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

  • S.C. Gwynne
  • Scribner
  • 688 pp.

A new look at the man behind the myth of Stonewall Jackson and his role in the Civil War

Thomas Jonathan Jackson is better known to history as Stonewall Jackson, the hero of the first battle of Manassas and Robert E. Lee’s right hand man. He is one of the triumvirate in the pantheon of the Confederate Army, alongside Lee and James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart.

I must confess that when I was asked to review S.C. Gynne’s Rebel Yell, my first thought was “Why, Oh Lord, why does the world need another biography of Stonewall Jackson?” That reaction was caused by the slew of modern accounts of the renowned Stonewall that are displays of idolatry rather than critical biographies, with the exception of James I. Robertson, Jr.’s 1997 scholarly work, Stonewall JacksonThe Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Rebel Yell does not try to supplant Robertson’s Stonewall as the definitive biography; rather it establishes its own place on the shelf as a critical history of Stonewall Jackson in the Civil War.

There is a whole subset in the literature that explores Jackson’s role in the war and attributes the loss of the Confederacy’s war effort to his death, as if he alone would or could have been the decisive factor in a Confederate victory. Gwynne rises above the temptation to go down that road, and instead presents a matter-of-fact narrative.

Gwynne chronicles Stonewall in an unusual way. This is not a formal biography. Rebel Yell is a hybrid of biography and a history of the Civil War. The author introduces Stonewall in stages, episodically, rather than chronologically. And he also provides a lot of detail about the events of the war that do not apply specifically to his subject but which add to the overall value of the narrative. This is a benefit to readers who are not familiar with Civil War weapons, tactics and terminology.

Gwynne’s Stonewall Jackson is presented as a man, warts and all. Jackson was from the poor mountain region of what is now West Virginia. He was forced to exert himself immensely to master the rigorous curriculum of the United States Military Academy. Despite his lack of education prior to attending West Point, the man’s dogged perseverance first manifested itself in his steady rise in class ranking. Here, too, he displayed the stern and quirky demeanor that fueled legend and stereotype. Jackson did not make friends easily, but he did make impressions on people. He exhibited his best qualities in battle where he was almost transformed from a mortal to a god of war. His eyes blazed with exhilaration, and all modesty was swept aside in his decisive and ruthless aggression towards an enemy he sought to destroy.

Gwynne’s last chapter, entitled Immortality,chroniclesthe death and reactions to the loss of Stonewall. Unfortunately, the author does not take his analysis a step further to explore the mythical legacy of Jackson.

Rebel Yell does not offer anything remarkably new about Stonewall Jackson. No trove of letters and documents was unearthed to reveal hitherto unknown elements of the man’s character and personality. Yet Gwynne has written a worthy book that does much to present the general in a realistic, critical and evenhanded manner. He avoids the clichés, tall tales and the reverence that surrounds the mythical Stonewall and sticks to the facts about the flesh and blood man. He weaves together a portrait of a stern, driven man with human frailties and inconsistencies.  His inferences are well-reasoned and his assessments are both fair and studied. To his credit, Gwynne has consulted with a number of historians and thus avoids many mistakes common to other writers who delve in the field of Civil War history.

Lastly, Gwynne writes with style. His narrative is never confused, contrived nor sleep-inducing. Rather he creates vivid word pictures and descriptions that keep the reader engaged.

Rebel Yell is a worthy addition to the shelves of those who study and read about the American Civil War.

Robert I. Girardi is a past president of the Civil War Round Table of Chicago. He is on the Board of Directors of the Illinois State Historical Society and has written or edited 10 books on the American Civil War, including The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals in Their Own Words, and Gettysburg in Art and Artifacts.

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