Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne
ISBN: 978-1451673289
(Scribner, 2014, hardback)

It is a matter of record that, a mere fourteen months earlier [than June 1862], the man everyone from Charlottesville to Washington was so breathlessly concerned about had been an obscure, eccentric, and unpopular college professor in a small town in rural Virginia. He had odd habits, a strangely silent manner, a host of health problems, and was thought by almost everyone who knew him to be lacking in even the most basic skills of leadership. To call him a failure is probably too harsh. He just wasn’t very good at anything; he was part of that great undifferentiated mass of second-rate humanity who weren’t going anywhere in life. And yet on that bright June [1862] day in Charlottesville the oddball science teacher had just completed a military campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that made him the most famous military figure in the Western world. In a matter of months he had undergone a transformation of such speed and magnitude that it stood out in a war that made a specialty of such changes. … In a war where the techniques of marching and fighting were being reinvented almost literally hour by hour, Jackson’s intelligence, speed, aggression, and pure arrogance were the wonders of North and South alike. They were the talk of salons in London and Paris. (6-7)

It's rare when a book sneaks up on me and take me by surprise (in a good way), but this one did. S. C. Gwynne is upfront about this book being a selective biography of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Admitting it is not a “full-scale, A-to-Z biography,” Gwynne chooses facts, stories, and analysis that best illuminates his subject instead of providing a comprehensive report. Gwynne focuses mostly on the two years of Jackson's operations in the U.S. Civil War, but he also flashes back to early events in Jackson's life in order to provide perspective and context. Rebel Yell reads like a tale told by a master story-teller…I can almost hear a southern drawl while I'm reading it.

So who was Stonewall Jackson? To say he was a host of contradictions would be an understatement. When the war started he was recognized as an incompetent science teacher at the Virginia Military Institute. Six years before the Civil War started the school’s alumni tried to have him fired. He was orphaned at age seven, raised by family members, and received a cursory childhood education. Through sheer luck and granite resolve, he was accepted into West Point at the bottom of his class. He was socially awkward, his attempts at public speaking usually painful to watch. He had a host of physical ailments that added to his awkwardness. He was deeply religious. He had trouble with authority, especially if it was critical of him. He rarely shared his thoughts or plans with anyone. Gwynne describes him as a “comfortable mediocrity.” When the Civil War started he was all but ignored by the Confederacy government. These popular descriptions of Jackson only tells part of his story, though.

Concealed behind this carefully constructed social front was a layered, highly complex, passionate, deeply sensitive man who loved deeply and grieved deeply. He had a poetic heart, and a nineteenth-century romantic’s embrace of beauty of nature. He loved Shakespeare and European architecture. He was self-taught and completely fluent in Spanish; he was a devoted and talented gardener; and he read widely in world history and military history and reveled in travel. He had an ecstatic, almost mystical sense of God. He loved walking in the country around Lexington, gloried in sunsets and mountain views and in the blooming Shenandoah spring. He was a man who could laugh uproariously, and roll around on the floor in play with a child, speaking Spanish baby talk, a man who kept close track of news and gossip inside his large, extended family. He was a doting, affectionate, and passionate husband who, behind closed doors, had an expansive and often joyous personality. (135)

Jackson served in the Mexican-American War, receiving praise from his commanding general. Like others who had experienced war he hoped to avoid secession and the conflict he knew would follow. The unconcern voiced by others when talking of wars pained him greatly. As Gwynne puts it, Jackson understood war “at some primal, visceral level that escaped almost everyone else.” (17) Jackson’s volatile mix of beliefs would ensure that he would give his unquestioning loyalty to the state of Virginia, willing to do whatever it took to defend it. His reasoning followed his religious outlook: outcomes rested in the hands of God and Jackson was one of God’s instruments in making what was going to happen happen.

Jackson understood from the beginning what it would take to win—total war, taking the fight directly to the Union. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, believed that holding land and taking a defensive posture would be the key to outlasting the Union. Jackson was outstanding at the Battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run), receiving his nickname during the fight. Also noteworthy during the battle was the first rebel yell, which Jackson initiated by telling his men to scream like Furies.

Jackson was promoted and given command of the Shenandoah Valley district. It was here that Jackson earned his warrior reputation. He marched his men farther and faster than anyone expected. He successfully coordinated attacks. His tactics were aggressive and surprising. He inspired his men to do the impossible and instilled fear in his enemies. Undermanned and outnumbered, he delayed the Union's plans to attack Richmond.

