Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: S. C. Gwynne's "Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson"

Note:  I read Gwynne's Rebel Yell last summer and wrote this review.  I have not been able to find another use for the review so I'm sharing it here.  You can also read the seven part series on the piety of Jackson I did back in 2011 after reading Dabney's Life and Campaigns (Part one, two, three, four a, four b, five, six, seven).

S. C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell:  The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (Scribner, 2014):  672 pp.

In a bibliographic appendix to this work, the author notes that there have been no less than eight significant biographies of famed Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson since 1864.  To these now may be added this contemporary work by journalist S. C. Gwynne, author of the celebrated 2010 book Empire of the Summer Moon, a biography of the lesser known Comanche chief Quanah Parker.  Gwynne’s new biography is a compelling portrait of Jackson with plentiful contemporary relevance.

Gwynne, by and large, presents a sympathetic portrait of Jackson, giving special attention to and admiration for his military tactics during the early years of the American civil war.  Gwynne traces Jackson’s life from his upbringing as an orphan in western Virginia (which later became the state of West Virginia), to his enrollment as an ill prepared student at West Point where, by dint of hard work, he rose to graduate seventeenth in his celebrated class, to his heroism in the Mexican-American War, to his appointment as an overall ineffective physics professor at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), to his meteoric rise to national and international fame as a general in the Confederate army, who won one unlikely battle after another against superior forces until he was mortally wounded by what today would be termed “friendly fire” in the aftermath of his stunning 1863 victory at Second Manassas.

Gwynne also gives intriguing insights into Jackson’s personal life.    This includes details about his close relationship with his beloved sister Laura, whose pro-Union sympathies later led to their permanent breaking of ties.  It also includes descriptions of Jackson as a family man who grieved the loss of his first wife Ellie, who died delivering their stillborn son.  His beloved father-in-law, George Junkin, the Presbyterian minister and President of what was then Washington College, who had served as a mentor and surrogate father to Jackson, also allied with the Union and moved North before the war began.  Gwynne also describes Jackson’s friendship with his sister-in-law, the poetess Maggie Junkin, and speculates that the two of them might have married had they not adhered to the high Presbyterian interpretation of the Old Testament which forbad a man’s re-marriage to a sister-in-law on the basis of “lines of separation.”  Eventually, Jackson did happily remarry Anna Jackson, and he was able briefly to meet their beloved newborn daughter in the days before his death.

Much attention is also given to Jackson’s staunch Calvinistic and Presbyterian faith. In the pre-war years he served as a deacon in the Lexington, Virginia Presbyterian church and organized a Sunday School for slaves, despite the disfavor this brought from some of his fellow white gentry who held that such educational gatherings were illegal.

Gwynne presents Jackson as a man of contradictions. In the pre-war years he was, in fact, not an advocate of Southern secession.  His aversion to war came from the fact that he was a military man.  He knew war would be incalculably gruesome and costly.  Once the war began, however, he was a furious and committed commander.  In civilian life he was a hypochondriac who suffered with various ailments and sought eccentric treatments.  In the war years these phantom maladies disappeared, and he drove his body and those of his troops to exhaustion.  He could be warm and affectionate with close family but was often socially awkward in public and a stern disciplinarian with underlings. In the pre-war classroom he was an ineffective teacher whom his pupils called “Tom Fool” behind his back, but once the war began he proved himself a natural leader of men and a brilliant tactician.

Gwynne is particularly admiring of Jackson as a military leader.  He suggests that Jackson’s success on the battlefield came from his willingness to drive his men to the limits of their physical abilities and his willingness to engage in vicious and costly battles (unlike many of his Northern counterparts).  Gwynne also suggests that Jackson advocated with his reluctant Southern superiors for “black flag” (take no prisoners) and “throw away the scabbard” (total war) tactics against their Union adversaries, to hasten the war’s end.  He also suggests that the North’s use of such tactics under Meade and Sherman did bring the war to an eventual end, long after Jackson was gone.

The book’s opening includes a compelling comparison between Jackson and the abolitionist John Brown, whose execution Jackson providentially witnessed while supervising a squad of VMI cadets sent to serve as extra security guards.  According to Gwynne:

Both Brown and Jackson were hard, righteous, and uncompromising men, religious warriors in the tradition of Oliver Cromwell, the ardently Christian political and military leader in the English Civil War. Both believed beyond doubt that God was on their side.  Both believed that they were agents of God and that by killing the enemy they were doing his work (p. 24).

Though some might take exception to any comparison between the orderly Jackson and the vigilante Brown, Gwynne’s point in the comparison is to highlight the role that Jackson’s ardent Christian faith and his unfailing confidence in the sovereignty of God had in fundamentally shaping his character and propelling his legacy.

Special attention is naturally given near the book’s conclusion to the aftermath of Jackson’s death, the unparalleled outbreak of grief and despair this provoked in the South, and its contribution to the Southern “Lost Cause” sentiment.  Gwynne suggests that Jackson’s death “triggered the first great national outpouring of grief for a fallen leader in the country’s history” (p. 556), inciting mourning that far exceeded the deaths of the American founding fathers.  Even his Northern adversaries, including the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, eulogized Jackson as a Christian gentleman, despite their grave disagreement with his commitment to the Southern cause.  Gwynne also draws an intriguing comparison between the draining emotional reaction to Jackson’s death in the South and the parallel reaction to Lincoln’s death a few years later in the North (pp. 557-558).

Gwynne’s book has become even timelier given social and cultural events transpiring after its publication, including recent debate over the flying of the Confederate battle flag, in the aftermath of racially motivated violence.  Two anecdotes are worth mentioning.  The first is that in the pre-war years a crude secession flag with the words “Hurrah for South Carolina” was hoisted in Lextington on a flagpole where the American flag usually hung, but Jackson ordered it removed (p. 28). The second is that Jackson’s casket was draped not in the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia but in what was then the newly authorized national flag of the confederacy, which featured the familiar crossed bars of the battle flag on a pure white background (p. 553).  Given Jackson’s sense of the importance of obedience to lawful authority (cf. Romans 13), it is unlikely that on principle he would have sanctioned in the post-war years the flying of the Confederate flag in deference to the American flag.

Gwynne especially succeeds in this book in reminding us that Jackson and others of his era were men of their times and that it is unwise to judge them simplistically or anachronistically.  In his description of Jackson leading the VMI cadets off to Richmond to join the Southern army, for example, Gwynne offers this observation:

If the cadets who marched to Richmond with Thomas Jackson four days later had been asked why they were doing it, few would have replied that it was because of their convictions about slavery, or their beliefs about state sovereignty or any of the other great national questions that had been debated for so long.  They would have told you then—as most of Stonewall Jackson’s soldiers in the army of the Confederate States of America would have told you later—that they were fighting to repel the invaders, to drive the Northern agressors from their homeland.  That is why Virginia went to war.  The great and complicated political reasons for secession, thundered about in Congress and in state legislatures, were not their reasons, which were more like those expressed by a captive Confederate soldier, who was not a slaveholder, to his puzzled Union captors.  “I’m fighting because you’re down here,” he said.  To Jackson, Lincoln had launched a war of aggression against sovereign states.  That was why he fought, why he believed that God could not possibly be on the side of the aggressor (pp. 30-31).

Indeed, through his compelling portrait of Stonewall Jackson Gwynne reminds us that the historical and cultural circumstances surrounding the American Civil War and the individuals who were swept up in the events of the times are more complicated than often popularly imagined or appreciated.

Jeffrey T. Riddle, Pastor, Christ Reformed Baptist Church, Louisa, Virginia

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