thorough account of this formative period of Jackson’s life.

Born on Jan. 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Va. (now W.Va.), Thomas Jonathan Jackson became an orphan by the time he was 6. First losing his father to yellow fever and later his mother to tuberculosis, he and sister Laura were taken in by uncle Cummins Jackson, a backwoods entrepreneur who owned Jackson’s Mill, near Weston in what is now West Virginia.

The introspective lad had a normal boyhood for the time, filled with plenty of hard work and occasional play. Frances Lightburn Cressman, a descendent of Joseph Lightburn, Jackson’s best friend and himself a future Union general in the War Between the States, points out that her great-grandfather not only roamed the hills with Jackson during their teenage years but also introduced him to the Bible and the teachings of Christ. Young Tom often accompanied the Lightburn family to services at the Broad Run Baptist Church.

Another important religious influence upon the impressionable teenager was the piety he observed in some of Cummins Jackson’s slaves who also followed Jesus.

In 1842, a fortunate appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point gave Jackson the opportunity to get the education he craved.

Although not academically prepared for the rigorous course work that lay ahead, he eventually overcame his scholastic shortcomings through constant study. After Jackson graduated from the academy in 1846, the Army assigned him to serve in the artillery. Soon he was on his way to Mexico.

Mr. Carpenter chronicles Jackson’s valorous deeds in the Mexican War, but also includes his continuous search for religious fulfillment. During this time, battery commander Capt. Francis Taylor becomes his spiritual guide, reintroducing Jackson to the Scriptures and encouraging him to study and follow the teachings of the Holy Book.

According to Mr. Robertson, “Taylor had deep spiritual feelings, and he imparted them to a hungry Jackson.”

Jackson resigned from the Army a few years later and shortly thereafter journeyed to Lexington to teach at the Virginia Military Institute.

Mr. Carpenter closely examines the many difficulties the beginning instructor had in his new job. Although few students appreciated his inflexible teaching style, almost all of them admired his strong moral character and mental discipline.

Aside from his work at the school, Jackson became quite active in the Lexington Presbyterian Church, in time starting a Sunday school class for free blacks and slaves. Of the opinion that it was imperative for a Christian to understand the Bible, Jackson taught his illiterate pupils to read, ignoring a Virginia law that made the practice a crime.

Mr. Carpenter relates how Jackson’s strong faith helped him quickly overcome the devastating loss of his first wife, Elinor Junkin, who died in childbirth. He also explores his subsequent marriage to Mary Anna Morrison, who bore him Julia, his only child.

Even though Jackson’s wartime record, highlighted by unexpected tactics, great victories and mortal wounding by his own men during the Battle of Chancellorsville, is well known to students of the conflict, Mr. Carpenter ably inserts some obscure tidbits from those days to exemplify the general’s character.

The close bond with Jim Lewis, a black cook who faithfully served him for two years, and his deep concern over the progress of the Sunday school class during his long absence are both discussed in detail.

The film ends back in West Virginia at the Broad Run Baptist Church. There, not long ago, the parishioners of Jackson’s boyhood church hosted a special gathering for the descendants of Stonewall’s Sunday school pupils and his relatives.

In a way, Jackson’s Christian testimony lived beyond his death at age 39. In the years after the Civil War, those blacks who had carefully listened while a humble man showed them the way to their salvation, established four churches, three of which still exist and continue spreading the Gospel.

I highly recommend “Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story.” The film undoubtedly has great appeal to Civil War enthusiasts but also presents a personal picture of the man that would interest viewers looking for a concise portrait of this great American. In my opinion, the DVD would make an excellent gift for a teenage boy.

Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table. He can be reached at sfrench52@yahoo.com.

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