I've always been fascinated by the military genius from apparent misfits like Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and William T. Sherman. Gwynne spends time examining why that was, in particular for Jackson. His brilliance wasn’t just in his ability to perceive what others couldn’t, although that definitely was part of it. He understood the need to wage a pitiless war in order to succeed and he was ready to take command to insure it happened. In contrast to other leaders during the war, Jackson excelled at making command decisions, willing to be held accountable for them. Combined with his daring, this meant that his badly outnumbered and ill-supplied troops would have their way against timid Union generals. Not that the opposing troops were reticent or fearful—far from it—but those men were ill-served by their early generals. Gwynne makes an excellent point on the difficulty in distinguishing between failure and success in Civil War battles before they were finished:

Though he [Union General Burnisde] has gone down in history as an incompetent field commander for his tactics at Fredericksburg, in fact there was often a fine line in the Civil War between tenacity and foolishness. At Gaines’s Mill, Lee spent more than five hours assaulting uphill against a phenomenally strong Federal position, and lost nearly 8,000 men in the process. Yet because his final charges, by Hood in particular, won the day, the battle is remembered as a glorious victory. Because Burnside sacrificed all those men in a losing cause, he is often seen as inept and mindlessly obstinate. (501-2)

This was not a war that was going to be won by conventional thinking and Jackson was gifted at being unconventional. He caused panic for Union generals, causing them to imagine phantom forces were constantly threatening them. While they weren't completely wrong, they were often mistaken about when, where, and how Jackson's forces would be deployed. After the Battle of Winchester in May 1862, Jackson’s reputation reached mythical proportions. He was a seemingly invincible warrior that the Confederacy desperately needed to sustain their dreams and support their cause.

Jackson’s contradictions seemed to grow with his fame. He tried to destroy men’s careers because of insubordination, yet he was willing to defy orders when he thought it best. If Jackson had to answer to himself he would have been court-martialed. After working independently in the Valley Campaign, Jackson was fortunate to have Robert E. Lee appointed as commanding general of the Confederacy. Despite many differences between the two men, they worked extremely well together. Jackson and his men were transferred from the Shenandoah Valley to assist in the defense of Richmond. Although he had a rough start, not seeming to live up to his reputation (and Gwynne does an excellent job of putting the disappointment of Jackson during the Seven Days Campaign into perspective), Jackson began to exceed the elevated expectations placed on him. As Gwynne puts it, when Jackson was moving from the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond’s defense in June 1862,

How could one dusty, disheveled major general and 18,500 ragged troops possibly live up to such outlandish expectations? That is one of the most intriguing questions of the war. Because Jackson, against all odds, did. He fulfilled all of his countrymen’s most wildly optimistic and absurdly unrealistic expectations of him, and he did it before summer’s end. It is a matter of record that, mainly on the strength of Lee’s daring and Jackson’s astounding maneuvers, within two months the capital being threatened was no longer Richmond but Washington, DC, a city into which the defeated Union army beat a humiliating retreat—the greatest military disaster of the war to date. (359-60)

After his mediocre showing during the Seven Days Campaigns, Jackson reeled off a string of brilliant successes at the Battles of Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Jackson accurately took the measure of the men he faced and took advantage of any timidity. Lee and Jackson's respectful relationship stood in stark contrast to the Union’s command marked by arrogance, jealousy, and hatred of each other. Gwynne examines the fame Jackson received because of his success. Although Jackson found the fame gratifying, he battled it “with a combination of flight and prayer.” (486) Gwynne also examines Jackson’s insistence on fostering religion in the Confederate army. Once again, though, this stands in stark contrast to other features of Jackson. I found this exchange after the Battle of Fredericksburg particularly chilling:

On the way back to headquarters Jackson, riding now with [surgeon Hunter] McGuire and [aide James Power] 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.” (503)

All of Jackson’s accomplishments led up to the brilliant tactics at Chancellorsville drawn up with Lee (with Jackson calling an audible on major parts) that insured victory over the Union’s superior numbers and excellent defensive position. Jackson demonstrated how he had earned his reputation with his audacious and demanding tactics. Though he faced worthier Union generals now, his reputation reached almost mythical levels for several additional reasons.

