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Book Review: Rebel Yell

By (September 8, 2014) One Comment

rebel yell coverRebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

By S. C. Gwynne

Scribner, 2014


Historians of the American Civil War have exhibited a pronounced affection for Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson for 150 years with no sign of stopping, so the appearance of a new book called Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson might serve to provoke a weary sigh from any reader not enamored of its subject. Jackson himself certainly never emitted the famous, half-apocryphal “rebel yell,” and in works of history, phrases like “passion and redemption” and “factual objectivity” are usually on separate trains, headed in opposite directions. Historians often make no pretense about the fact that they’d have liked to be Stonewall Jackson (many of them feel the same way about Confederate lieutenant general Nathan Bedford Forrest, but they have to be more circumspect in his case, since the only thing he enjoyed more than conducting daring cavalry raids against the boring old bluecoats was personally whipping to death shackled black men and then setting fire to their bodies), so “passion and redemption” could very well be signals of a long, dreary boy’s-own-story affair of a kind Civil War history has seen far, far too many times.

The key mitigating factor here is, of course, the historian in question: S. C. Gwynne gained a great many devoted fans for his excellent and deservedly praised earlier book, Empire of the Summer Moon, about Quannah Parker and the great Commanche nation. In that book Gwynne proved himself not only a first-rate historian but also an extremely adroit storyteller, and such things create a reservoir of good will.

Which is handy, since a whopping amount of good will is necessary to embark on a 700-page biography of Stonewall Jackson, about whom the main mystery is not, pace every historian who’s ever written about him, the ineffable source of his striking military genius but rather how the Hell so many later readers haven’t been able to see about him what so many of his fellow Confederate traitors saw so clearly: that he was, to put it briefly, a vicious, psychopathic, borderline-competent loon.

Those later readers look to his breakout successes as a brevet captain in the Mexican-American War, where he achieved the much-coveted status of ‘mentioned in dispatches’ by unflinchingly mowing down screaming, cowering civilians. They look to his string of tactical successes in the Civil War, most notably in the Shenandoah Valley campaign and at Antietam and Chancellorsville, but they turn a politely blind eye to his equally-long string of blunders at places like Mechanicsville, Gaine’s Mill, Savage’s Station, and the utterly unnecessary bloodbath of Malvern Hill. These later readers love the oddity and color of the man, and in order to enjoy it, they’re willing to overlook his near-endless list of military shortcomings, to say nothing of the fact that half the eyewitness reports we have of him during the war make it clear he only randomly knew where he was.

Gwynne’s book will please those readers immensely – this is an incredibly readable study, one that very often rises to Bruce Catton-levels of pathos and intelligence (than which there can be no higher praise for any work of Civil War history) – but much, much to Gwynne’s credit, he doesn’t fall prey to Jackson-mania. As in his earlier book, he assesses a huge array of sources, compacts it all into a rippling, thrilling narrative, and somehow manages to maintain a friendly and magisterial detachment the whole time, even when the commander he’s describing is a ghastly combination of elementary school Sunday pageant and modern-day frothing-at-the-mouth Wahabi fanatic:

Though his men cheered him loudly when he rode by and boasted of his genius in letters home, they were also painfully aware of how had they had been used, and how many of their fallen comrades – nearly a third of his force – had simply fallen away, unable or unwilling to follow. And yet this seemingly pitiless man with so little apparent sympathy for human suffering was also a devout Christian. He prayed in his tent and in the woods at 3 a.m. He prayed on his horse and prayed in the midst of battle. He encouraged his men to attend religious services, distributed Christian pamphlets, and arranged for preachers to give sermons in the regimental camps. Christians especially took note that he insisted on giving God credit for his victories and even refused to read newspapers that proclaimed his own renown. This was not more convention or pro forma humility. He genuinely feared that pride and excessive ambition would anger God and destroy the Confederacy.

Gwynne never quite comes right out and says the simple truth about such a description – that a general who loses a third of his men to marching fatigue is a very, very stupid general who should be cashiered immediately – but the description itself is admirably frank in any case. Likewise his assessment of another of Jackson’s gigantic shortcomings, his pathological paranoia about the very people he was working with:

Perhaps no commander in the war was quite as isolated from common humanity as Jackson was. Command is lonely anyway; Jackson’s policy of sharing little or no important information with his officer corps made it doubly so. He held no councils of war, consulted no one about strategy or tactics. Unlike every other general in the war, he did not even ask for casual advice from peers or subordinates.

Any assessment of Stonewall Jackson as a military commander has to deal in large part with his opponents, naturally; Jackson’s superior James Longstreet wasn’t the first person to point out – tactfully, but even so – that Jackson had the good luck to face mostly third-raters who couldn’t successfully organize a cafeteria food fight, let alone a slogging match in the beautiful-but-tricky terrain of the Shenandoah. A middle-of-the-class 2014 West Point graduate could very likely duplicate most of Jackson’s successes in the Valley Campaign, especially if that graduate was complacent about sacrificing thousands of men to simple attrition in order to make rapid marches. Gwynne isn’t willing to go that far; he readily acknowledges the frequency with which Jackson, like Ulysses Grant, found himself facing dullards and morons across the battlefield, but his objectivity encourages him to look at the bigger picture:

Lesser generals were the rule, not the exception, in the early part of the war, and the great generals made their names against inferior opposition because that was the only opposition that existed. Such arguments moreover miss the fact that Jackson and Grant were both among the great early innovators of the war, for whom the quality of the opposing commanders was merely one of many problems they faced and solved. Both were doing things without precedent in military history, executing marches and military maneuvers and transporting troops and building supply lines in ways that were quite new.

Jackson famously tried to keep holy the Sabbath, insisting that his Sundays not be sullied with secular matters (although, as Gwynne tartly points out, “There was nothing more secular than killing human beings with shells and bullets”), and just that kind of weird schizophrenia has generally afflicted the books written about him over the last century; they describe one thing and then conclude another. Robert Tanner’s fantastic 1975 work Stonewall in the Valley has stood out for half a century as an exception to that pattern, and Gwynne’s Rebel Yell is another such exception, by far the best biography of Jackson ever written and one of the best biographies of anybody published so far in 2014.