Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson


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From the author of the prize-winning New York Times bestseller Empire of the Summer Moon comes a thrilling account of how Civil War general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson became a great and tragic American hero. Stonewall Jackson has long been a figure of legend and romance. As much as any person in the Confederate pantheon, even Robert E. Lee, he embodies the romantic Southern notion of the virtuous lost cause. Jackson is also considered, without argument, one of our country's greatest military figures. His brilliance ...

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Jul 17, 2017

Stonewall Jackson's Way

Before the battle of Antietam in September, 1862, an anonymous Southern poet wrote "Stonewall Jackson's Way", which was subsequently set to music and became a favorite Confederate song. The poem's second stanza offers the following description of Jackson.

"We see him now, the old slouched hat
Cocked o'er his eye askew;
The shrewd, dry smile, the speech so pat,
So calm, so blunt, so true.
The "Blue-Light Elder" knows 'em well;
Says he, "That's Banks, he's fond of shell;
Lord save his soul! We'll give him hell,"
That's Stonewall Jackson's way."

S.C. Gwynne discusses "Stonewall Jackson's Way" together with much else about Jackson in his outstanding and popular biography, "Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson." (2014) Jackson has been written about extensively. Gynne's book manages to be scholarly and accessible while presenting fresh insights into its subject. The book captures the character and accomplishments of a complex, enigmatic individual.

The clear writing style and the creative organization of this biography go a long way towards helping the reader understand Jackson. Rather than taking a strictly chronological approach, Gwynne begins his account at a climactic moment in Jackson's life: Stonewall is on his way to Richmond to help Robert E. Lee in what would become the Seven Days Battles following Jackson's string of brilliant military movements in the Shenandoah Valley in the Spring of 1862. Gywnne shows something of Jackson's character and toughness, including his role at First Manassas, before doubling back to show Jackson's initial attitude towards the war and his years as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. At various interludes later in the book, Gwynne again works back in time to discuss Jackson's childhood, his years at West Point, his early military career, and his two marriages. The organization allows a broad look at Jackson's life and character beyond his military activities. Similarly, the book integrates well lengthy sections of descriptive writing about Jackson's battles and other activities with commentary, both from the author, from other writers, and from Jackson's contemporaries reflecting on the events and their significance. The book encourages a reflective approach to Jackson on behalf of the reader.

Gwynne's biography shows the many eccentricities of character long associated with Jackson while also showing some lesser-known traits: his romantic nature, his passion for his two wives (his first wife died in childbirth), his love of literature and gardening and architecture, and a trip he took to England in the 1850s. The book places a great deal of emphasis on Jackson's religiosity. Jackson's devotion to his religion and to God, as he understood devotion to God, comes through fully and with a great deal of sympathy in this book. Jackson exhibited religious activism throughout his life -- before the outbreak of the Civil War he founded a Bible school in Lexington to teach young people held in slavery.

Still, Gwynne's book stresses, as it must, Jackson's Civil War. Jackson was born to be a leader and a soldier. With the outbreak of the war, the gifted, taciturn and peculiar individual found his place in life. Gwynne offers a full portrayal of Jackson's mostly brilliant career as a general, including First Manassas, the Valley campaign, the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and a number of smaller battles. The descriptions of the battles are clear and easy to follow for readers not accustomed to the sometimes ponderous descriptions in Civil War books. In addition to showing troop movements, Gwynne helps bring the reader into Jackson's mindset. He also shows well the strengths and weaknesses of Jackson's battlefield opponents and of Jackson's own comrades, including Lee, Stuart, and Longstreet. The book shows Jackson's high expectations, some of his shortcomings as a commander, and, in particular, his frequently difficult and unfair treatment of his subordinates.

Portions of the book show Jackson unsympathetically and emphasize his rigidity and violence. He initially called for a "black flag" war including an immediate invasion of the North and a policy of taking no prisoners. As the book continues, the overall tone becomes much more sympathetic, as Gwynne allows the reader to get inside this strange, gifted man.

The book offers a good overview of the course of the Civil War in the East up to the time of Jackson's death in May 1863 following the Battle of Chancellorsville. Gwynne offers a moving, full description of Jackson's funeral and of the irreplaceable loss his death caused the Confederacy. Most of the book is written from the standpoint of the Confederacy. Gwynne recognizes slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War. But the book shows the Confederacy and some of its leaders, together with the ordinary soldiers, more sympathy than do some contemporary accounts, recognizing their bravery, fortitude, carrying on with inadequate weapons and supplies, and commitment. There is no "Lost Cause" mythology in the book, but Gwynne allows his readers to see the war from a fresh point of view.

I have been reading about the Civil War for many years; and like, many, was fascinated by Stonewall Jackson from childhood and adolescence. I was glad to visit him again in Gwynne's account and to look back. Gwynne's book does indeed capture the "violence, passion, and redemption" of, for all his personal flaws and the flaws of his cause, an American hero.

Robin Friedman

George T

Jun 22, 2015

Excellent Book

Nothing fancy - just good story telling about a character who made a difference for the south in the civil war...

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