Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne

The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

“Draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.”

 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

rebel yellI’ll start with my usual disclaimer that I can’t speak to the accuracy of the history in this book. In fact, my prior knowledge of Stonewall Jackson, and indeed the whole Civil War, could fairly be described as non-existent. But Gwynne has clearly done a huge amount of research and, assuming the accuracy, the only word that I can find to describe the book is superb. In terms of the quality of the descriptive writing, the structure and skilful use of language, and the depth Gwynne brings to the characters of Jackson and his comrades and friends, the book stands not just as an outstanding biography but as a very fine piece of literary writing.

As Jackson and his force of cadets set out to war, Gwynne tells us of his pre-war life as a rather strange and awkward man, deeply religious, suffering from poor health and perhaps a degree of hypochondria. Having overcome his early lack of education to scrape into West Point, he took full advantage of the opportunities on offer there, dragging himself up from the bottom of the class to graduate in a fairly high position. The first signs of his heroism were seen in the Mexican war when his courageous – some might say reckless – actions against a much greater enemy force were crucial to the success of the assault on Mexico City. But after this war, Jackson had taken a position as professor at the Virginia Military Institute, a job for which he seemed remarkably unsuited. Unable to control his unruly classes and an uninspiring teacher, he was seen as something of an oddity by his pupils. Gwynne shows how that all changed as he became one of the Confederacy’s finest leaders, with many of these same pupils ending up willing to follow him anywhere and die for him if necessary.

Jackson's Foot Cavalry
Jackson’s Foot Cavalry

To them, Jackson’s movement east with his vaunted Army of the Valley meant that he was coming to save Richmond, which meant that he was coming to save the Confederacy. And the soldiers of the beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia believed to the bottom of their ragged, malnourished rebel souls that he was going to do precisely that.

This is very much a biography of Jackson and a history of his military campaigns, rather than a history of the Civil War itself. Therefore Gwynne doesn’t go too deeply into the politics of why the war came about, nor does he make any overt judgements about the rights or wrongs of it. Although in the course of the campaigns, we find out a lot about some of the commanders and politicians on the Unionist side, the book is rooted within the Confederacy and the reader sees the war very much from their side. As we follow Jackson through his campaigns, Gwynne, with the assistance of clear and well-placed maps, brings the terrain to life, vividly contrasting the beauty of the country with the brutality and horrors of the battlefields. He gives such clear detail of the strategies and battle-plans, of troop numbers and movements, of weaponry and equipment, that each battle is brought dramatically to life. In fact, my lack of knowledge was something of an unexpected benefit since I genuinely didn’t know the outcome of the battles and so was in a constant state of suspense. And found that I very soon had given myself over completely to willing Jackson onto victory. The image of this heroic man mounted on his favourite horse in the midst of mayhem, the light of battle in his eyes, one hand held high as he prayed for God’s help while the bullets and artillery thudded all around him, is not one I shall soon forget.

Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia  by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume
Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia
by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume

On the way back to headquarters Jackson, riding now with McGuire and Smith, said nothing until they neared their camp, when he suddenly said, “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.”

From the beginnings of the creation of the Jackson legend in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, then on through the series of battles where he snatched victory from what should have been certain defeat, till his final stunning achievements as the right-hand man of General Robert E Lee, Gwynne shows the growing admiration and even love of his troops for this man whose total belief in the rightness of his cause and God’s protection led him to take extraordinary risks. He drove his men brutally hard, marching them at unheard-of speeds, on half rations or worse, and he threw them into battle even when they were exhausted and weak and hugely outnumbered. But his personal courage and strategic brilliance turned him into a figurehead – a symbol for the South, whose very name could make the Unionist commanders tremble. Cheered and adulated by soldiers and citizenry everywhere he went, he consistently insisted that all praise for his victories was God’s due, not his, and remained awkward in the face of his growing celebrity to the end.

Men were fixing dinner and taking naps or relaxing, listening to the distant music of a regimental band, or perhaps discussing the Confederate retreat, when suddenly all nature seemed to rise up in revolt around them. Through their camps rushed frantic rabbits, deer, quail, and wild turkeys, then there was an odd silence, and then Jackson’s massive, screaming, onrushing wall of grey was upon them.

But amidst all the warfare, Gwynne doesn’t forget to tell us about the man. We see the other side of Jackson – the family man, grieving for the death of his first young wife and then finding happiness with his second, Anna. Through extracts from his letters, we see the softer, loving side of Jackson and also learn more about his deeply held conviction of God’s presence in every aspect of his life. We learn how the war divided him from his much loved sister who took the Unionist side. And we’re told of the efforts he made to nurture religion amongst his troops. A silent and somewhat socially awkward man to outward appearance, we see how he opened up to the people closest to him, taking special pleasure in the company of young children. A man of contradictions, truly, who could hurl his men to their almost certain deaths one day and weep for the death of a friend’s child the next.

Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J "Stonewall" Jackson
Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson

A biography that balances the history and the personal perfectly, what really made this book stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. As Gwynne recounted the final scenes of Jackson’s death and funereal journey, I freely admit I wept along with the crowds of people who lined the streets in wait for a last chance to see their great hero. And I wondered with them whether the outcome might have been different had Jackson lived. If only all history were written like this…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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40 thoughts on “Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne

  1. So happy to have you back reviewing, FictionFan! 🙂 – And this does sound like an excellent book. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was such a fascinating person as well as a skilled military leader. I’m glad that Gwynne has highlighted his life. It’s interesting when you think of how history is portrayed. If you read accounts of the US Civil War that are written by Northerners, you get one impression. If you read other accounts, written by Southerners, you get quite another. That’s why I respect authors who really do justice to a topic or a person’s life.

