It’s impossible to talk about the Civil War without considering the strange place it holds in American history as a founding myth. For the South in particular, the Civil War is still a defining cultural moment, in which a pantheon of men fought for a glorious lost cause.
That’s nonsense, of course. The cause was neither glorious nor, unfortunately, entirely lost. Remnants of the old Southern order cling to power even today, and the motives driving the conflict and its participants are well excavated. But the figures caught up in that struggle are still fascinating, and few of them more so than Stonewall Jackson.
The legendarily truculent general is the subject of Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, a new book by Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian and journalist S.C. Gwynne. A longtime Texas resident, Gwynne spent 14 years writing for Texas Monthly and won widespread acclaim—as well the Texas Book Award—for his 2010 book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Gwynne lives in Austin.
Rebel Yell explores the life and military career of a man contemporaries found both deeply odd and infuriatingly secretive. Jackson was famous for his quirks. “There never was a greater sleeper,” John Esten Cooke wrote in Stonewall Jackson: A Military History, noting that Jackson could pass out anywhere from the back of a horse to a military meal tent with food still in his mouth. Jackson believed that one arm was longer than the other and rode from place to place with the offending limb raised to improve its circulation. But he also made his reputation, Rebel Yell suggests, by being a forceful and dangerous commander, the kind of man Southern historians would hold up as a champion after his death. While Jackson’s end was inglorious—he was killed by friendly fire—the mythology surrounding him has grown steadily since his death, and his tactics and campaign strategies during the early part of the war are still studied as models of military acumen.