Thursday, December 4, 2014

Did Stonewall Jackson have Asperger's?


I am a fan of these psycho-historical posthumous psychiatric diagnostic exercises, if only because they put so many people's noses out of joint. This one was written by Michael Fitzgerald and is titled, "Did 'Stonewall' Jackson have Asperger's Syndrome or Disorder?"

Society of Clinical Psychiatrists

"In 1944, the Austrian Hans Asperger described a number of children mainly boys who were socially odd, egocentric and who had circumscribed interests in specific topics Asperger (1944). He called this autistic psychopathy. Later Wing (1981) refined the syndrome and called it Asperger's syndrome. Later Szatmari et al. (1989) outlined specific criteria for the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. The American Psychiatric Association (APA, 1994) also set out criteria for Asperger's disorder. Both (Szatmari et al., 1989; APA, 1994) these criteria will be used in attempting to establish whether 'Stonewall' Jackson, possibly the greatest military leader in the American Civil War, had Asperger's syndrome or disorder.
In defining Asperger's syndrome Szatmari et al. (1989) in their first two criteria for Asperger's syndrome, emphasised solitary activities and social relationship problems. It is clear that 'Stonewall' Jackson met these criteria and the evidence will now be presented. During the American Civil War his nephew Henry Kyd Douglas (1947) was with him during the campaign and he described how "the General always kept himself always very much apart . . . and he did not encourage social calls". It was not thought by those who knew him best that he was a good judge of character (Douglas, 1947). Douglas (1947) described him as "hard as nails in the performance of a duty. I never knew him to temper justice with mercy; his very words very merciless. I can recall no case when he remitted or modified a punishment that he believed to be just and according to the law . . . He was governed by his judgment alone, by his strict construction of his sense of duty, by the demands of the public service. There was no place for sentiment or pity. In the execution of the law he was inexorable, justice and mercy seemed out of place". Douglas (1947) describes how at Law School he was regarded as "such an oddity" and a classmate of his said that "old Jack is a character, genius, or just a little crazy" and that he "lives quietly and don't meddle". Douglas (1947) points out that on one occasion a soldier wanted to visit his wife before she died and he said to the man "man, man, do you love your wife more than your country?" and turned away. The man never forgave him.
His problem in social relationships was also seen when he was posted in Florida and he made allegations of immoral behaviour against his commanding officer Major French. Henry (1979) stated that here Jackson showed his "implacable and vindictive characteristics and indeed his attack of French was pitiless, narrow minded and legalistic".
As a teacher at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington he was "an appallingly bad teacher and extremely unpopular with his students. The cadets considered him a strange character, grim, aloof, unable to communicate with them in or outside the classroom, who subjected them to a petty and relentless discipline" according to Henry (1979). Jackson was known there as "old Hickory" and indeed according to Henry (1979) the authorities made an unsuccessful attempt to remove him from his job. Locally the people of Lexington "considered him to be one of their local eccentrics, but despite his shyness and odd ways" he was respected by members of his Church (Henry, 1979). People considered his appearance odd "and this, combined with his reserve and awkwardness in company, made him the object of many jokes and derisive comments" and he was regarded as having a "shy, introverted and secretive personality" (Henry, 1979).
He therefore meets all the criteria for Asperger's syndrome as set out by Szatmari et al. (1989) in social relationships with: (a) having no close friends, (b) avoiding others, (c) having no interest in making friends, (d) being a loner, (e) having a clumsy social approach, (f) have a one-sided response to peers and having difficulty sensing feelings of others as well as being detached from feelings of others, (g) he was "reticent and self-reliant" (Henry, 1979).
He also meets the criterion set out by Szatmari et al. (1989) for impaired non-verbal communication. He showed limited facial expression and indeed it was said by Douglas (1947) that he "rarely if ever laughed" and had a "reserve and awkwardness in company".
The last criterion Szatmari et al. (1989) was odd speech and he certainly talked very little. Indeed in battles according to Douglas (1947) he sometimes didn't inform people about his future military plans. We don't have information on whether he had idiosyncratic use of words or repetitive patterns of speech.
Asperger's Disorder (APA, 1994)
