I have been listening lately as I drive about to an audio book, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by SC Gwynne. I purchased the audio book with a bit of diffidence since I have been studying Jackson for a half century now, and I thought I had little to learn about him, either as a man or as a general. I was wrong. In brilliantly written prose Gwynne has given me a better understanding of the evolution of Jackson throughout his life as both a human being and a soldier. Jackson in many ways was an odd duck. Often harsh and unyielding in matters of either military discipline or violations of his strict beliefs of right and wrong, Jackson was unfailingly kind and sweet in his personal relations with almost all the people he encountered in this Vale of Tears.
Most of us can act very differently under different circumstances, but Jackson was almost a different person depending upon how a person encountered him. As a general he could be a martinet who would refuse a subordinate during the Valley Campaign time to go to the bedside of his dying children, explaining that the needs of the service must always come first. However, he could then surrender his bed to a subordinate officer he did not like when he learned that the man was unwell. He shot men out of hand for desertion following swift military trials, and he could weep like a child upon learning of the death of a child he had known from Scarlet Fever. Suggesting at the beginning of the War that the Confederacy should raise the Black Flag and take no prisoners of invaders from the North, during the War he allowed Union surgeons to continue treating captured Union wounded and then freed them to return to their own lines. Ostensibly a man fighting to help the South preserve slavery, he founded a Sunday school for blacks in the teeth of resistance in his home town and taught blacks to read in violation of Virginia state law. A grim religious warrior who would have been at home in the ranks of Cromwell’s Ironsides during the English Civil War, he became a good friend of General Jeb Stuart, the embodiment of the Cavalier legend of the South. Complex has always been a word that pops into my mind when I think of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, and Gwynne holds up to the readers all of these contradictory facets of Jackson and manages the considerable feat of making his readers see the whole man behind them.
As a general, Gwynne provides several services to students of Jackson. First he gives a very clear exposition of the Valley Campaign. With all of its battles, skirmishes, marches and countermarches, too many accounts of the Shenandoah theater of operations in the Spring of 1862 leave readers as confused as the Union commanders who confronted Jackson and his Army of the Valley. Gwynne avoids this trap and explains to the reader the reasons behind the maneuvers and stratagems employed by Jackson that made him one of the Great Captains of history. He also brings to the forefront the hardships endured by Jackson and his men as they pulled off their military miracle and the impact that these hardships had on them, an important part of the story that is too often given short shrift by other historians and biographers of Jackson.
Gwynne then explains the disappointing role played by Jackson and his men in the Seven Days battles around Richmond, leaving readers in no doubt that major explanations for this were appallingly bad, or more often non-existent, maps of confusing terrain, overly ambitious plans by General Lee that required clock like precision by the many components of his new army, and the fact that Jackson and his men, after the concluded Valley Campaign, were simply exhausted.
Gwynne continues to give clear expositions of the remaining campaigns of Jackson: Second Manassas, Harper’s Ferry, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and that masterpiece of the military art, Chancellorsville, that removed Jackson from this world as he and his commander had perfected the most formidable partnership in American military history.
Gwynne manages the considerable feat of shedding new light upon one of the most studied men in American military history. He also reminds us why Jackson’s men sang about him during the War and named so many of their children after him following the War.