Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne
(Scribner, 2014, hardback)
Quote (6) summarizes Jackson’s quick rise to fame:
“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 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.” (Describes transformations of Grant and Sherman.)
“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.”
(13) The Civil War gave many Americans “a new and joyous sense of clarity and purpose.”
(14) Examples of Jackson’s literal and unquestioning following/interpretation of orders
Major Thomas J. Jackson:
- recognized as an incompetent science teacher at VMI. Six years earlier (1855) the school’s alumni tried to fire him
- Orphaned at age seven
- Poor childhood education
- West Point graduate
- Commander of group of VMI cadets sent to Richmond to help drill raw recruits (immediately after attack at Fort Sumpter)
- A host of physical ailments
(15) Jackson could be “charitably described as a comfortable mediocrity: a decent enough man, charmless, eccentric, an upstanding Christian and good citizen who, unfortunately, was an inept teacher.”
(16) Record in Mexican-American War: his commanding general, Winfield Scott, had praised Jackson.
(17) Those with experience in war, including Jackson, realized how terrible a war would be. “He understood it [war] at some primal, visceral level that escaped almost everyone else.” Opposed secession.
His first wife Anna and her sister (Maggie Preston) spoke of Jackson’s abhorrence of war. Talking to his pastor, the Reverend White: “It is painful to discover with what unconcern they speak of war, and threaten it…They do not know its horrors. I have seen enough of it to make me look upon it as the sum of all evils.”
What swayed Jackson to join the Confederate cause? Duty, and a belief that God would avert the war.
(19) A harder edge: hoping a war would cause the North to stop. If Virginia was invaded, he was willing “to defend it with terrific resistance—even to taking no prisoners.” A complex view of the coming war, in part subject to propaganda (such as the North inciting slaves to insurrection). A volatile mix of beliefs.
(20) Unquestioning loyalty to state. Gwynne gives an excellent summary of the causes of the U.S. Civil War. (expansion of slavery in new states instead of the abolition of it) Reasons the politicians, etc. went to war, but not “explain why the average soldier fought.” John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—stated goals, initial distance by Northern press. (24) Jackson’s VMI cadets provided security at Brown’s execution. (25) Brown’s trial changed everything, mostly Northern perception of Brown. The sympathy expressed caused disbelief in the South, completely changing the way they viewed Northern sentiment and intent. Favorable reaction to Brown was viewed as an endorsement of his beliefs. (27) Lincoln’s election prompts seven states to immediately secede.
(29) One transformation of Jackson: his address to VMI cadets after they were berated for their clash with pro-Union crowds in Lexington. He exhorted: “The time for war has not yet come, but it will come, and that soon. And when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.”
(33) 1,200 West Point graduates fit for service at beginning of 1861. 300 were in the South.
Jackson was viewed as having modest (and eccentric) talents.
(40) Jackson’s command at Harper’s Ferry, transforming a social event to war training—discipline, adherence to a strict military code. Generated impressive changes. Turned out to be a master at logistics, stocking the Confederacy with materials.
(61) Responsibility / Command: Robert Patterson (Union General)—not afraid to fight, but afraid of the responsibility…the potential shame following any potential setback. “It was all about blame.”
Politics: generals jockeying for position. Personal glory vs. tactical victories.
(79) Jackson’s outlook: outcomes rested in the hands of God, men were only God’s instruments.
(86) At Manassas/Bull Run, Jackson made an unorthodox choice of defensive position. Worked.
(91-2) The first use of the rebel yell at Manassas (under Jackson): started with Jackson’s men, whom he told to “yell like furies.”
(123) Idiosyncrasies: awkward, shy, not a public speaker, stubborn. His determination to try and speak was embarrassing.
(126)Raising of his arm in battle: convinced one side was larger than the other, so he would raise an arm to “lighten it.” Was this what was seen in battle instead of him raising his arm in prayer?
“Though Jackson was in no sense naïve, there is a simplicity and a purity about him—almost a sweetness, seen from the perspective of 160 years—that belies portrayals of him as nothing but an oddball and a crank, and a dour one at that. His behavior was never mean-spirited, never sullen or gloomy, and he rarely indulged a bad mood. Though he was stern, he was always polite, and almost always pleasant to those around him. People who did not know him well could not guess that his reticence in social situations grew from deeply held Christian principles. They could not understand that his often pathetic yet ultimately successful attempts at public speaking rose from personal principle and a conviction that he could overcome obstacles by sheer force of will. Thus he remained, for most people in Lexington in his early years there, a man imprisoned in the elaborate, codified, and highly idiosyncratic personality he had created for himself.”
