Rebel Yell: the Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
Author: S. C. Gwynne
Genre: Nonfiction, history
Publisher: Scribner, 2014
Hardcover Edition: 562 pages plus appendix and notes
Source: Personal copy
Listen up! If you are history buff, if you love the Civil War era, or maybe, if you have never read history and aren’t sure if you would like it, this is the book for you. Yes, the book is thick, but you may not even notice the number of pages beyond the weight of it. Put it on your electronic reader and the weight won’t trouble you.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, this is perhaps the finest history I have ever read (and I admit to reading many books about the Civil War as well as histories of other eras). In truth, I was utterly transported to the time, place and presence of Stonewall Jackson who became an important Civil War General for the Confederacy. All my life I have heard others speak of this legendary hero, and with this book I finally understood how he became a household name throughout the United States.
The narrative moves quickly. I agree with the Chicago Tribune reviewer Mark Jacobs who wrote, “Rarely, has a 500-plus-pages book felt like such a quick read.” The personal scenes are as compelling as the battle descriptions are brilliant. Whether the author was relating a particular Civil War battle or telling Jackson’s personal story, each chapter held my interest completely. I rejoiced in Jackson’s triumphs and cringed when he exercised bad judgment in dealing with his contemporaries, friend or foe. One reason he is so interesting is that he was brilliant and odd, often at the same time.
The author explains anything technical in an easy-to-understand manner. This is an important reason why the battle scenes unfold in a manner as interesting as a detective story. Jackson’s marches to surprising locations, the intricacies of supply lines, the advantages and disadvantages of troop placement, opposing firepower, generals, and the whole of battle unfold in a most entertaining way.
Jackson’s character flaws and the downside of his strategies are not sugarcoated. His treatment of his fellow soldiers seems cruel, inhuman, unforgiving, down right hard to understand. Things do go wrong. Some of his men lag in the fast marches and some deserted. Occasionally, his tactics are less than well-planned or effective.
The book charges forward just as Jackson often did in battle. There is humor, little-known facts, and the sweep of history to carry the reader onward. And, not to be forgotten, after enjoying this book, I have some idea just how the famous yell of rebel troops sounded and the effect it had on all who heard it.
This book is entirely entertaining. In other words, history can be fun and this history book was fun even when the subject matter was tough. I commend the author for pulling off that difficult feat. I hated to see the book come to an end and to leave the presence of Stonewall Jackson, the legend and the man.