"Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy" were the words that drove Stonewall Jackson, one of the most famous generals in the Civil War's Confederate Army. S.C. Gwynne's new book, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, tells Jackson's story in an engaging narrative with a pace that never flags.
Born to parents who died early, Jackson and his sister had to live through a lot of uncertainty as children but were ultimately well-cared for by an uncle who ran a grist mill in what is today West Virginia. There was not much opportunity for them to attend school however. Thomas Jackson was accepted to West Point only after another local fellow dropped out suddenly, and Jackson made it his job to catch up and keep up at West Point. He ultimately did well academically, but that success did not follow him into the work world. His early career--that of teaching at Virginia Military Institute--was undistinguished. Students and faculty found him odd and dull, and his class was not one the young men liked.
Grew To Be Legendary Hero
This background made it all the more remarkable that he was to become a legendary leader who could rouse crowds and motivate brigades to do what was necessary during wartime. Second only to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson would top any list of those who accomplished remarkable feats for the South during the Civil War. As a very religious man, he always brushed off any praise given him and insisted that the credit was not his but belonged to the Almighty.
Gwynne, whose first book, Empire of the Summer Moon was among the finalists for a Pulitzer Prize, does a superb job of making the battlefield movements of the Union and the Confederate soldiers very clear, despite a constantly changing group of commanders who move in and out of action with their troops.
Through Gwynne's descriptions we see how well Jackson could "read" a battlefield. Jackson was constantly sizing up the terrain, the goals for both sides, and the strengths and weaknesses of the general who would be leading the resistance against him. Jackson was often up against the Union's General George McClellan, who was excellent at managing his brigades but was exceedingly cautious at taking them into battle. Jackson recognized this and constantly used it to his advantage -- he could rapidly get his men into position for a surprise attack, all while McClellan was considering what to do.
Since speed was key in moving his men in order to carry out the element of surprise, Jackson set a punishing pace for his men. One artilleryman recalled that at the Battle of the First Manassas, they were "running ... like panting dogs with flopping tongues, with our mouths and throats full of the impalpable red dust of that red clay country, thirsting for water almost unto death."
However, as Jackson and his Stonewall Brigade began to succeed, others said: "Stonewall Jackson's men will follow him to the devil." (His nickname occurred early in the war when one of the Confederate generals, in describing his actions during a battle, said: "There stood Jackson like a stone wall.")
Jackson's Secret Weapon
One other aspect that heavily contributed to Jackson's successes was a secret weapon... his cartographer. Traveling with him was Jed Hotchkiss, one of the best cartographers in the country. While other generals (both Union and Confederate) sometimes had to rely on incomplete or out-of-date maps, Hotchkiss was always moving forward to make certain his general had the best information possible.
While Jackson's troops respected him highly, they never saw him as a friend or father figure. He was highly religious, prayed often, rarely slept, had very strange eating habits, and never socialized with the men. Yet on occasion, he would express heartfelt concern about someone's family, and he truly loved his own wife and the baby daughter born to them during the War. That said, the Cause always came first; even if an officer had sick family members, they were commanded to stay with their brigade to serve the Confederacy.
Ultimately, Jackson's quite amazing string of successes made him seem indomitable. His mere arrival at a battlefield would lift Confederate spirits and bring forth the call that became known as the "rebel yell." His stature was also known in the North. Following Jackson's victory at Cedar Mountain, Jackson came out of his tent after a meeting with some other commanders, and he saw a Union prisoner standing behind his horse. The prisoner was plucking hairs out of Little Sorrel's tail.
Gwynne writes: "Jackson asked in a soft voice, 'why are you tearing the hair out of my horse's tail?' The prisoner, doffing his hat replied, 'Ah, General, each one of these hairs is worth a dollar in New York.'"
Highly Readable Narrative
Gwynne accomplishes a great deal in his clear and highly readable book, Rebel Yell, and since its publication by Scribner on September 30, it is already ranking among the top-selling books on the New York Times bestseller list.
If you read everything about the Civil War -- or if you have read very little about the Civil War -- Rebel Yell: The Violence Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson is an excellent addition to your reading list. The book will add enlightenment to the knowledgeable reader, and it will serve as a superb introduction to the person who has not read extensively in this field.
To read additional stories of the Civil War -- from the early signal corps of the era to the start of embalming of the dead -- visit www.americacomesalive.com