(132) Rogue character trait: problems with authority, especially if they were critical of him.
“But he was not what he seemed. 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.”
(170) Jackson advocated total war from the beginning, taking the fight directly to the North. Jeff Davis, though, believed in holding land.
(174) Jackson found “the South’s indolence in the days after Manassas to be ‘the darkest period of our struggle.’”
(175) Promoted to Major General and given command of the “Valley District” (the Shenandoah Valley). This after almost being completely ignored at the start of the war.
A transformation, but not always a successful one. His Romney expedition highlighted what he had to put up with (delays by others, making things worse) and some of his own weaknesses (naiveté, at least initially, and unrelenting nature).
“But in a very different sense, Romney was enormously telling. It was not about conquest as much as it was about command, and the exercise of it by a new general in a new war that was being invented minute by minute. The Romney Expedition witnessed the emergence of an extreme style of leadership that posed for the first time a question central to the outcome of the war: Just how far could you push both officers and common soldiers in pursuit of military goals? What the Confederates had done was no ordinary march. Jackson had forced his men to walk more than one hundred miles through a succession of brutal winter storms, high winds, ice, mud, and temperatures that stayed well below freezing. In spite of repeated protests from his officers, conditions that worsened as they marched, and troops with frozen, bleeding, bare feet, he held fast to his objective. He had imposed his will on an army of highly individualistic American volunteers and militiamen, who had freely given their allegiance to their country. They did not see themselves—indeed, could not imagine themselves—as blunt, unthinking instruments of death. The war they had enlisted in had begun as an exercise in glory and freedom. Under Jackson, it began to look more like grim servitude. Many of the men and officers in Loring’s command thought Jackson was literally crazy. He was, in fact, just slightly ahead of the soldiers’—and the nations’—perception of what this pitiless war was all about, and just exactly how much raw suffering and death lay in the path of victory.”
(192) This was a war that would not be won by conventional thought, “favoring certain individuals who did not play the game by conventional rules.”
(218) Jackson still made mistakes but was “quickly learning his trade.”
(223) Battle of Kernstown: Dueling motivations/fears: Jackson realizes he can’t win, but a stalemate would accomplish Johnston’s orders. Union Colonel N. Kimball realized he could possibly lose.
Technological improvements killing and destruction:
- rifles (vs. muskets)
- minié balls (vs. round balls)
- cannons with rifled bores
Uneven adoption / availability between the North and South. Tactics slowly updated to reflect the new technologies.
(236) “Jacskon clung ever more resolutely to the twin pillars of his life: God and duty.”
(237-8) Ben Butler (Union general) came up with an approach to approach the slaves instead of returning them to their owners (takes seceded states at their word that they were a foreign country). Led to the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862.
(244) Relationship with Robert E. Lee begins. Two very different men, but worked well together. Jackson had largely been on his own during the Valley campaign. Now would be subordinate…but Lee would give Jackson great leeway in carrying out his orders, as well as value his ideas.
(258-9) Jacson’s dissatisfaction with Richard Brooke Garnett (commander of the Stonewall Brigade). Relieves him of command and arrests him. Would be a blueprint for how Jackson would handle subordinates he didn’t like, usually because of their hesitation during battle or some other act viewed as insubordination.
(260) Was Jackson using Garnett as scapegoat for the loss at Kernstown. Or an honest commitment to punishing what he saw as important transgressions?
(263) Reassignment of Turner Ashby (cavalry) caused him to resign. Ashby wouldn’t withdraw his resignation, so Jackson rescinded his orders.
(264-5) Jackson hired Jedediah Hotchkiss to make a complete map of the Shenandoah. One of Jackson’s best hires.
(270) Contradictions: insubordination by Jackson (in his order to attack Banks). “It was the sort of act for which Jackson would have automatically have court-martialed one of his own officers.”
(288) Jackson caused panic; Union generals feared phantom armies moving on their positions. Scenes of many future encounters—even later when exact troop numbers were known.
