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  • Writer's pictureJulie Mackin

Like a Stone Wall

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne

If You're Cranking and You Know It, Raise Your Hand

Stars: 4.5/5


Even after I finished the book, it always takes me a minute to remember Stonewall Jackson’s real first name. It is hard to think of the man as anything but Stonewall, his legend has continued to grow over a hundred and fifty years. It started at the first Battle of Manassas, continued as he swept through the Shenandoah Valley and was cemented at Chancellorsville. He struck fear into the hearts of the Northern soldiers and their commanders. Would the Civil War have lasted as long as it did if he hadn’t died? If he had survived and led a charge at Gettysburg, would the Army of Northern Virginia have continued to move north, causing Lincoln to eventually sue for peace? We will never know, but regardless, as S.C. Gwynne’s biography shows, Jackson changed the war and the war changed him.

Gwynne is an entertaining writer and his biography is fast paced; he gives a detailed account of Jackson’s life, his childhood, his time at West Point, his command in the Mexican American War and his time as the Natural Philosophy professor at VMI. Gwynne’s Jackson is a man of contradictions. With women and close friends he was open and natural, a soft spoken joker and man of God. With his male contemporaries he could be quiet, taciturn, uptight, priggish and downright rude. Jackson Presbyterianism made him a man with his own strict moral code and it did not do to cross it or him. The godly image of Jackson is not a new one and it is hard not to see similarities with modern day evangelists: Stonewall atop Little Sorrell, hand in the air, praising God, attributing every success to his creator and believing that he can ride through a hail of bullets because “God has fixed the time of my death.” Still there is an inherent contradiction in his religious zeal that should be apparent in any history of the Civil War. How can a man so aligned with God have supported slavery, how does he condone his involvement in the war on the side of the South? Over the years Jackson never personally owned more than six slaves and he even set up a Bible school for blacks at his Presbyterian Church and taught them to read, much to the horror of some of the citizens of Lexington. How does he reconcile all this with fighting for a cause that wants to maintain an institution that enslaves human beings? For sure Jackson was from Virginia, but he was raised in that part of the state that seceded and stayed with Union. In fact, Jackson’s beloved sister, Laura, chose the Northern side and broke off all contact with her brother, something that hurt him tremendously. Gwynne doesn’t address the issue in great detail, maybe because Jackson never said much himself. Still, this omission, and the fact that Gwynne rarely lays the blame for anything at Jackson’s feet, tips the scales into hagiography at times. To that end, when Gwynne steps away from Jackson a bit, we get great vignettes of the other characters in the Civil War. One of my favorite aspects of the book was Gwynne’s examination of the other generals, both Union and Confederate. Almost every major general was a product of West Point and many of them were classmates. How each took what they had learned and applied it to battle is fascinating. I loved getting an understanding about the whole culture that the Civil War generals came from. And it gave a great insight into Jackson’s character and the sheer determination he exhibited in getting into and staying at West Point. He had little respect for many of his fellow classmates while he was there, feelings that lingered well into the war. Gwynne’s discussions of McClellan, Lee, McDowell, A.P. Hill and Beauregard in battle, and their relationships to Jackson, added to the understanding of the war. S.C. Gwynne draws an amazing character, one with depth and hidden talents. Thomas Jackson goes from one of the worst teachers at VMI, despised by his students, to the tactical genius of the South, admired by his men, even when he leads them on forced marches through the mountains in bitter cold and snow. Jackson’s rise is in many ways miraculous. And his death at after the Battle of Chancellorsville allowed him to exit the stage while still at the height of his fame. Had he lived through the entire war his star might have fallen, his genius might have been questioned. But he died young and he died in his prime, leaving him a legend that even Northerners admired.

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