The minister, the martyr, and the maxim: Robert Lewis Dabney and Stonewall Jackson biography
Civil War History,  Dec, 2003  by Wallace Hettle

When he died in 1898, Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney seemed to have been left behind by a New South that increasingly embraced economic progress, theological liberalism, and sectional conciliation. His authorized biographer, Thomas C. Johnson, presented Dabney as "a man who was at war with much of his age" in describing his battles with "evolution ... jacobinism ... [and] mobocracy." The Rev. Benjamin Palmer declared that Dabney held to his belief that scripture sanctioned slavery "to the day of his death." (1) Some contemporaries were proud of the intellectual legacy of a man whom eminent Presbyterian thinker Charles Hodge once called the "greatest living teacher of theology." According to one eulogist, Dabney had created not only a "splendid literature," but would live through the large company of ministers he had trained in almost four decades teaching theology at Hampden-Sydney College. (2) To Palmer, Dabney's death marked the end of the Old South, as "those who stood by his side, fighting for the truth of God in his generation are standing at the edge of their own graves opening at their feet." (3) The image of Dabney as an archconservative warrior for the Lost Cause has been described by many historians, and was perhaps best captured by Gaines Foster, who has argued that Dabney retained an "almost feudal faith in a hierarchical society" long after the Civil War. (4)

Dabney's prominence as a spokesman of the Lost Cause movement derived from two sources: his undisputed intellectual prowess and his place as an associate of Stonewall Jackson. The two men's wives were first cousins, and Dabney briefly served as Jackson's chief-of-staff in the Shenandoah Valley campaign and Seven Days Battles outside Richmond. After Jackson's death, the general's widow commissioned the theologian to write Jackson's authorized biography. (5) Written as the Confederacy collapsed, Dabney's Life and Campaigns of Lt. General T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson quickly took its place as a preeminent book on the subject after its publication in 1866. For a generation, Americans viewed it as the authoritative work on the general.

Dabney's work shaped the agendas of pioneering military historians, and continues to influence professional scholarship on the enigmatic Jackson. William Allan, a veteran of Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign and author of a thoroughly researched history of Jackson's operations there, which remains in print, described himself as "indebted ... especially to the earliest and very valuable biography by his former chief of staff, Dr. Dabney." (6) Sarah N. Randolph, a Lost Cause activist and granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged in her widely read 1874 Jackson biography the "great assistance" she received from Dabney's book. In some instances, she followed it so closely that "but for the frank acknowledgement" she would be "almost ... liable to the charge of plagiarism." When the general's widow published her 1895 Memoirs of Stonewall Jackson, at times she did little more than "paraphrase" Dabney's earlier book. British staff officer G. V. R. Henderson, whose classic 1898 book was the first Jackson biography written with access to the Official Records of the war, praised Dabney, who cooperated in the preparation of Henderson's book, for his "conspicuous ability." More than thirty years after the publication of Dabney's life of Jackson, Henderson noted that the book "is so complete and powerful that the need for a successor is not at once apparent." (7) In the twentieth century, renowned Confederate historian Douglass Southall Freeman criticized Dabney for taking a "moralizing" approach to his subject. Yet Freeman too offered high praise for the "essential accuracy of the book," and described Dabney as "the first distinguished Confederate biographer." Subsequent historians have treated Dabney as a sometimes unreliable but still indispensable source. (8)

Too often, however, historians have misunderstood Dabney. The conventional portrait of this theologian depicts him as an irreconcilable old fogy of the Lost Cause. This image was cultivated by Dabney himself, who produced abundant postbellum writings that defended the bygone values of an organic society based on social conservatism and slavery. This polemical and theological outpouring captures only part of the legacy of this complex thinker, however. (9) In the postbellum period, Dabney did oppose social innovations from public schooling to trade unions to the theory of evolution. But that he was not exactly an irreconcilable opponent of progress is evident in his Jackson biography, which portrays the general as an upwardly mobile figure worthy of a Horatio Alger story. While Dabney's book lauds the general as a pious martyr and Christian master, it also depicts a strikingly modern man characterized by his work ethic, ambition, and evangelical zeal. Two competing themes--the sacred nature of Jackson's martyrdom and the ethic of professionalism central to the nineteenth-century military--dominate Dabney's portrait of Jackson. As the Gilded Age progressed, subsequent versions of Jackson's life would deemphasize Dabney's portrait of Jackson as a martyr and highlight instead his ambition and social mobility. While Dabney fated to convincingly depict Jackson as a Christian martyr to a sacred cause, his portrait of Jackson's professionalism and self-control would prove crucial to shaping the general's image in the work of subsequent biographers.

That Dabney would emphasize Jackson's upward mobility and professionalism was only natural given the theologian's own career in the remarkably modern world of antebellum Virginia, where an expanding market system transformed the state beginning in the 1830s. (10) Dabney was born in 1820 to a slaveholding family in Louisa County in Virginia's eastern Piedmont. His father died when he was thirteen, leaving his mother with only a modest legacy. After his father's death, Dabney faced an insecure economic future, which placed a premium on the achievement of personal success. As he began his career as a student at Hampden-Sydney College in 1836, Dabney exhibited personal traits crucial to that success: a strong work ethic and sense of personal ambition. (11)

Dabney made his personal profession of faith in the Presbyterian Church during a revival at Hampden-Sydney in September 1837. While Old School Presbyterians such as Dabney rejected the doctrines of free will preached by Baptists and Methodists, they imbibed from revivalism an enthusiastic "religious populism" which blended individualism in matters of faith with conformity to Victorian social mores. As William G. Shade has suggested in his history of antebellum Virginia, Presbyterians adapted to the outburst of religious feeling, making their distinctive contribution by emphasizing a powerful vision of religious reformation and economic prosperity that underlay popular morality "in the heart of the Old Dominion." (12)

In his Jackson biography, the upwardly mobile minister Dabney returned to the topic of one of his earliest student essays written before his profession of faith-ambition. While many argued that personal ambition could have socially destructive consequences, including war, the young Dabney saw matters differently. He argued that the "ambition which pervades a nation, is usually directed to the national good ... the greatest ambition is not incompatible with benevolence." The ambitious man could seek to do good and thereby win "the acclamation of a grateful multitude." For the young Dabney, no man personified the virtues of benevolent ambition more than James Madison: "We see him with the determination that he would not be idle, contributing his share to the improvement of young countrymen." (13) Dabney portrayed a Madison whose work ethic underscored an interlocking commitment to the values of personal achievement and the public good. Dabney's encomium to Madison drew on a new vocabulary of individualism and self-reliance increasingly typical of a society that emphasized values of "industry, order, perseverance, and enterprise." Such habits of industry were more than a way to earn one's independence; they were an essential means of forming character. (14) Madison and Jackson's stories both captured values of hard work and public-spirited virtue cherished by Dabney.

Charles Bronson

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