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Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne

December 30, 2014


I grew up in the north. The Civil War, as it was taught to us in school, was fought over slavery. The Union army were the good guys and the Rebels were the bad guys. The whole “War of Northern Agression” thing, or the notion that the war was fought over anything beyond slavery always seemed to me an attempt to rationalize a morally untenable position 150 years after the fact. When I moved to Richmond, Virginia for school, it seemed bizarre to see statues commemorating Civil War villains on nearly every street corner. But, as is usually the case, the history is much more complicated than it was presented to us in grade school.

This is all to address the elephant in the room with my review of this book: I knew very little about Stonewall Jackson before I read it, but by the time I’d finished, I had quite an admiration for the man. As a principled and fervently religious man, as one of the most brilliant military tacticians in American history, and just as a fascinating character, Stonewall Jackson is a very likable figure. But the man had many contradictions, the most obvious that with all his admirable qualities, he fought to perpetuate one of the greatest moral crimes this country has ever wrought on humanity.

So there’s that. And I don’t quite know what to make of it. But for the purpose of this review, let’s set that uncomfortable conundrum aside and focus, rightly, on this wonderful biography of Stonewall Jackson.

I selected this book because I enjoyed Gwynne’s excellent history of Quannah Parker and the Comanches, Empire of the Summer Moon. But the richness of the Stonewall Jackson story is even stronger than Empire, owing much to the subject matter.

Jackson was an unlikely war hero. Born Thomas Jackson, he grew up poor in the mountains of Virginia. Gwynne called him a “hillbilly” in one of his interviews about the book. Yet Jackson managed to get into West Point where, owing more to his tireless work ethic than any innate talent, he worked his way up in his remarkable class (22 of the 59 members of the class of 1846 later became generals in the Civil War). Jackson was an awkward guy—anti-social and a stickler for the rules, making him unpopular with some of his classmates. Nonetheless, he graduated and quickly proved his mettle on the battlefield of the Mexican-American war, where he first demonstrated the peculiarities that would make him famous.

The first was a relentless (some might say fool-hardy) courage. During one particularly intense firefight, Jackson stood in the open and encouraged his men to fight. As lead snapped past him on all sides, he yelled to his men that there was no danger, clearly, as he was able to stand safely. He later said this was the only lie he ever told.

Later in the same war, he refused orders to retreat, later explaining that to his superior officers that retreating would have been more dangerous than standing ground. This aggressive offensive spirit would become one of his trademarks, as would his willingness to trust his own judgment over that of his superiors, often to their chagrin but his success.

And, importantly, in the war with Mexico, Jackson met Robert E. Lee. The two would work brilliantly together later in the war against the North.

The Last Meeting Between Gen. Lee and Jackson Lithograph by J.G. Fay (1877)

After the Mexican-American war, Jackson accepted a position at the Virginia Military Institute, where he taught Natural and Experimental Philosophy, and Artillery (essentially battlefield strategy and physics). He was a terrible teacher. He spent hours preparing his lectures, but was unable or unwilling to do more than recite the lessons he had memorized. If a student asked for clarification, Jackson would simply repeat himself. He was stern, aloof, the military academy equivalent of an egghead. He was often mocked, a regular victim of student pranks.

Outside of the classroom, Jackson was equally awkward. A hypochondriac, he had a regimen of strange health rituals—often remaining on his feet much of the day to “keep his organs in place.” He slept little. He had a simple, almost ascetic diet. He enjoyed mineral baths.

Jackson was fervently religious, believing that his Creator would guide his hand in war and in life. Had soldiering not worked out for Jackson, he may have had a future as a preacher.

At the same time, Jackson was a tender husband, effusive, even poetic at times. And he was by all counts a good, kind master (if there is such a thing) to his six slaves. In fact, two of them had asked Jackson to purchase them at auction. When he lived in Lexington, he was admired by both whites and blacks for establishing a Sunday school for African-Americans in an attempt to “lift them up.” Again, a complicated man.

Of course, Jackson’s real fame came during the Civil War. Time and again, he correctly anticipated the movements of the battlefield, out-maneuvered his opponents and dealt the Northern generals defeat after defeat despite their numerical superiority. Jackson was as gifted as they came in moving troops. His marches were legendary; his troops marched at speeds and over distances beyond anything thought possible. Jackson’s proclivity to act independently, often neglecting to inform others of his plans or whereabouts, frustrated his superiors and fellow generals, but it also gave Jackson the freedom to operate in guerrilla fashion. This all gave the impression that Jackson commanded more men than he actually did. Jackson soon became feared by Northern generals–a psychological advantage in itself.

Once engaged, Jackson’s Stonewall Brigade fought aggressively, often catching the enemy off guard with the boldness of their tactics. In an era when intelligence was sorely lacking, “It was characteristic of the man that his means to determining the enemy’s strength was to hit him in the face and then see what happened.” With this boldness, Jackson led his men into fights where they were sometimes outnumbered five to one, often emerging victorious.

But another advantage was that Jackson recognized, perhaps earlier than anyone else, the type of sacrifice the war would require. He was a proponent of scorched earth campaigns when possible–driving on deep and hard offensively, leaving a path of destruction. He understood that the Civil War would be won by the side that could inflict the most pain on the other. It was a tactic famously adopted later by General William Tecumseh Sherman, for one. Had the full Southern army let Jackson off the leash early in the war, Northern cities would have burned and the outcome of the war could have been much different.

Gwynne details Jackson’s role in all the major battles, from the First Bull Run (where Jackson earned his “Stonewall” nickname) followed by his masterful Valley campaign, all the way through to Chancellorsville, Jackson’s final battle. In the end, Jackson’s penchant for being in the heat of battle, forward with his men was partly responsible for his death. At Chancellorsville, Jackson’s regiment was returning to camp in the dark when they were fired upon by another Southern infantry regiment. Jackson was wounded. He would lose an arm and then, as was often the case with primitive Civil War-era medicine, his injuries led to complications—in his case pneumonia. Jackson died on May 10, 1863.

In his final delirious moments, Jackson shouted out orders to General A.P. Hill. Then he settled and, peacefully, delivered an evocative last line: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Although Jackson’s death has been overshadowed in our national memory by that of Lincoln two year later, the reaction of the nation, in both the North and the South, was as effusive. Jackson was much-admired, even by his enemies.

“In the North, there was widespread admiration for Jackson, for both for his Christian piety and his warrior prowess. Harper’s Weekly described him as an honorable and conscientious man…’I rejoice at Stonewall Jackson’s death as a gain to our cause,’ wrote Union Brigadier General Gouverneur K Warren… ‘and yet in my soldier’s heart I cannot help but see him as the best soldier of all this war and grieve at his untimely end.’”

S.C. Gwynne’s account is informative. It is entertaining. And it is told with an easy language befitting a Southern hero. But most surprising to me was that Jackson embodied admirable traits not just of the South, but of this country. There are moments in the war that, had they gone another way, might have led to an end of the American experiment as we know it. Yet, even though Jackson fought on the wrong side of history, it is hard to read this book and consider him anything other than an American hero.

For more from S.C. Gwynne on Stonewall Jackson and Rebel Yell, check out this interview. 

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