Rebel Yell by SC Gwynne, review by Carl Caton
The first two years of the American Civil War did not go well for the Union. Despite the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln, industrial and economic superiority, and a potentially overwhelming manpower advantage, the Union armies were repeatedly beaten, sometimes routed, by Confederate forces. One of the reasons for the South’s success was a general who, before the war, was a professor of natural and experimental philosophy (what we now call physics). An odd man with unusual habits, Thomas Jackson was widely considered the worst teacher at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). How this strange and ineffective teacher became the legendary Stonewall Jackson is the subject of S. C. Gwynne’s new biography Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.
Gwynne, whose first book (Empire of the Summer Moon) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has produced a richly detailed and engrossing story of the rise of Jackson as he led his army against Union armies headed by several of his fellow West Point graduates and triumphed against better equipped, better fed, and numerically superior forces.
Although he was a graduate of the US military academy and a soldier noted for bravery during the Mexican War, Jackson’s career was otherwise unremarkable before the outbreak of the war. He was seen as a strict, religious, unimaginative teacher, tolerated by colleagues and mocked by students. The war changed that.
As told by Gwynne, Jackson as a general was aggressive, inventive, fearless, and relentless in pursuing his goals. He was also secretive, seldom telling his subordinates of his battle plans, even during engagements, and he pushed himself and his men to the edge of endurance. In the first battle of Manassas, Jackson and his brigade were instrumental in turning the tide of the battle toward victory, and it was there that he earned the nickname “Stonewall”.
Gwynne is at his best in describing the complexities of the civil war battles and explaining the outcomes. He points out that, while Jackson was frequently successful, he was not without mistakes, and his successes were often partially the result of failures of Union generals to capitalize on their advantages. That was especially true of George McClellan, who consistently overestimated Confederate strength, failing to attack when he should have and quickly retreating when he should not have.
Jackson became widely known for what was called the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, in which his vastly outnumbered army ranged throughout the valley attacking and defeating superior forces, whose leaders could not figure out where he was until too late. By pushing his men for many miles and hours each day, Jackson managed to evade, then surprise Union forces, forcing the Union to withdraw troops from the valley to defend Washington, D.C. McClellan further had to pull back forces advancing on Richmond, the Confederate capital. Thus, Jackson’s successes probably extended the war by two years, as the Union, under better leadership, might have taken Richmond in 1862, destroyed Lee’s army, and ended the war.
Jackson, along with James Longstreet and Robert E. Lee, became the heart of the Confederate army, and Lee considered Jackson his right arm. It was Jackson’s aggression and confidence that stymied Union efforts to destroy the Confederate army and capture Richmond, and it is interesting to think about how the later war might have differed had not Jackson been accidentally shot by his own troops while returning from a reconnaissance at the front line during the battle of Chancellorsville. Jackson died several days later from his wounds, and two years later the Union armies, led by Ulysses Grant, eventually forced the Confederates to surrender.
Rebel Yell is both a war narrative and a compelling biography of one of America’s unlikely heroes.