September’s most scintillating read may be a 640-page biography of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—and that’s no knock on the current crop of back-to-school books. S.C. Gwynne’s riveting retelling of the canny Confederate whose strategies shaped the early years of the Civil War is just that good.
In Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, Gwynne, author of the New York Times bestseller Empire of the Summer Moon, again displays a considerable talent for commanding readers’ attention, honed by 25 years’ experience writing for the likes of Time Magazine and Texas Monthly.
“My audience was a general interest audience, and I thought of them as being very intelligent, but not necessarily expert. I’ve got to sell them—tell them what I’m writing about, tell them why and be clear. If you write well, you can make the story of a Confederate general just as interesting as Kim Kardashian’s love life,” he says.
Rebel Yell distinguishes itself from more traditional biographies by thrusting readers directly into the action—as opposed to beginning with Jackson’s birth or ancestry. It opens on June 18, 1862, in the second year of the Civil War, as Charlottesville, Virginia buzzes with grey-suited troops and anxious residents. Confederate congressman Alexander Boteler espies Jackson from a train platform, offering readers their first glimpse of the legendary man:
“Then he spotted, amid the roar and the hubbub on the station platform, the lone figure seated on a bench in the postal car, behind the tender. Considering what the man looked like, it was amazing that Boteler—or anyone else, for that matter—noticed him at all. He wrote a tattered, faded, and mud-flecked uniform whose shoulders had been bleached yellow by the sun, large artillery boots, and a soiled cap pulled down across the bridge of his nose so that much of his face was obscured. His hair was long and his beard unkempt. He was what most of the thousands of people who saw him and later recorded their observations might have called nondescript,” Gwynne writes.
Mere months earlier, Jackson had been an unpopular physics professor at a rural Virginia military institute—one who proposed a national day of prayer to stave off impending war. But by the summer of 1862, he was one of the Confederacy’s most heralded generals, fully committed to conquering Union forces, and doing so more often than not. “Using a combination of speed, deception, and sheer audacity, Jackson, with 17,000 men (and often far fewer), had taken on and beaten Union forces that, though never united, totaled more than 52,000. He marched his men at a pace unknown to soldiers of the day, covering an astounding 646 miles in 48 days, fighting five major battles, and skirmishing almost daily.... 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,” he writes.
Those same qualities had taken Jackson, an orphan from the backwoods of Virginia, all the way to West Point, where he graduated in the top third of his class. “He had a hillbilly's’ education. When you look at his education compared to most of the other students, it would have been the equivalent of going from fifth-grade math right into high school,” Gwynne says.
Jackson went on to earn accolades for his service in the Mexican-American War before assuming the professorship and, finally, control of substantial Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee. Gwynne intersperses accounts of Jackson’s battles with details of his civilian life: a loving brother, husband and father, he always gave credit to god for his personal and professional triumphs.
When Jackson is felled by friendly fire, resulting in the amputation of an arm and eventual death, both North and South mourn his loss. “The way the North reacted to his death was very interesting: he had a lot of fans up there, people who had respect for the man. They said fighting against Jackson was second to having fought under him,” says Gwynne.
He hopes Rebel Yell helps make the case for considering Jackson as not only a Confederate hero, but an American one. “There’s nothing Confederate about me, so I don’t have any natural sympathies there, but it was an interesting experience for me to look at Jackson, as objectively as I could, and start to see him as a great hero of his generation. The Confederacy was a nation, and it was part of America—it’s not them, it’s us—and I see him as a major American hero,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.