‘Rebel Yell’: A riveting biography of Stonewall Jackson
Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn writes that “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson” is one of the best-written pieces of nonfiction she’s ever read.
Seattle Times book editor
I believe that the mark of a great biography is a book that helps you understand someone who might be entirely different from you, the reader. The subject might be confounding. Unlikable. Even infuriating. For this 21st-century reader, such was the case with S.C. Gwynne’s compelling new biography — the story of Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
If he were alive today, Stonewall Jackson might be considered an inflexible martinet at best, a religious zealot at worst. But the truth, as revealed in “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson”(Scribner, 688 pages, $35), is that Jackson’s dogged dedication to the fight, his rock-ribbed charisma and his absolute moral conviction kept the southern Cause alive, perhaps years beyond its logical expiration date.
His troops — in rags, starving, and shoeless — would have marched into the mouth of hell for Stonewall Jackson. One could make the case that they did.
Gwynne’s previous book, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” the story of Comanche leader Quanah Parker, is one of the best-written pieces of nonfiction I have ever read. Gwynne is a master storyteller, and he has rich material to work with in the contradictory makeup of Jackson, a man who early on, no one considered a likely leader of Confederate troops.
He was a lousy teacher at the Virginia Military Institute. The cadets, many of whom would end up fighting under him, made fun of him. He never rose to the bait. “They played tricks on him, they made sport of him,” wrote a colleague. “They teased him, they persecuted him. All in vain.”
But he could bear a grudge to the end of time: feuds with several military colleagues went on, and on, and on, because of Jackson’s conviction that he was always in the right. He and his beloved sister Laura, another family member with strong convictions, took different sides in the war. An ardent supporter of the Union, Laura cut off contact with him and they never reconciled.
“Jackson always possessed an absolute sense of what he was required to do — a personal code that was not always convenient for those around him,” writes Gwynne. That code was underwritten by faith in God, a belief in eternal life, and the conviction that he was fighting on God’s side.
It’s hard to fathom such rocklike certainty, especially the belief that a Christian God could be on the side of slavery. Jackson did not embrace the vitriolic racism of his time — he ran a Sunday school for slaves that effectively taught them to read, which violated the law in his home state of Virginia. But he believed that the Union was tyrannizing the South. He was galvanized by the Union Army’s occupation of his native state.
One day Hunter McGuire, Jackson’s medical officer, was riding along with him when he heard Jackson suddenly say, ‘“How horrible is war.’
‘“Horrible, yes,’ McGuire replied. ‘But we have been invaded. What can we do?’
“‘Kill them, sir,’ Jackson said. ‘Kill every man.’”
Once he decided, there was no going back for Stonewall Jackson. The lousy teacher became the incandescent leader, and a military strategist with a gift for taking risks and winning.
Much of Gwynne’s book is taken up with Jackson’s extraordinary habit of last-chance battlefield gambits, many of which pulled the fat from the fire for the Confederate cause. These war chronicles are compulsively readable, but extraordinarily depressing — the hardship, the carnage and the disease, and the sad waste of life. Jackson was unmoved by the daunting conditions: “Hardship, or the prospect of hardship, or fear of what was to come, had absolutely no effect on his thinking and never would,” writes Gwynne.
What are we to make of such a man? To his men, he was a hero; to the Confederacy, he was a defining, saving myth, until his indifference to danger resulted in injury and death.
Today, he is an example of what conviction can produce — a total warrior. Gwynne’s book is disturbing, enlightening and an absolutely riveting story.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.