Rebel Yell


This is S. C. Gwynne’s biography of Lt. General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

The book is a very well-written biography of Jackson.  It’s easy to read, with the exception of a couple places where I wanted to throw it across the room, but overall a fairly good representation of the General.  What can you say when the author says that Robert E. Lee had been “a sort of glorified military sidekick” to Jefferson Davis? [p. 3]  In his discussion of Jackson’s tenure as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, Gwynne writes, “Jackson also taught artillery drill, at which he seemed only marginally more competent than he was as a science teacher.” [p. 15]  This is wrong.  In his masterful biography of Jackson, Professor James I. Robertson Jr. writes, “Those who heeded his instructions received the best artillery training the prewar South had to offer.  Many cadets later became outstanding Confederate cannoneers, thanks solely to the sometimes odd major who introduced them to the wonder of the big guns.” [James I. Robertson Jr., Stonewall Jackson:  The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, p. 124]  As Professor Robertson tells us in putting Jackson’s professorship in context, “Three overlooked considerations need to be inserted at this point.  First, Jackson entered a new and alien world at VMI.  The military was all he knew.  The complexities of simple society were beyond his knowledge.  Teaching was something he had done briefly and informally ten years earlier, and it had occurred in a borrowed room inside a mountain town rather than at a military academy.  In many ways, Jackson had more to learn than did the cadets, and learning for him was still a slow process.  Second, the overwhelming majority of stories, allegations, and anecdotes relative to Jackson came from fourth and third classmen: youngsters prone to exaggerate.  The tales were also first impressions that lingered until the rudiments of leadership Jackson sought to instill in them finally took root.  as often as not, those young cadets who most ridiculed Jackson became officers who begged to serve under his command in war.  They laughed at him in one decade; they died for him in the next.  Last, and contrary to popular legend, not all VMI cadets viewed Jackson as a character; and many of those who did were quick to put ability above eccentricity.” [Ibid., p. 125]  That, I think, is what really shows what’s missing from Gwynne’s account–historical perspective and context.  He weaves a fine tale of Jackson, but he lacks the historical analysis that should go with it.

Gwynne also repeats some historical myths.  He claims, “like most people in the United States of America in the year 1861, Jackson’s first loyalty was to his home state.” [p. 20]  Most Americans in 1861 did not hold their first loyalty was to their home state.  That’s a myth.  It’s true that many Americans, Jackson included, went with their home states, but most Americans in 1861 saw loyalty to the nation as primary.  Had they not, there wouldn’t have been enough soldiers to fight for the Union, because they would have recognized the opposing soldiers were simply fighting for their own home states, and there wouldn’t have been so many soldiers from the seceded states who fought for the Union.

Gwynne tries to insulate confederate soldiers from the “stain” of fighting for slavery.  “Those were the reasons the politicians, the statesmen, the newspaper editors, the lawyers, and the intellectuals went to war, anyway.  But they did not explain why the average soldier fought.  They were not the reasons Virginians such as Jackson and his fellow cadets would have given for wanting to fight Yankees.  Jackson had remained generally aloof from national politics.  As a slaveholder, he was aware of the congressional debate over slavery in the territories, but not deeply versed in it.  He was like many ordinary Virginians of his day: a moderate states’-rights Democrat who favored keeping Washington’s nose out of Virginia’s business and working within the Union to resolve differences.  He had no ideology; he was a Virginian.  The cadets he taught, moreover–part of that great mass of young men who would do most of the war’s fighting–would have had little understanding of the freakish political complexity of the Compromise of 1850, for example, which attempted to settle the question of slavery in what was essentially the entire American Southwest, plus California.  Most would have been unable to parse the meaning of ‘states’ rights’ in the federal Constitution, or fully grasp the reasons for the disastrous splintering of the Democratic Party in 1860–a carefully planned conspiracy intended to inspire Southern secession–which had guaranteed the victory of Abraham Lincoln.  Virginians were not stupid; they just had more provincial and personal views of the world than the men who rode to battle in the halls of Congress. Nor were the Virginians inclined as a whole to buy the idea, hawked loudly by the states of the lower South, that Lincoln’s election meant that the federal government was going to free the slaves and forcibly mix the two races. … Neither Jackson nor most of his fellow citizens in Lexington believed that the war was about staving off the immediate abolition of slavery.  By and large, they abhorred the idea of secession.” [pp. 21-22]  Poppycock.  His claim that Virginians didn’t understand what brought about the war is nonsense.  Rockbridge County, where Lexington was situated, had 23.1% of its population enslaved according to the 1860 Census.  To say that intelligent young men from mostly elite Virginia families, and their professors, in 1861 didn’t understand the national debates is a fairy tale.  Gwynne also doesn’t understand the factors behind Virginia’s secession.  He claims, “If the cadets who marched to Richmond with Thomas Jackson four days later had been asked why they were doing it, few would have replied that it was because of their convictions about slavery, or their beliefs about state sovereignty or any of the other great national questions that had been debated for so long.  They would have told you then–as most of Stonewall Jackson’s soldiers in the army of the Confederate States of America would have told you later–that they were fighting to repel the invaders, to drive the Northern aggressors from their homeland.  That was why Virginia went to war.” [p. 30]  Again, this is poppycock.  The most important factor driving Virginia to war was a belief that slavery was under attack and they couldn’t keep it safe without a war.  Certainly the immediate goal in April of 1861 to those cadets was that there would be a Federal army entering the state, since the state had joined the rebellion.  But to say that those college-educated young men didn’t realize the larger issues involved in the war is total and complete nonsense.  It’s historical chicanery.  Gwynne also claims, on page 46, that Jackson was an adherent of total war.  I suggest this means Mr. Gwynne doesn’t understand what total war entails.  He states that Joseph E. Johnston was the highest ranking US Army officer to go with the confederates.  Technically, that’s true, as Johnston was the Quartermaster General of the US Army and wore brigadier general stars in that capacity; however, that rank was a staff rank.  His line rank remained lieutenant colonel, and in that regard he was outranked by Robert E. Lee and others, which explains why he didn’t rank at the top of confederate generals.  Mr. Gwynne doesn’t appear to understand that distinction either.

