Gwynne, S.C. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, Scribner and Co., New York, 2014 (672pp.$35) 

His father was a failed everything, lawyer, merchant, and farmer in turn, and at an early age he and his beloved sister Laura were orphaned. Luckily, they had a place to go when a gaggle of bachelor uncles and one gentle step-grandmother took the pair into their comfortable home in northwestern Virginia (now the state of West Virginia), which was the center of a thriving milling business. Young Tom grew up roaming the countryside and doing chores, tending apple trees and horses, and learning to ride. Intense religious “awakenings” were scouring the country in those years (1820’s and 30’s) and Tom caught the fever. He spent his whole life in thrall to God, serving his will and subject to the fundamentalism of fated beliefs. As a young man he was rejected for West Point when another more qualified candidate got the appointment. When the qualified candidate dropped out a few weeks into his first term, Tom lobbied to take his place and was entered into the country’s premier engineering school.

How young Tom Jackson became a perfervid, flinty-eyed, and superbly self-confident military commander, the scourge of Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley—and Lee’s most trusted and competent lieutenant, is the subject of S.C. Gwynne’s new book, Rebel Yell. In a sea of Civil War books—biographies, military histories, political accounts, and overviews, Gwynne’s book stands out for its beautiful writing, its highly personalized research accomplishments (utilizing military archives, personal letters, memoir), and its lush detail, much of which will astonish the average reader. For example, Gwynne describes the usual Confederate mess served by Jackson’s quartermaster cooks while his Brigades marched up and down the valley, out-maneuvering a series of Union generals like Hooker, Burnside, McDowell and McClellan. Basic Confederate fare consisted of salt pork and cornmeal, what we’d now consider nasty stuff, often blue-colored and cloyingly salty, fatty meat admixed with hair, dirt and skin left on. On the march, these “corn dodgers” would be carried in leather haversacks after being cooked with grease and water. When times were hard on the march, and they often were, unpalatable “salt beef” made of organs, neck or head, would be chopped, stewed in water, and made into what the infantry called “salt horse” when mixed with cornmeal. Jackson’s men marched, fought, and died eating this stuff.

Rebel Yell isn’t about the rebel yell at all, but about Tom Jackson’s transformation from a rigid, uninteresting, completely dogmatic young man (considered the “worst teacher at VMI”) into a dynamic hero of the South, a general who understood the tactics and strategy of a new kind of war that was much more destructive and dangerous than the Mexican War in which he himself had won his spurs. In fact, it was a surprise to all concerned that the staid young religious fanatic who, as a second lieutenant, went to war in Mexico with Zachary Taylor, became a hero in battle, someone brave to the point of bravado, a natural leader of men despite his dogmatism, ethical rigidity, and God fever. During the Civil War, the man who’d become Stonewall for his stand like a “stone wall” at Manassas in 1861, prayed with pitiless abandon all day; he prayed at 3:00am; he prayed on his horse and prayed in the midst of battle. He wrote letters full of religious fervor to his second wife at home and he distributed Christian pamphlets to his men and arranged for preachers to give sermons to them in regimental camp. He genuinely feared that pride and excessive ambition would anger God and destroy the Confederacy. He wrote his pastor back home, Reverend William S. White, asking him to warn his congregation “if we fail to trust in God and give him all the glory, our case is ruined”. Nevertheless, he had no qualms about executing a man for desertion or cowardice, and regularly engaged in messy quarrels with peers and subordinates alike. According to Gwynne, “Perhaps no commander in the war was quite as isolated from common humanity as Jackson was.” He held no councils of war and shared almost no information with fellow commanders. On the other hand, Jackson loved his wife Anna and her love was returned to him tenderly.

Jackson was lucky too. In a time without adequate maps, his topographer Jedidiah Hotchkiss was a genius, providing Jackson with hastily drawn maps that put to shame anything the Union had at the time. His cavalry leaders were legendary. Men like J.E.B. Stuart and Turner Ashby come alive in Gwynne’s pages, along with dozens of other brilliant personalities.   In fact, the personalities, destruction, terror and loss of the Civil War strike the reader like a blow.

When Jackson was severely wounded in his hand, arm and neck by his own snipers during May 1863 after Chancellorsville (a great Confederate victory), he lingered for three days after having his arm amputated in a field hospital. When it was clear that Jackson would die, probably of blood poisoning and pneumonia, Robert E. Lee sent a note that read, “I wish it was me, sir.”

Rebel Yell is a masterful work of poplar history, though for the general reader some of the battle descriptions may prove taxing. Flanked by beautifully rendered maps, an excellent set of notes, and an entertaining collection of black and white photographs, Rebel Yell tells a uniquely American story.