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'Rebel Yell': Great Stonewall Jackson bio by S.C. Gwynne

Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, photographed less than two

Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, photographed less than two weeks before his mortal wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. Jackson is the subject of "Rebel Yell," a new biography by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner, September 2014). Photo Credit: National Archives

REBEL YELL: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, by S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 672 pp., $35.

The nickname Stonewall was well earned. Little fazed Gen. Thomas J. Jackson; bullets and cannon fire certainly didn't. At the first Battle of Bull Run, Jackson's unflappability amid the chaos of fire rallied Confederate troops and prompted one of the Civil War's most famous quotes: "Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall."

Robert E. Lee was a brilliant strategist; Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman led the Union to victory, but Jackson was in a class all his own. His 1862 campaigns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley are still the stuff of legend; at the time, they sent Washington, D.C., into a panic. (The concern was not unfounded: Jackson was hot to invade the North.) A master of deception and movement -- his charges could outmarch, outflank, outmaneuver, out-anything the Union threw at him -- Jackson confounded his opponents. Though nearly always outnumbered, he racked up victory after victory. Unyielding and stern, Jackson drove his men brutally hard -- he was quick to order courts-martial for officers who did not follow his orders to the letter -- but he also inspired them to fight tenaciously.

In the magnificent "Rebel Yell," one of the year's best biographies, writer S.C. Gwynne brings Jackson ferociously to life. (The title alludes to the bloodcurdling cry of Confederate soldiers as they charged into battle.) The author is a novice Civil War historian, but you would not know it. His battle scenes are marvels of description and kinetic action. He has carefully mined primary and secondary sources, and brings a deep humanity to his portrayals of Jackson, his fellow Confederate generals and their Union adversaries.

The Virginia-born Jackson was an unlikely warrior. Though he was a U.S. Military Academy grad and fought in the Mexican-American War, Jackson was "part of that great undifferentiated mass of second-rate humanity who weren't going anywhere in life," Gwynne writes. A professor of physics at Virginia Military Institute, Jackson was stiff, awkward and afflicted with maladies both real and imagined: a campus eccentric through and through. But the Civil War transformed him -- as it did Grant and Sherman, fellow members in the fraternity of second-rate humanity. His severity, buttressed by a profound Christian faith, found a new outlet in managing and leading troops.

Gwynne's pages fly by, brimming with excitement and terror. We follow Jackson from the beautiful, mountain-ringed Shenandoah Valley to the tangled swamps outside of Richmond to the blood-soaked battlefield of Antietam. Jackson ripped up the rules of combat; he was a frightful proponent of a new kind of aggressive warfare that Grant would perfect. Asked once, "What can we do?" by a member of his staff, Jackson replied, "Kill them, sir. Kill every man." Some thought him crazy, and his secrecy about battle plans infuriated his subordinates. He could be kind, but duty came first: He once refused leave for his quartermaster, who wanted to attend the funeral of his own child.

His demands took a toll on his men, who often marched barefoot and barely provisioned -- Jackson's way was to march light, lean and fast -- but the Union, at least initially, had no one who remotely matched Jackson as a tactician. Indeed, it is a wonder the Union won the war at all, such was the poor performance of Lincoln's early generals, especially the timid George McClellan, who fielded vast armies but did not unleash them. Jackson's relentless hard charging was decisive in disrupting the Union's plan to conquer Richmond.

Yet the God-revering Jackson disliked taking credit for his achievements: "I have been but the unworthy instrument whom it pleased God to use in accomplishing his purpose," he wrote to an admirer.

Stonewall Jackson, who seemed impervious to bullets, died in 1863 after being shot by a Confederate sentry during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Jackson's death sent the South into paroxysms of grief. As Gwynne notes, "The country -- North or South -- had never in its short history experienced anything quite like the death of Stonewall Jackson." He was cut down with the survival of the Confederacy on the line; the only parallel, Gwynne observes, would have been if George Washington had died during the battle of Yorktown. (The first American president lived to ripe old age.)

Jackson was no proslavery zealot, but Gwynne does not address directly the somewhat vexed issue of writing sympathetically about a figure who still fought for a cause utterly discredited by history. George Junkin, father of Jackson's first wife, who died in childbirth, wrestled with the same contradiction: "Is it wrong, is it treason, to mourn for a good and great, though clearly mistaken man?"

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