In discussing Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott’s plan for subduing the confederacy, dubbed “The Anaconda Plan” by newspaper editors, Gwynne writes, “The idea was to squeeze the South to death.  It had merit–and indeed would be revisited by the Union later in the war.” [p. 59]  Not quite.  Scott’s plan was to limit the invasions of the confederacy to cutting it by marching an army down the Mississippi River.  The Overland Campaign and Sherman’s March, as well as the Tullahoma Campaign, the Forts Henry and Donelson Campaign, Shiloh, etc. all would not have taken place under Scott’s plan.

In discussing Jackson’s relationship to slavery, Gwynne writes, “Jackson’s relationship with his own slaves illustrates the relative complexity of a system that was often seen by Northerners in the stark terms portrayed in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. ” [p. 155]  I wonder if Mr. Gwynne has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as it portrays a variety of slaveowners who treated enslaved people in different ways, beginning with the Shelbys, who are portrayed as “benevolent” owners.

Likewise, Gwynne has a flawed view of Major General George B. McClellan, writing, “to give edge to all of this, he believed himself to be God’s chosen instrument on earth for the salvation of the Union.  He was so convinced of this that, later in the war, he was able to justify jeopardizing an entire Union army to advance his own interests.” [p. 163]  Here he’s referring to McClellan allegedly jeopardizing Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia in its battle against Lee at Second Manassas.  In this he misunderstand what McClellan was about.

Gwynne writes, “Though Jefferson Davis’s top generals in the East–Beauregard, Johnston, and G. W. Smith–pleaded with him to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia and order a northward advance, the Confederate president, like McClellan but for vastly different reasons, steadfastly refused.  There would be no great offensive strikes.  Instead, armies would be recruited and dispersed over a vast defensive perimeter–a theory of war, propounded by the famed military tactician and historian Antoine-Henri Jomini and studied closely at West Point, that favored the holding of cities and other real estate over the mass destruction of enemy armies.” [pp.170]  This makes it appear as though Davis read Jomini at West Point and was stuck in his West Point reading.  Davis graduated West Point in 1828, a full decade before Jomini published his book, Summary of the Art of War, and even longer before it was translated into English.  And it doesn’t appear that Mr. Gwynne has read Jomini, but is merely reproducing what someone else claims.

Even with those errors and others [such as claiming on page 571 that at Gettysburg Longstreet’s men “mounted the unsuccessful attack on the Confederate left on day two (including Little Round Top)”], the book is still a good read, and for the most part accurate.  Overall I ended up with a slightly positive view of the book.

If you want an accurate history of Jackson that delves deeply into his life and provides excellent historical analysis, this is not the book for you.  Instead, you should read James I. Robertson Jr.’s Stonewall Jackson:  The Man, the Soldier, the Legend.  If you’re only going to read one book on Jackson, that’s the book to read.  If you feel a need to read all things Jackson and are looking for a reasonably accurate and enjoyable read, then you’ll enjoy Mr. Gwynne’s work.

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