Our History & Our Heritage By Bill Kiefer

Last week I struggled a bit with my column, writing it, relating it to the present and just in general as to its meaning to us in Hancock County, West Virginia. I did a good amount of research because I found the topic interesting. As I thought about this week I decided to continue with my research just because of what I said the column would be about: “Our History and our Heritage.” That sounds neat, but what does it mean?
Well, generally history is about what happened and when. Historians can generally be divided into two camps: treaty historians and social historians. (WARNING: I am making a gross over generalization but I think it will work for our purposes.) Treaty Historians generally study wars, battles, and their outcomes, and how they decided the future of countries, regions etc. Social Historians are more likely to study a general event or sequence of events and the influence on the continuing development of a region. In the case of West Virginia, in general, its history is that it was the only state was born out of the Civil War. “Heritage” is a more elusive term or concept, that is frequently confused with culture. Heritage is what we inherit in a social sense: language, customs and values. Culture is how we live: our attitudes our traditions. While one could spend an entire four year college career and more, studying heritage and/or culture in West Virginia it is enough to say that they are intertwined. In a way one leads to the other. In the Northern Panhandle our language, customs and values are pretty similar to those of our neighbors in Pennsylvania, Ohio and some parts of West Virginia, as is our culture. But it might not be said of our fellow West Virginians in places like Lincoln or MacDowell Counties, or maybe in some ways it could. But they are about 250 miles away and shaped by different geography and events.
As I kept studying the “Confederate Monument Issue”, I came to the protests of the summer of 2020. More specifically in West Virginia these seem to settle around two statues of Thomas “Stonewall Jackson.” One is in Charleston located on the grounds of the Capitol Complex. In short, probably almost everyone knows that General Jackson commanded a Corps in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. His performance and audacity in locales such as Manassas and Chancellorsville led to Confederate victories. He was accidentally shot and wounded by a Confederate sentry when returning from a scouting foray, at night during the Chancellorsville battle. The infection and illness from the wound and amputation of an arm proved fatal. Shortly after Jackson’s death Lee moved North into Pennsylvania and entered into a battle near the town of Gettysburg. In that the objective was to get between Union armies and Washington D.C., and thus threaten the government. The Confederates lost the battle and had to return to Southern soil. Many cite that battle as a turning point of the war. Some of today’s writers lean more to citing the siege and capture of Vicksburg which occurred at the same time as the turning point. In any event much speculation, including books being written center on the idea that had General Jackson been at Gettysburg, his corps would have achieved its objectives and Lee would have won the battle and hence the war. Pure speculation. But such is the honor accorded Jackson.
Thomas Jackson was born in 1824 in Clarksburg. His childhood was not an easy one owing to the deaths of his parents. He spent a number of years at Jackson’s Mills living with an uncle. He received an appointment to West Point and graduated in 1846. He served in the Mexican War from 1846-1848. Thereafter, he served as an instructor at Virginia Military Institute located in Lexington Virginia from 1851-1861. In 1861 he joined the Confederate forces after Virginia seceded. In the interest of maintaining some direction and brevity it is sufficient to say, that he is considered to have been a brilliant military tactician, and likely second only to General Lee in enabling the South to succeed against larger forces. Jackson’s exploits are central to the Lost Cause narrative that arose after the war.
In that narrative, in general, the South was a happy and prosperous place. Its slave owners were gracious, its slaves were happy, well-fed and recognized as important to the economy. That Northern states out of jealousy, and desiring to establish federal supremacy over state’s rights in all areas acted with extreme aggression towards the Southern states invading and pillaging and destroying the economy. Southern soldiers and generals fought like gentlemen and were chivalrous, only defending their homes and way of life. Northern generals and soldiers were butchers and vile evil men, whose behavior knew no bounds. In short, the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. It was about state’s rights to decide how its citizens lived, and in short also the right to withdraw from the Union. Part of the myth is that the Union only won by sheer weight of numbers, acts of cruelty, destroying private property, and terrorizing non-combatants. (These same arguments could perhaps be made by citizens of Japan and Germany about their defeat in WWII.) That had Southern generals such as Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and Albert Sydney Johnston not been killed in battle, the South would have won. Quite a few books have been written in this mode. It goes on today. Chiefly they are written by Southerners.
In reality these thoughts took hold in the last part of the 19th Century and groups such as the Daughters of the Confederacy funded the construction of statues and memorials to the Lost Cause mainly featuring portrayals of the gods of the Southern pantheon: Lee, Jackson, Stuart, et.al. We have several fine examples of these in West Virginia. Two of the best are Jackson statues, the one at the Capitol and another at the Harrison County Courthouse in Clarksburg.