    • Thanks, Margot! 🙂 Yes, I did wonder while reading this if Gwynne’s rather sympathetic approach to the Confederate cause might make this book a bit controversial in the US, though it seemed to me he was sympathising with the people rather than the politics. I’ll be intrigued to see how it’s reviewed “over there”…

  2. Stellar review, FEF! I didn’t know some of that about him. It’s an interest. Too bad he was shot by his own men…that is what happened, isn’t it? I can’t remember.

    What surprised me is that he drove his men–ruthlessly, it seems! He needed a talking to.

    • Thanks, Prof! Yes, he was – well remembered. A tragic end…

      Yes, but at least he led them from the front instead of cowering at the rear like many of the commanders. Truly heroic – and not a skirt in sight!

        • I forgot to mention that I’ve added this one to your TBR. Much better dressed than Hector…not to mention John Carter! And I’d like to see you keep your beard neat if you had to spend months marching up and down the Shenandoah Valley…without a shower!!!

          He was exceptionally keen on sabres and bayonets…

          • And here I thought you liked the way Hector was dressed! (I know you liked the way JohnC was!!!) What an adventure! I wouldn’t mind not taking a shower for….years! And having a saber strapped to my thigh, and riding a…well, I wouldn’t ride a horse, since they sweat. I’d have a bike.

            Bayonets… *gulps* Sounds horrific.

            • Beautiful Little Sorrel didn’t sweat, I bet. (Mind you, maybe the horse would be upset if the Professor sweated.) I loved that horse – so brave! Did you know he could open latches and let all the other horses out to play?

              He also knew tons and tons about artillery (Jackson, that is, not Little Sorrel) – and so do I now! *smug face*

              I did not like how John Carter dressed!!! He could have caught cold…

          • *laughs* Well, then, if the horse was that picky, he wasn’t a very gentlemanly horse. I’d be wearing clothes. The horse should have had a skirt on. (Like they did in the Middle Ages.) Then I wouldn’t mind his sweat. You’re kidding!

            You do? Tell me something, then!

            I think I’d try to kill him, if I ever saw him.

  3. I think that, based on your review, it was a good portrait of what I have come to understand of Stonewall Jackson. In some ways, Southerners manifest more love and reverence for Stonewall than for even General Lee. I worked for a motor coach tour company for some four years and I planned and led a tour around the battlegrounds, mostly in Virginia. No matter what the battleground we visited, each tour guide without fail sooner or later ended up praising the virtues of Stonewall. Years afterward I put together all of his virtues and quirks and came to the conclusion that in all probably the beloved general had Level 1 Autism, what we used to call Asperger’s Syndrome.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve learned a lot of Southern history since we moved to Florida and more yet when I learned from actual Southerners their own perceptions. All of my formal studies up north were quite skimpy as far as what actually happened in the south, and things in the north were definitely northerly biased. Of course, the victors write the histories.

    • Interesting. 🙂 I must say I didn’t get the feeling from this book that Jackson was even low-level autistic. He just seemed like a somewhat socially awkward man who was nevertheless able to form strong and lasting relationships, and Gwynne suggested that in private he was a witty and open person. The quotes from his letters certainly showed him as a man with the ability to express his strongly held beliefs and emotions and to understand other people’s feelings too. But it’s always hard to tell from just one book.

      Yes, I suspect the sympathetic tone of this book may not be to everyone’s liking, but Gwynne made me feel that the commanders and men weren’t really fighting about slavery whatever the politicians were thinking.

      • My husband has Asperger’s syndrome, now called Level 1 Autism. My mother-in-law taught him how to behave in social situations, and he is an extrovert so he enjoys being in a crowd. AS people are often brilliant and opinionated. They do not generally show any slowness verbally or . They also are often very affectionate and faithful, especially if they have learned the social cue by rote. But they can be very rigid, and tend to see the world as black or white.

        Of course, I can’t know for certain.

    • The theory that Jackson had Asperger’s Syndrome has been around since at least the 1990s. Several published papers have been written on the subject. It’s surprising that the author of this biography didn’t incorporate this theory into his biography.

  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one. I was holding off for your review before deciding whether to read this. I’ll add it to the TBR, but I think I’ll sneak it up near the top.

    • I really thought this was a great read – quite possibly a contender for Book of the Year. I was in the unusual position of being unable to find anything to criticise… Hope you enjoy it!

  5. You definitely have eclectic taste. This sounds interesting. I think books like this with more content that needs to be properly taken in would really slow my reading down. It looks great though.

    • Haha! Butterfly mind, that’s me! But I honestly think some of the best writing that’s being done at the moment is in history – I wish it had been like that when I was studying it…

  6. […] As far as I can tell, Gwynne’s new book shies away from the racial aspects of the Civil War and focuses instead on the life and death of Stonewall Jackson. Therefore, since I enjoyed Gwynne’s world building and characterizations, I am keeping “Rebel Yell” on my TBR. But… since it is seven or eight hundred pages, I can’t see myself getting to it anytime soon. I might just save myself the trouble and link FictionFan’s awesome review here. […]

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