The actual title of the book is too long to include in the blog title: Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.
How is that for a mouthful of history?
S.C. Gwynne is one of the better writers anywhere, and I have lauded his fantastic Empire of the Summer Moon many times before. This book is another fantastic journey into the past. Whether you are a Civil War historian or not, you will appreciate this volume if you love biographies.
The book is mostly chronological, starting with Jackson’s troubled childhood, labors at West Point, heroics in the Mexican-American War, and his career as a professor at VMI. Gwynne excels, however, when he focuses upon the odd personality and characteristics of Jackson with his near vegan diet of stale bread and water, tendency to sit in the dark alone for hours, physical ailments, and reserved, distant manner.
The dominant, lingering characteristic is Jackson’s religious faith–Presbyterian Calvinism to be specific-and the way it colored everything he said or did. For me as a modern reader, this is the attribute that is at once the most interesting and disturbing. His faith seems in direct contradiction to the cause of the South in general, and to the work of killing in specific. For Lee, war seemed like chess and strategy, whereas Jackson loved battle, killing, violence and death, consecrating it all with his raised hand in prayer on the battlefield.
It also should be noted that Gwynne does a great job as a historian by telling us the events without attempting to rationalize or explain them. One almost expects the nearly obligatory passages decrying the mindset of Confederate leaders and generals while promising to present the facts in an unbiased way. Instead, Gwynne simply tells the story of Jackson’s life and exploits in the context of the world Jackson lived in and lets the reader do his or her own analysis of how wrongheaded and doomed the cause was, and had to be. In the process, he succeeds in casting Jackson as an extraordinary American in a very difficult, and different, time.
There is another delicious bit to this biography, that delights me as a historian. It shows, in startling detail, how poorly run the Union army was at the beginning of the war. McClellan, Burnside, Pope, McDowell, and Hooker were all vastly over matched by Jackson and Lee, who did more with fewer resources than was, in many ways, imaginable. One good Union general, early in the war, would have ended it in 1861 and American history would have been drastically different. Ironically, it might have been different for the worse, as an early ending to the war would not have, likely, ended the despicable institution of slavery nor humbled the South sufficiently.
If the book has a weakness, it is that Gwynne is not a professional historian of the Civil War, and his description of troop movements, military maneuvers, and battlefield tactics sometimes feel like material he copied from a battlefield monument. Having said that, his prose is clean and understandable, but not as energetic as the other aspects of the book. I can easily excuse this, however, because anyone can get lost in the seemingly never-ending flanking attempts of 18th and 19th century battles.
I highly recommend the book for education and enjoyment.
image from dallasnews.com