Jackson by this point in his meteoric and still ascendant career cast a large shadow, far larger than the sum of his flesh-and-blood parts. There was something fateful about him, something fore-ordained, as though he had been born to occupy precisely this moment in time and space, as though his strange and mystical communion with God had granted him special power over both his own men and his enemies. His personal oddities now fueled the legend. Though James Longstreet was a good general and a resolute fighter, he was a prosaic and somewhat colorless human being. Jackson, by contrast—remote, silent, eccentric, and reserved, his hand raised in prayer in the heat of battle—suggested darkness and mystery and magic. Longstreet inspired respect; Jackson, fear and awe. (527)

Picture source

Some of Jackson’s traits would lead to his death, particularly his reticence at sharing information and his determination to press an advantage, often beyond logic. Shot by his own troops while examining their position in relation to the enemy, his left arm was amputated a week before he died (please check out the three-part story about Jackson’s arm at the Mysteries and Conundrums blog).

Gwynne spends some time explaining what I originally found a bold claim, that Jackson’s death “triggered the first national outpouring of grief for a fallen leader in the country’s history.” (556) I don’t know enough to accurately assess the claim, but Gwynne makes a compelling case.

I don’t believe you need to be extremely well versed in the U.S. Civil War history to fully appreciate and benefit from Gwynne’s book, although the more you know about it the better. For example, battles and events outside of Jackson's involvement (or indirectly affecting him) are only briefly mentioned. As I mentioned earlier, though, Gwynne makes it clear that the focus is on capturing the essence of Jackson, which means trying to understand the apparent transformation (or as he calls it in the title, the redemption) Jackson underwent. Even though I basically knew large parts of the relevant history, I still found myself enthralled, wanting to continue turning the pages to find out more about this fascinating character. Gwynne brings his subject to life and his battle descriptions are marvels of detail and action. Gwynne does a masterful job of exploring Jackson's many contradictions, objectively trying to understand both his successes and his failures. Very highly recommended.

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If you aren’t planning on reading the book but are interested in the subject, see Gwynne’s interview with C-SPAN. In the thirty-three minute interview Gwynne covers many of the major points of the book. At the risk of repeating myself, here are a few of his talking points:
  • Jackson excelled at maneuvering—getting his troops exactly where they needed to be exactly when they was needed. [Lee excelled at this, too, which made their pairing that much more remarkable.] Jackson also had the ability to get his troops to do remarkable things.
  • You can’t understand Jackson without understanding the role of religion in his life.
  • “Command” is what transformed men during the war. Braggarts turn into cowards because they couldn’t command. Jackson and Grant became who they did because they could command. As Gwynne uses it, “command” means the ability to make a command decision and be willing to be held accountable about it. With this gift of command, Jackson didn’t have to be the most charismatic man or the most gifted speaker.
  • Gwynne reinforces a comment from his book: “Jackson’s death was the first great outpouring of national grief for a fallen leader.” This demonstration was eclipsed two years later with death of Lincoln. Gwynne acknowledges its an unconventional view, but (in the book) he outlines his argument.
  • Jackson is fascinating, but that doesn’t guarantee sustained interest. The interest in him survives because:
    - he was the ultimate underdog ,both the man and his side,
    - he had a brilliant military mind,
    - “flawed” geniuses make for engaging stories, and
    - his redemption (from the title): not just a religious meaning, but he overcame his many limitations.

Also, Gwynne has a fun piece at Biographile titled ‘Never Take Counsel of Fear’: Leadership Lessons from Stonewall Jackson.

Update (15 March 2015): Another clip of Gwynne talking about the book, also at C-Span's Book TV. "S.C. Gwynne, author of Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, talked about his book and responded to viewer questions and comments. He was interviewed at the 2015 Tucson Festival of Books, held on March 14-15 on the campus of the University of Arizona."

3 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book Dwight.

I saw an interview with S. C. Gwynne about this work. It sounds very good. I never knew all that much about Jackson. It seems that he was a fascinating character.

Lisa Hayden Espenschade said...

My husband enjoyed this book a lot, too!

Dwight said...

Lisa, your husband has good taste. But we already knew that, right?

To say Jackson is fascinating is almost an understatement, and why I liked the book so much was because Gwynne explains his eccentricities and apparent contradictions so well. It's not a standard biography, and I'm fine with that. Gwynne is going for the essence of Jackson, or as he put it he included facts and analysis that best illuminated his subject.

Sadly I haven't read many of the books he recommends, so I hope to change that soon.