Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is such an iconic military figure that he is legendary to Civil War scholars and schoolchildren alike. So it’s hard to imagine an author breaking new ground with another Jackson biography. But S.C. Gwynne does just that in Rebel Yell, which deserves comparisons to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War for its depth of knowledge and graceful narrative. Gwynne, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Empire of the Summer Moon, casts Jackson as a human being, not as a bronze figure towering over a battlefield. Readers will come away from Rebel Yell with an understanding of the man that goes beyond his military exploits.
Gwynne is obligated to cover familiar territory, as when Thomas Jackson earned his nickname by standing his ground against superior Union forces at the First Battle of Manassas. A fellow Confederate general shouted, “Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jackson’s military prowess is impressive, but it is glimpses of Stonewall off the battlefield that are more fascinating. We learn that Jackson was a complex character with any number of quirks and tics. He was deeply religious and placed his fate in the hands of God. Thus, while he lived by the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” once the South declared war, he pledged his loyalty and felt that any death he caused was God’s will. Formerly a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, Jackson was introverted and soft-spoken, yet in the heat of battle, his eyes became fiery and his demeanor decisive as he barked out orders. He was consumed by his health, and a bad stomach propelled him to a diet of stale bread and buttermilk. Despite these peculiarities, Jackson rose to become one of the South’s fiercest and most beloved generals, so relied upon that his early death left Confederates wondering whether the war’s outcome might have been different if he had survived.
Gwynne’s masterful storytelling makes Rebel Yell an absorbing choice for general readers and Civil War buffs alike.