Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 2014. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1451673289. $35.00.
Let me get right to the point: very few readers of The Civil War Monitor should bother to read this book. It is not intended for you.
S.C. Gwynne’s much publicized biography of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is a beautifully (if occasionally melodramatically) written rehash of the portrait painted by previous students of Jackson’s military campaigns. Gwynne neither adds to nor revises the conventional wisdom regarding this legendary figure of Confederate history. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson is rooted almost exclusively in published sources—most prominently James I. Robertson’s definitive biography from 1997—and the best campaign studies produced by the current generation of historians.
For the most part, Gwynne manages to digest and regurgitate what these writers produced with accuracy and verve. Rebel Yell is better understood, in fact, as not just a biography, but a primer on the military context in which Jackson operated during the first two years of the Civil War. Gwynne’s protagonist disappears for pages at a time in extended contextual passages that are clearly aimed at an audience whose depth of knowledge is even more shallow than the author’s—and that, sadly, is saying something.
Readers of The Civil War Monitor, who are well-versed in the subject matter, will be assaulted by numerous factual errors—almost all of them small, but cumulatively resulting in the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Gwynne wrote while only one or two informational steps ahead of the novice audience at which this book is aimed. Gwynne bungles Eastern Theater geography routinely, characterizing Old and New Cold Harbor as towns, implying that the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal connected Washington with the Cumberland River, and failing to understand that moving north through the Shenandoah Valley does not constitute going “up” that beautiful vale. Other niggling mistakes include .59 caliber Minie balls whizzing through the air, marching with George Sears [Greene] at Antietam, and dating A. P. Hill’s death to the Third Battle of Petersburg—whatever in the world that might have been! Space does not allow anything like providing a full inventory of these sorts of blunders, but my notes contain dozens.
It bears repeating, however, that Gwynne’s big picture of Jackson and his military world rings true and will strike most students of Stonewall’s career as essentially sound. There is precious little—in fact almost nothing—fresh or revisionist amid a book that runs more than six hundred pages. Stonewall Jackson emerges as the aggressive, quirky, beloved officer that we have come to know from most previous biographies. Thomas Jackson remains a devout eccentric whose inherent strength of character allowed him to carve out an accepted place in Lexington, Virginia, society and a domestic life more loving and tender than his passionless professional demeanor would suggest. Professor Jackson at the Virginia Military Institute is still a dreadful teacher in Gwynne’s estimation, but his kindness toward the local African Americans softens his modern image.
This traditional interpretation of Jackson the man and the soldier could hardly have been different seeing that Gwynne’s “research” was almost entirely confined to secondary sources and the most well-worn published memoirs. In this at least, Gwynne has chosen well. In addition to Robertson’s masterful biography, Gwynne uses the best of the recent campaign studies—including works by Stephen Sears, Peter Cozzens, John Hennessy, and Robert Krick—to provide the grist for his battle summaries. Robert Lewis Dabney, Henry Kyd Douglas, Edward Porter Alexander, and Mary Anna Jackson frequently lend their voices to Gwynne’s tale. One can almost tick off each and every familiar Jackson anecdote and quotation as Gwynne leads us down his much traveled path.
There are a few instances where the author’s conclusions regarding Jackson or his military campaigns might raise eyebrows. I’m not sure many would agree that Thomas Jackson was “quintessentially Virginian” (20), or that Jackson “cared little about the opinion of others” (39), or that he possessed “an exceptional eye for talent” when it came to selecting his staff—think Dabney. Few would agree that Jackson’s cavalry before Winchester in May 1862 was “preternaturally aggressive” (292), or that the Iron Brigade was one of “a few western brigades fighting east of the Mississippi,” (427), or that Joe Hooker pulled back to the Chancellorsville crossroads on May 1, 1863, primarily because he learned that his opponent was none other than the fearsome Stonewall.
Gwynne includes a number of explanatory passages that clearly betray the nature of his book’s intended audience. He provides an explanation of straggling, enumerates the size of a Civil War brigade, and defines terms such canister and limber—expositions that might otherwise be considered unnecessary. Without question, Scribner has targeted a readership that knows virtually nothing about the American Civil War; for these readers, Rebel Yell will probably succeed splendidly.
In short, if you are looking for a lively read that will introduce Civil War history to that literate cousin of yours who has always wondered about your fascination with the 1860s, S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell might just be the ticket. But if your library already contains Jackson biographies written by “Bud” Robertson, Lenoir Chambers, or Frank Vandiver, you are best advised to put away your credit card.
A. Wilson Greene is the Executive Director of Pamplin Historical Park and the author of Whatever You Resolve to Be: Essays on Stonewall Jackson (2005).