“Something else had taken place, too, at Winchester, something less tangible though quite as real as the battle itself. The moment of victory also marked the birth of the legend of Stonewall Jackson, of the idea of the man as warrior and hero that would soon loom much larger than the man himself. What the Confederacy had desperately needed, in a war it was obviously losing, was a myth of invincibility, proof that their notions of the glorious, godly, embattled, chivalric Southern character were not just romantic dreams. Proof that with inferior resources it could still win the war. Jackson, in his brilliant, underdog valley campaign, had finally given it to them. His personal eccentricities, his often brutal treatment of his own men and officers, his devout and zealous Christianity—all would from now on be seen as the attributes of genius. His dazzling stand at First Manassas would be seen in this new light. No one on either side of the Civil War would ever look at him the same way again. “
Jackson’s successes and constant attacks in the Valley campaign confounded Lincoln’s plans to fully attack Richmond.
(327) Port Royal: an insane victory, but everyone now realized that Richmond was and should be the focus. Even so, Jackson had just avoided a trap that Lincoln had laid for him. Instead of slipping away, Jackson had turned north to face the full brunt of the regional Union troops.
(331) Jackson’s accomplishments and reputation to date (June 9, 1862) . Quote:
“Jackson was suddenly famous. In spite of his heroics at Manassas, he had until late May 1862 been little more than a catchy nickname operating in the back alleys of Virginia. His troubled winter march on Romney was not much of a credential, nor was his defeat at Kernstown, in spite of its grand political and military repercussions. McDowell was a small-scale dustup on a mountain in a part of the country few had ever heard of. Jackson’s victory at Winchester changed all that. His back-to-back victories over two Union armies two weeks later confirmed—if anyone needed more proof—that he hadn’t just been lucky. Now, a little more than a month after his first win at McDowell, his name was pulsing through the nation’s arteries as the great new military genius of the South. The agents of this transformation were largely the Virginia newspapers, whose stories were circulated and reprinted all over the Confederacy and who, desperate for good tidings in that hopeless spring, loudly trumpted the news: with less than 17,000 troops (and sometimes far less), Jackson had taken on and routed 52,000 troops in three Union armies. He had inflicted 4,600 casualties (killed, wounded, or captured), seied 9,000 small arms and a vast move of Union supplies, and had kept more than 40,000 Federal troops from joining McClellan in front of Richmond. In five battles and many smaller engagements from March 23 to June 9, he had marched his men 646 miles, knocked the entire Union war plan in the eastern theater off balance, and had done it all at a cost of 2,750 men. In the late spring of that year he was very likely the most famous soldier in the world.”
(333) Jackson’s renown and contradictions. Quote:
“Exactly who this new celebrity was, was harder to say. Though his men cheered him loudly when he rode by and boasted of his genius in letter home, they were also painfully aware of how hard they had been used, and how many of the comrades—nearly a third of his force—had simply fallen away, unable or unwilling to follow. And yet this seemingly pitiless man with so little apparent sympathy for human suffering was also a devout Christian. He prayed in his tent and in the woods at 3:00 a.m. He prayed on his horse and prayed on his horse and prayed in the midst of battle. He encouraged his men to attend religious services, distributed Christian pamphlets, and arranged for preachers to give sermons in the regimental camps. Christians especially took note that he insisted on giving God cred for his victories and even refused to read newspapers that proclaimed his own renown. This was not mere convention or pro forma humility. He genuinely feared that pride and excessive ambition would anger God and destroy the Confederacy. “
(334) His kindness was remarkable, too.
(335) Appointment of Robert E. Lee after Johnston’s wounding: “Though no one suspected it at the time, Davis had made what was probably the single most important decision of the war, on either side.”
Other Civil War battles Jackson wasn’t a part of may be mentioned, but little detail provided other than a cursory nod to the overall picture.
“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.”
(352-3) Lee’s plans to defend Richmond were extremely risky. The Union occupied excellent defensive positions, and splitting the army to press Union troops left a token force to actually defend the city.
(359-60) Jackson criticized for his lack of engagement during the Seven Days Campaign. Gwynne puts Jackson’s problems and orders in perspective. Even so, Jackson’s actions were strange. How much did physical exhaustion feed into this?
(404) Facing Banks at Cedar Mountain. Jackson’s men begin to retreat. Quote:
“Jackson wheeled again, and galloped back into the murderous heart of the battle—the place in the woods where Garnett’s brigade had been driven back. Now, his blue eyes blazing and his face aglow as if possessed, the hatless major general rallied his troops. He reached for his saber but the scabbard was so rusted he could not draw it out. So he unsnapped the scabbard and, brandishing it, used the flat of it on the heads and shoulders of retreating troops, urging them to stop and turn around. A few moments later he took hold of a battle flag and raised it over his head, dropping the reins to do so, and continued his ride forward toward the front, holding both saber and flag aloft. As he did so he shouted to the men.”
