BOOK REVIEW: 'Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson': The Truth is Even Stranger Than the Legend

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

One of my favorite quotations -- one that I've used before as a book review epigraph -- comes from the 1962 movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."  It's probably my favorite Western, with a marvelous cast, including the luminous Vera Miles.  (I had a crush on Ms. Miles, who played Marion Crane's sister in "Psycho").

BOOK REVIEW: 'Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson': The Truth is Even Stranger Than the Legend

The quotation comes at the end of the John Ford-helmed film, starring John Wayne and James Stewart: Stewart plays idealistic  lawyer Ransom Stoddard, who is credited with killing bully and all-round bad guy Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. (Spoiler) Valance was actually killed by rancher Tom Doniphon, played to perfection by Wayne,  firing at the same time as the novice shooter Ranse Stoddard. The exchange occurs decades later, at the funeral of Doniphon, where newspaper editor Maxwell Scott, learning who killed Valance,  decides to stick with the original story -- that Stoddard killed Valance:

Ransome Stoddard: You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

Maxwell Scott:  No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In the case of Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson (1824-1863) so much of the legend has become fact that it was with delight that I read S.C. Gwynne's "Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson" (Scribner, 688 pages, illustrations, notes, appendixes, bibliography, $35.00). 

I've reviewed many books on the Civil War, and this is far and away the best biography of a Civil War general that  I've read. Gwynne's book represents research on a monumental scale -- befitting a man who is immortalized on an actual monument, the Stone Mountain (GA) one, along with Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

"Rebel Yell" is about transformation, Austin, TX, resident Gwynne said in an interview published in his hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman. Gwynne was particularly struck by how Thomas J. Jackson went from being an eccentric and unsuccessful science professor at Virginia Military Institute (VMI)  to becoming the skilled general leading the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley campaign -- in a mere 14 months.

If I had to pick any place in Virginia to live, I'd probably pick Lexington. I've been there and, along with Blacksburg, it's one of my favorite towns in the Old Dominion. In addition to Washington and Lee University, the town of only 7,000 is also home to VMI. Both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried in Lexington.

Born in Clarksburg, VA, (later West Virginia), Jackson lacked the aristocratic lineage of Robert E. Lee, but he ended up being the general Lee trusted the most. 

One of the legends of the Civil War is that all of the Confederate generals were outstanding -- exemplifying what today could be called the "Lake Woebegone Effect."  Gwynne explodes that myth by describing incompetent Rebel generals who were almost as bad as Union commander George B. McClellan (1826-1885).  Many of the colleagues -- and opponents -- of Jackson like him served in the Mexican War.

I knew that Jackson came from what later (June 20, 1863) became West Virginia, the only state that seceded from an existing state,  but I wasn't aware of all the details of his upbringing and family. I didn't know that his sister, Laura Jackson Arnold, was loyal to the Union. In the appendix entry on what became of the characters in the book after the war, Gwynne notes that Laura became one of two women awarded membership in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Union veterans association. She died at age 80 in Buckhannon, WV in 1911.

Gwynne's portraits of the generals who fought with and against Jackson are worth the price of the book. I kept thinking that if Lincoln had picked fellow Illinoisan U.S. Grant from the start, the war would have been over in a few months. (Yes, I know that Grant was an Ohio native and Lincoln was born in Kentucky, but it was in Illinois that that both men achieved their fame). 

Displayed in the campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley and later at both battles of Bull Run (Manassas to the Confederates);  Antietam (Sharpsburg to the Confederates};  Fredricksburg,  and his final battle, Chancellorsville, Jackson's tactics struck fear into the hearts of the Union generals who opposed him, often  to the point where they considered him almost supernatural. Jackson also impressed foreign visitors and military observers, especially those from England. If you extrapolate enough, Stonewall Jackson was a big influence on Union generals as diverse as George H. Thomas and William T. Sherman.

Stonewall Jackson was shot on May 2, 1863, during the battle of Chancellorsville, by Confederate pickets. His left arm was amputated and he had injuries in his right arm. At first he appeared to be on the road to recovery, but his condition worsened and he died of pneumonia on May 10, 1863. He was only 39 years old. His last words were: "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees." 

Gwynne doesn't indulge in hagiography; Jackson's faults are covered. He was a deeply religious Presbyterian, a deacon even, but often his faith made him judgmental, blowing up incidents to the point where they seemed to be coming from a madman. His 1851 altercation with a fellow army officer named French in a military post in central Florida (today's Polk County) named, ironically after Union general George Meade, the hero of Gettysburg, is a case in point. He saw French walking one day with a young female servant and jumped to the conclusion that his fellow officer was an adulterer. 

Gwynne devotes considerable space to this and other incidents showing the judgmental beyond belief Jackson.  Stonewall Jackson was quick to censure officers under his command, often ruining their careers for reasons that seem to be trivial. On the other hand, this enigmatic man was a loving husband to his first wife, Elinor "Ellie" Junkin Jackson -- who died in childbirth --  and later to his second wife, Anna, the mother of his only surviving child, Julia.

If you're a Civil War buff -- as I am -- or if you're just interested in wonderful biographies --as I am -- "Rebel Yell" is a must-read book. It reads like a novel, but it's based on extensive beyond belief research.


S.C. Gwynne
S.C. Gwynne

About the Author

S.C. "Sam" Gwynne is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared extensively in Time, for which he worked as bureau chief, national correspondent and senior editor from 1988 to 2000, and in Texas Monthly, where he was executive editor. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and California Magazine. His previous book "Outlaw Bank" (co-authored with Jonathan Beaty) detailed the rise and fall of the corrupt global bank BCCI. He's also the author of the best-selling "Empire of the Summer Moon." He attended Princeton and Johns Hopkins and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Katie and daughter Maisie.