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Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall

Jackson S.C. Gwynne, Scribner

Thomas J. Jackson once said he felt “as safe in battle as in bed.” He might have added that he felt alive, alert, even hallowed. The battle that gave him and his brigade the nickname “Stonewall” came at Manassas on July 21, 1861, as Jackson rallied his men, saying “when you charge, yell like Furies.” Over time, he became a nearly mythological figure. S.C. Gwynne provides a comprehensive portrait of a complex man who triumphed on the battlefield—but remained an enigma.

No one would have predicted that the man called “Tom Fool” by his VMI students would morph into perhaps the greatest warrior of his day. Gwynne describes Jackson as a “harmless eccentric” headed for a life of “comfortable mediocrity.” His eccentricities included rigid obedience to rules he believed would protect his health: He never crossed his legs and never allowed his back to come into contact with a chair. It is precisely this level of detail that makes Gwynne’s book a joy to read.

What Jackson did in the Shenandoah Valley between March and June 1862 elevated him to international prominence. With some 17,000 men he regularly defeated Union forces that outnumbered him, marched his men at an inconceivable pace (646 miles in 48 days) and gave the South hope when little else was going well.

Jackson’s record when Robert E. Lee first brought him east was less than stellar, and one of Rebel Yell’s many virtues is that Gwynne does not gloss over the general’s failings during the Seven Days’ Campaign, where he argues that Jackson “was having what appears to be a temporary, though fairly complete, mental and physical breakdown.” Jackson recovered to wreak havoc at Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where friendly fire led to the loss of his left arm and death from pneumonia. “Jackson was Lee’s iron fist, his righteous tool of destruction,” Gwynne observes. Had he been with Lee at Gettysburg, things might have taken a different course. But the tide of the war could have turned in dozens of fights preceding those fateful days in July, less than two months after Jackson uttered his final words: “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”


Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.