He certainly meets the first criterion of a qualitative impairment in social interaction (APA, 1994). He had a failure to develop peer relationships and there was a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment and interests with other people (Douglas, 1947; Henry, 1979). There was a lack of social and emotional reciprocity. Henry (1979) described him as "a withdrawn, morose, isolated personality of eccentric habits and with a hypochondrical preoccupation which bordered on the bizarre". He also said that he was "grim and humourless" (Henry, 1979). At school he was described as being "shy and unsociable, retaining much of the awkwardness of his previous personality" (Henry, 1979). During the American Civil War there were much rumours that he was "mad" and some of his fellow officers resented his aloof, high handed way of conducting his campaigns (Henry, 1979). It was noted by Douglas (1947) that when General Winder came to work with Jackson he had "a will as inflexible as that of Jackson himself and at first their relations were not very cordial and each certainly underrated the other; in many things, they were too much alike to fit exactly". Despite being a loner, being aloof and distant Douglas (1947) stated that "never in the history of warfare has an army shown more devotion to duty and the wishes of one man" as his army showed during the second battle of the Manassas.
The second criterion for Asperger's disorder (APA, 1994) are restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests and activities. He was preoccupied with religion and with war. Henry (1979) points out that he was "an avoid reader of military history and studied intensively the campaigns of Napoleon". He received the nickname "Stonewall" during the 1st battle of the Manassas when his "Virginia brigade stood up to the enemy in a very rigid fashion and Lieutenant H. Lee cried out "look! There is Jackson's brigade standing behind you like a stone wall" (Douglas, 1947).
He and his army was "well-disciplined" (Douglas, 1947). Nevertheless Jackson was described as the "worst-dressed, worst-mounted, most faded and dingy-looking general" there was ever seen (Douglas, 1947). "In all his movements in riding to a horse to handling a pen, the most awkward man in the army" (Douglas, 1947). He walked and rode in a most "ungainly" manner (Douglas, 1947). While he was "aloof and secretive he drove his soldiers mercilessly; and his discipline was almost inhumane but the troops marched and fought and died for him with remarkable devotion" (Douglas, 1947). He studied war and military matters all his life and was probably one of the greatest generals that has ever commanded an American army. He was described as being "a bold leader, probably the boldest the war (American Civil War) produced" (Douglas, 1947). Indeed it was this boldness and leading out his army from the front which was entirely unnecessary which led him to be shot at the battle of Chancellorsville an event that may very well have lost the war for the southern states (Alexander, 1996). He was entirely indifferent to bullets flying around him. He was a brilliant military strategist but then he thought of very little else throughout his life except perhaps of God" and had a great ability to "mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy (Alexander, 1996). He read no newspapers and allowed no newspaper correspondents to visit his camp.
There is no doubt that 'Stonewall' Jackson met the criteria for Asperger's disorder which gives the individual enormous handicaps in terms of social relating and empathising with other individuals but can be enormously beneficial for a leader as is shown by Jackson in his leadership of his army. He met all Szatmari's et al. (1989) except missing one additional item under the heading of odd speech for which historical data is not available. Because he was a Professor in the Military Academy and studied battles and war throughout his life he was better prepared for the American Civil War than any other military general. This extreme focus on a single topic can have enormous benefits and it is probably impossible for anyone to produce work of true genius without this exclusive focus."


  1. Some of the sweeping statements are dubious ("he was better prepared for the American Civil War than any other military general"? Lee had a longer career, more experience in combat and command, just to name one, and there are many), and they don't exploit a number of other resources on Jackson ("Bud" McFarland at Va. Tech., for example, author of the most recent "definitive" bio of Jackson).

    I think Jackson was no doubt suffering from some mental aberration, maybe Asperger's was an aspect of it, but he also had odd ideas about diet, thought the blood pooled in the left side of his body (causing him to hold his left hand in the air for extended periods of time, in hopes of draining the blood back where it belonged), and of course had a wild and obsessive religious faith.

    How does all this relate to his savant-like ability to read ground and distribute force effectively? Aspects of the same mental condition?

  2. I was just reading a bit about Jackson and started thinking his approach to life sounded a lot like Asperger's syndrome. Thanks for the posting.