(415) Second Manassas
26-mile march (with artillery) to get behind Pope. Brilliant, but bordered on suicidal. Jackson usually was able to accurately measure those he faced and take advantage of their timidity.
(416) “Pope would always have trouble perceiving the obvious.”
(441) Halleck, like other half-hearted generals, tried to have things both ways: appease officers while focusing on defensive inaction.
(445) It helped that Jackson and Lee faced a Union Army marked by “arrogance, jealousy, and hatred” of each other.
(449-50) Celebrity and Jackson. Foreign (especially British and French) interest in the war. They wanted southern cotton. Neither country believed the North could win after Second Manassas.
Seizure of Harpers Ferry.
(467) At Antietam men “became mere feral killing machines.”
(472) Jackson at Antietam: “Transfigured with the joy of battle”
(473) He felt “God would protect him and that no harm would befall him.”
Antietam: showed Jackson could work within army command as well as independently. Also demonstrated the brilliance of Lee and the hesitancy of McClellan.
(486) Jackson found fame gratifying, but battled it “with a combination of flight and prayer.”
(487) Jackson’s approach to inserting religion into the troops. Also (514) for his push for chaplains in the army.
(501-2) After Fredericksburg, Gwynne comments on the fine difference between failure and success in Civil War battles. Quote:
“Ambrose Burnside, stubborn till the end, wanted to personally lead an attack of his 9th Corps the next day, but was talked out of it by his generals. Though he 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.”
(503) The brutal approach of Jackson.
After Fredericksburg, Gwynne demonstrates the occasional kindness of Jackson. As usual, though, it’s tempered with his brutal approach to war. Jackson has been to see one of his generals (Maxcy Gregg) wounded in the battle. Quote:
“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.”
(520) Hooker’s most important move—firing Pinkerton and starting the Bureau of Military Information, gaining accurate counts of opposing forces (for a change)
(527) The shadow Jackson cast. Quote:
“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.
Chancellorsville: absolutely brilliant tactics overcoming the North’s superior numbers and excellent position. Planned by both Lee and Jackson, with Jackson calling a few audibles that made a huge difference. Jackson’s March in the wilderness captured Jackson’s military career as general: audacious, defying opponents’ expectations, pressing an advantage (sometimes too far), etc.
The last point, though, would be the cause of his death, travelling at night in front of his lines in order to scope out his opponents. His lack of communication would play a major factor in his death, too.
(556) Religious aspect. Is God on our side? If God was responsible for Jackson’s victories, was his death a rebuke from God? Jackson was seen as vital to the South’s chances of survival.
(556) Gwynne’s claim. Quote:
“Jackson triggered the first great national outpouring of grief for a fallen leader in the country’s history.”
Gwynne’s interview with C-SPAN:
“S.C. Gwynne talked about his book, Rebel Yell: the Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, about the life of the physics professor from West Virginia who went on to become a Confederate general during the U.S. Civil War.”
Gwynne makes the point that Jackson excelled at maneuvering…getting his troops exactly where they needed to be exactly when it was needed. This was closely followed up with his 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. Jackson and Grant became who they became. “Command” means the ability to make a command decision and be 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 the comment in 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.
Jackson is fascinating, and interest in him survives because:
- He was the ultimate underdog (both the man and his side)
- Brilliant military mind
- “Flawed” geniuses make for engaging stories
- Redemption (in title): not just religious meaning, but overcame his limitations
Bibliography—a few of the works Gwynne recommends:
Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign by Petter Cozens
First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence and Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas, both by John Hennessy
Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic and Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain, both by Robert K. Krick. Gwynne notes that Krick has written a number of good essays
Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester and We are in for It! The First Battle of Kernstown, both by Gary Ecelbarger
Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles by Brian K. Burton
Chancellorsville and Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, both by Stephen W. Sears
A few online sources are mentioned, too:
Civil War Academy
The Battle of Gaines' Mill: Then & Now, an interview with Bobby Krick
The Seven Days Battles: Robert E. Lee's Effect on the War, by William J. Miller
Review of “Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School” by Rickey E. Pittman; Illustrated by Lynn Hosegood (I couldn't find the article Gwynne mentioned, but this post looked like a good substitute)
Weaponry: The Rifle-Musket and the Minié Ball (again, another substitute)
Jackson is with You! The Battle of Cedar Mountain
War on Horseback
One resource I could not find a live link to was Mark Grimsley's "How to Read a Civil War Battlefield"