Great Nonfiction: Rebel Yell, by S. C. Gwynne

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall JacksonTom Fool to Stonewall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thomas J. Jackson was an unlikely hero. Though after graduating from West Point he distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, peace time turned him into a pedantic teacher at Virginia Military Academy. A socially awkward man with tendencies toward hypochondria, Prof. Jackson was baited by his students and called “Tom Fool.” His religious fervency, which he frequently expressed in words, further distanced him from others. (Hindsight is better than foresight, and today, some historians speculate that he may have had a form of autism.) At the start of the Civil War, he was refused a position of command. After his astonishing first campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, people began to view Jackson in a new way. After First Manassas, he and his unit, comprised of many of his former VMI students, became known as the Stonewall Brigade for their refusal to back down under heavy fire. Once Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was quick to recognize Jackson’s brilliant ability to manage and win battles, even when grossly outnumbered. If Jackson had survived the loss of an arm at Chancellorsville, who knows how the war would have played out. Imagine Stonewall Jackson vs. U. S. Grant. But when Jackson died, it had a profound effect on the South, where many viewed his loss as the beginning of the end.

Author S. C. Gwynne is a professional writer but not a trained historian, though you’d never guess it while reading his lively, often riveting account of Stonewall Jackson’s astonishing transformation and accomplishments. Gwynne covers each of his battles in detail, but it is in the study of the many facets, often contradictory, of Jackson’s personality and character that this book really shines. In battle, one singular trait, that of a ferocious, dauntless determination to win at any cost, utterly obscured the eccentricities and foibles that dogged Jackson at all other times. Many biographical accounts of military careers are factual but very dry in the telling, but in Rebel Yell, one never loses the sense of the presence of General Jackson as a man. His demands took a huge toll on his soldiers, and as is generally true of charisma, it’s difficult to grasp exactly why they bonded so strongly to their leader. But that bond held until the day he died.

P.S. Did you know that it was the Stonewall Brigade that devised the infamous Rebel Yell? “On one occasion during the Valley Campaign, while the Stonewall Brigade was in camp, one of its five regiments began yelling. Soon another regiment took it up, and then another, and another, until every member of the entire brigade was delivering the Yell at the top of his lungs. General Jackson came out of his tent, leaned on a fence, and listened. The cacophony continued for several moments and then began dying away. When the last echo had rebounded from the Blue Ridge, old Blue-Light, universally known to be totally tone deaf, turning toward his tent and said “That was the sweetest music I ever heard.” S. C. Gwynne provides a recorded reproduction of the sound early in the audio version of his book.

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