Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ezra Carman, Stonewall Jackson, and an Interesting Allegation. . .

To any serious student of the battle of Antietam, the name Ezra A. Carman is well-familiar. During the war, Carman was an officer of much distinction, and by war's end, he had received two wounds and held the rank of brigadier general by brevet. At Antietam, Carman commanded the 13th New Jersey Infantry. Yet, his wartime service aside, perhaps his greatest contribution came well after the guns fell silent. Carman had a special interest in the battle of Antietam; indeed, one can say he was almost obsessed with it. As such, he became one of the battle's earliest--and most thorough--historians. In the 1890s, he was appointed a member of the Antietam Board and through his tireless and highly detailed research, Carman developed a series of fourteen maps that tracked troop movements on an hourly basis throughout the day-long battle. His contributions extended far beyond these maps, however. He helped to write the text for the 300+ iron War Department tablets that still help guide visitors to the Antietam National Battlefield, and his famed manuscript (edited by Joseph Pierro and published for the first time just last year by Routledge Press) is regarded by many as the most thorough, most detailed, and overall best account of the battle.
Brevet Brigadier General Ezra A. Carman

To help guide his efforts and shape the narrative of the battle, Carman corresponded with hundreds of veterans who wore both the Blue and the Gray at Antietam. He asked them to describe the location of their particular units, whether at the regimental, brigade, or divisional level, and to relate their experiences of the battle. The correspondence between Carman and the hundreds of veterans who replied to his inquiries constitute a genuine gold mine of information for anyone wishing to learn all the minute details of Antietam.
Earlier this week, I was searching through the boxes of Carman-related letters at the Park Library. Historian Tom Clemens very generously donated copies of these letters to the park. (The originals are contained at the Library of Congress and National Archives).
While searching for any and all information on the movements and actions of the Stonewall Division at Antietam, as well as for any biographical information on such obscure officers as James W. Jackson, Archer Page, John Penn, and A.J. Grigsby, I happened upon a rather interesting note, penned in Carman's own distinctive hand, that immediately grabbed my attention.
Below is a transcription of this eye-opening note, followed by a scan of the letter itself:
"Stonewall Jackson was not a youthful saint; he was fond of horse races and had his full share of the hot blood and indiscretions of youth. It is known and not denied by those [ineligible word] with the fact that he was the father of an illegitimate child. Maj. Jed Hotchkiss (May 14, 1895) informed me that this was well known to Jackson's military family among whom the matter was frequently discussed. When a cadet at West Point and on a visit to his home he seduced a young girl at or near Beverly and the result was a child, which Jackson acknowledged and to which he frequently made presents and sent money. The late Asher Harmon also confirmed this and had known of the fact before the war. Dr. Dabney, when hunting materials for his life of Jackson, was horrified to learn of this fact and utterly refused to believe it."

The content of this little note is nowhere mentioned in Carman's manuscript. Nor is there much mention made of this rather scandalous claim in the vast annals of Jackson historiography. The venerable Robert K. Krick made reference to it in his article "Stonewall Jackson’s Deadly Calm: Coming to Terms with the Most Compelling and Mysterious Civil War Hero,” which appeared in the December 1996 issue of American Heritage. "During his youth Jackson’s irregular upbringing had included more horse racing than piety," wrote Krick, and, he continued, "A story about his siring an illegitimate child is unsubstantiatable and probably inaccurate, but its acceptance by some of Jackson’s Confederate staff suggests their awareness of a past completely alien to the rigidly decorous adult." Historian James Robertson in his tome Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend, also made passing reference to this claim. As Robertson noted, a Dr. William Bland of Weston, Lewis County, [West] Virginia, alleged in 1863 that during Jackson's ten-month tenure as constable of Lewis County some twenty years earlier he "became wild. . . .[and was] said to have had an illegitimate child (by a Miss Brown), still living as Miss Racer & now reputable." [Robertson, 20]. Like Krick, Robertson, too, dismissed the allegation, writing that, "No corroborating evidence of any kind has ever surfaced in support of Bland's assertion." [794, n.71].

Because of that lack of "corroborating evidence," I will also have to dismiss this allegation as untrue as well, unless and until something else does 'surface.'

Still, it is interesting that Ezra Carman, the noted authority on Antietam and a faithful historian, felt the need to write this claim down. Perhaps he was so surprised to learn of it that he just had to write it down. (Just as I was so surprised to learn of it that I just had to compose this post).

The allegation does not appear anywhere in Carman's manuscript, but it is apparent that he, at least, accepted it as the truth, trusting upon the authority of the statements made to him by none other than Jackson's former staff officers, including the famed mapmaker, Jed Hotchkiss.

Yet, if it is untrue, then the question thus must become why Jackson's own staffers not only believed it but went so far as to write of it in their post-war correspondence with Ezra Carman. Because they knew Jackson as nothing other than a strict, rigid disciplinarian and a man so pious and morally-exacting, the allegations of him fathering an illegitimate child has the ring of a so-called "urban legend" to it. A legend Jackson's officers whispered to one another around the campfire; a myth, perhaps, that grew more fantastic in each telling.

But, who knows? Maybe, just maybe, they were telling the truth. They themselves must have believed it; they wouldn't have told Carman if they hadn't.

Regardless of its veracity, this whole allegation has nothing whatsoever to do with Jackson's role and that of his division at Antietam, and that is what I set to discover when I first cracked open those Ezra Carman boxes at the library. . .time for me to get back on track.

A Youthful Thomas Jonathan Jackson

7 comments:

Harry said...

John,

I've knonw about this note of Carman's for years, having first heard of it from Dr. Clemens, the authority on the Carman papers. I think you can't discount who was saying this.

Let me ask you this: if Hotchkiss says anything that reflects positively on Jackson, should we ignore it if it is not corroborated by anything other than his recollection? That sound you hear is the opening of a can filled with worms.

I don't know if it's true or not, but I know enough to say I can't say it's probably not. Get me?

Anonymous said...

Well Jackson always did take things to the extreme. Maybe that later life piety was an attempt to make up for youthful indiscretions. Maybe the nickname, "Old Blue Light" had something to do with moonshining.

John C. Nicholas

John David Hoptak said...

Harry. . .
I got ya.
Certainly, there may be something more to this.
I did post it at the risk of being challenged to a duel, and perhaps, by the tone adopted, I have almost betrayed my belief that I should not be too quick to dismiss this allegation. It is certainly very possible. And I especially enjoyed your Hotchkiss hypothetical. . .

Harry said...

John,

I'm surprised one of those duelists hasn't shown up already to pace of ten virtual steps. Aim low when the time comes!

brian said...

Thanks for posting this tidbit, John. I had a sneak preview of this a while back from a noted Carman scholar also. It's a piece of the historical puzzle either way - true or false. You're quite right that it hardly bears on a military analysis. BTW - what's the volume of the Carman letter stash in the ANB Library? I'm wondering if they would make a worthwhile digitization project...

John David Hoptak said...

Brian
It is rather voluminous, but I think it can be do-able and, might I add, a GREAT digitization project.

Tom Clemens said...

John,
It continues to amaze me how scrupulous Carman was about getting first hand accounts of incidents and people. he is not always correct, as you know, but never "invents" his sources. I too wonder why Hotchkiss would say it if it was not true. Certainly he had no agenda to slander jackson. I'd be curious to know how deeply the skeptic have dug into this allegation. Not sayin' it's true, just that saying Carman usually knew what he was talking about.