The "Rebel Yell" of Stonewall Jackson

The "Rebel Yell" of Stonewall Jackson
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The central figure of the war is, beyond question, that of Robert E. Lee. But Jackson is the motive power that executes, with the rapidity of lightning, all that Lee can plan. Lee is the exponent of Southern power of command; Jackson, the expression of its faith in God and in itself.”  -- Excerpted from The Richmond Whig in “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson”

Between April 1861 and May 1863, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – a nearly failed Virginia Military Institute (VMI) professor known more for his many eccentric behaviors than battlefield prowess – was a stunning success against Union adversaries. Through bold decision-making and a knack for aggressive maneuver in close-quarters combat, Jackson solidified his reputation as the most feared and successful of Robert E. Lee’s senior battlefield commanders. The First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas), Antietam and Fredericksburg each bears the mark of Jackson’s tactical genius.

In Rebel Yell (Scribner, 2015), the legend of a would-be Confederate savior is matched in richness and exceeded in historical accuracy by the extraordinary life of Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Turning his “eye for outlier characters” (reference 2011’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Empire of the Summer Moon) on the often mythologized Jackson, author S.C. Gwynne’s gripping, stylish tale enlivens his subject with an emotional complexity seldom explored in more comprehensive Civil War texts. The result is a masterful biography of a great combat leader and a truly original American character. Below is RealClearDefense’s recent conversation with S.C. Gwynne.

What was the ‘Rebel Yell’ and why did you choose it as the title for your book?

SCG: At the Battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run), Stonewall Jackson gave a command to his men to charge and “yell like the furies.” They did, and it was the first time anyone had ever heard what became known as the Rebel Yell.

Fellow Confederate officer Edward Alexander remarked that “as a fighter and a leader, [Jackson] was all that can ever be given to a man to be.” Why is Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson revered as such a great warfighter and folk hero, arguably even eclipsing Robert E. Lee himself?

SCG: I don’t think Jackson, as great as he was, is in danger of eclipsing Lee, a man with whom he had a partnership that had a huge effect on the course of the war in the east. Jackson was first and foremost a winner at a time when Rebel armies were going down to defeat across the country. He was an underdog. He was a deeply religious eccentric who inspired fear and awe in his enemies.

Jackson regularly disciplined or outright court-marshaled his officers, but Robert E. Lee did not. Why? Was it because of differences in their personal backgrounds, their command philosophies or was it something else?

SCG: Jackson’s great flaw was his inability to play nicely with the other children. Lee had no such flaw. At one point Jackson had most of his general officers under arrest. This had nothing to do with philosophy/ideology or even opinions about how to conduct the war. Jackson both withheld critical information from his generals and punished them severely—and in the famous case of Richard Garnett, unfairly—when they did something he perceived as a lapse of duty.

Leaders of the Confederate Army thought when they marched north into Maryland -- ultimately engaging in the Battle of Antietam -- that the populace would support them because Maryland was a slave state. Why didn't that happen, and how did it affect the war as a whole?

SCG: That is a very complex question and hard to answer in a few sentences. Part of the answer is that Lincoln and the rest of the power establishment were desperate to keep this key border state in the Union at all costs. It would have taken nothing less than a massive popular uprising to do otherwise. One reason was the presence of the Union army almost as an occupation force. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and locked up representatives thought to favor secession. And the fact was that, though Maryland had a clearly defined secession movement, many of its farmers wanted nothing to do with leaving the Union.

Shortly after Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville, his topographer Jedediah Hotchkiss said, “nearly all regarded [Jackson’s death] as the beginning of the end.” Just how critical was Jackson to the cause of the Confederacy, both tactically and symbolically?

SCG: With his brilliant, underdog victories, Jackson had given the South a myth of invincibility, a sense that, though it had vastly inferior resources and manpower, it could still find a way to win the war. Jackson and Lee embodied this ideal. Jackson’s brilliant tactical maneuvers at battles like Second Manassas and Chancellorsville seemed ultimate proof that one rebel soldier was worth two Yankees.

The legacy of Stonewall Jackson is rich in battlefield glory, as he was already a distinguished combat veteran of the Mexican War before the start of the Civil War. Yet he is also remembered for his deep Christian spirituality and his tremendous sensitivity toward his sister, wife and young daughter. And, of course, no remembrance of Jackson is complete without mention of the personal eccentricities that helped earn him the nickname ‘Tom Fool’ during his years as a professor of natural science at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). How do you think 21st-century Americans should remember Stonewall Jackson?

SCG: Jackson was a brilliant warrior and a deeply complex man. Before the war he was pro-Union and actively tried to organize a national day of prayer to stop the war. Once the war started, he advocated marching north, burning Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and living off the land so that the North would feel the pain of the war. He was a kind and benevolent, though stern, slaveowner and had a complex relationship with the peculiar institution, as many southerners did. He owned 6 slaves. Three came to him through his marriage. One of those, Hetty, raised his wife Anna from birth and was like a surrogate mother; Hetty’s two rowdy sons drove the family carriage. Jackson himself purchased three slaves: one was a man named Albert who came to him and begged Jackson to buy him so he could then be allowed to buy his freedom; another was 4 year old girl with learning disabilities whom Jackson bought after an elderly woman who could no longer care for the girl begged him to buy her; the last, Amy, was about to be sold off to pay debt and also begged Jackson to buy her to deliver her from “her troubles.”

Regarding the latter, a neighbor of Jackson’s wrote to him, “The cup of cold water you have administered to this poor disciple may avail more in the Master’s eye than all the brilliant deed with which you may glorify your country’s battlefields.” When Albert and Amy got sick, he took them in and cared for them. More significantly, Jackson founded, financed and ran a Sunday school for slaves, in direct contravention of Virginia law, which stipulated that slaves could not be taught to read. Jackson, who was accosted several times in the street by citizens who told him he could not get away with it, taught his students to read the Bible anyway. In 1906, an African American minister at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, an African American church, erected a stained glass window memorializing Jackson’s “colored Sabbath school,” where his parents had both learned to read and been converted to Christianity. The window is there to this day.

In the midst of a national conversation about the role of Confederate symbols in contemporary America, can you provide some historical context to the meaning of the Confederate flag and various Confederate battle flags during the Civil War?

SCG: It is unfortunate that the battle flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has been used by so many hate groups and white supremacist groups as a symbol. The original flag had a much narrower, military meaning. But as with the swastika—originally a Christian cross—once enough people start doing that, the meaning of the symbol itself changes. I don’t think there is much choice at this point but to remove the battle flag from from public places, though I am against removing all traces of the Confederacy—school names, street names, monuments, building names, etc—from our national landscape. That would be a mistake. One politician in Texas suggested that if Southerners want to embrace their heritage, they fly the Stars and Bars – the original flag of the Confederacy--which hardly anyone recognizes and which therefore offends very few people. I don’t think that is a bad idea. Of course the meaning of that symbol may change too.

What will you work on next?

SCG: A book about football, of course.

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