What made Stonewall Jackson such a legend?

S.C. Gwynne's book 'Rebel Yell' details the life of the South's most beloved martyr, the Confederate general who left a brutal battlefield legacy that's still with us today.

'Rebel Yell' is by S.C. Gwynne.

By the numbers, the North should have easily smashed the South in the American Civil War. The North had more soldiers, more money, more supplies. But the numbers knew nothing about a man named Thomas Jackson, best known to us today as “Stonewall.”

An exceedingly ordinary physics professor who became an exceedingly extraordinary general, Jackson inspired the South and became its most beloved martyr.

Historian S.C. Gwynne, best known as the author of books about the American West, profiles Jackson in a new biography. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson is a remarkable book that deserves a place on any list of this century’s best Civil War histories.

Gwynne vividly brings this most unusual man to life. He reveals how Jackson, an odd, gentle, and even meek man off the battlefield, revolutionized warfare by abandoning any pretense that war isn’t cruel or bloody. Like virtually no one else, it seems, he saw what was coming and was ready.

Jackson made his men fight, and he made his men die, and he left a brutal battlefield legacy that’s still with us today. “He understood the South had few resources, and the idea was to hit the North so hard and make it feel pain so acutely that they’d acknowledge Southern independence,” Gwynne said an interview with the Monitor. “It’s the same theory as dropping a bomb on Hiroshima.” And it had similar horrific results.

Q: Why did you choose to write a biography of someone from the South, which will forever be on the wrong side of history?

I’m as Yankee of a guy as you can possibly get, but when you study the Civil War, you discover that it was a very complex economic and social phenomenon. It’s possible to look at and understand the Confederacy without focusing on the single issue that slavery was a moral wrong. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

Q: What drew you to Stonewall Jackson?

I’ve been interested in the Civil War for the long time, and this seemed to be as dramatic a story as I could find. And he wasn’t one of the Confederacy’s great villains, obviously.

Q: In fact, he was on the progressive side, at least from a Southern perspective. What did he believe about racial issues?

Jackson came from what is now West Virginia, a part of the country where slavery was not really very common. He had slaves when he grew up, his uncles had slaves and he had slaves of his own, but he acquired three to help them avoid worse fates.

As a physics professor, he founded and ran a successful Sunday school for slaves. This was what he did in his spare time. He taught slaves to read, and he was accosted in the street by people who said, “You can’t do this.”

There’s even a church near Roanoke with a stained-glass window portrait of Jackson put up by one of his students in the Sunday school.

Q: The Civil War is remarkable because so many high-profile men were wretched generals. At the same time, men who failed or nearly failed in life before the war, like Jackson and Ulysses Grant, became unlikely heroes. What do you make of that?

The Civil War was a great transformer of men, and it cut both ways.

The political generals, these great wealthy men who were powerful before the war, are exposed as incompetent and cowards. On the other side, you have Grant, who’s failed at everything he’s ever done, and William Tecumseh Sherman, who failed at all of his business ventures, and Philip Sheridan, who was nothing.

Then there’s Jackson, who’s this peculiar, kind-of-failed physics professor and becomes the most famous military man in the Western world. His ascent was astonishing, 14 months from being a physics professor – whom the Army didn’t really want – to being compared to Napoleon.

Q: How did this fussy, odd man – a guy who was mocked by his physics students – transform so quickly?

Jackson was a hero in the Mexican War, but afterward he was kind of miserable. There’s no war, nothing to be great at, and his students threw spitballs and imitated him. Then the Civil War comes and he’s instantly great.

One of the reasons that men like Grant and Jackson moved up so quickly is because a lot of people fighting weren’t very good.

A lot of other generals wanted power, but they were scared of the responsibility. In the early war, there’s so much incompetence that it’s like the Keystone Cops. By year three of the war, most of the real incompetence had been weeded out.

Q: What were some of his best traits?

He had his eccentricities. He wouldn’t share information with anyone, which is not what you’d consider good management, and he didn’t get along with many of his generals. At one point, all of his principal generals were under arrest.

But he was good at deception, he was decisive, and he had an astounding ability to understand the terrain and maneuver his army to the right place at the right time.

A lot of his greatness was in his moral courage: You have an army, and you’ve got to make decisions, and a lot of men will be killed. The decision-making was crisp and thorough, and there was going to be no second-guessing. In the early war, there was hardly anyone who was as decisive as Jackson.

He also believed that he could get more out of his men than anyone thought possible. He was ahead of everyone else in understanding how cruel the war would be. He had an whole army in mutiny against him, but it worked.

Q: What did he understand about the war early on that others failed to perceive?

He understood very early that the war was going to be a lot harder and crueler than anyone thought it would be. He wanted to take an army north and burn Baltimore and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and march to the Great Lakes. He supported a “black flag” war, which means no prisoners, you should kill everybody.

He understood the South had few resources, and the idea was to hit the North so hard and make it feel pain so acutely that they’d acknowledge Southern independence. It’s the same theory as dropping a bomb on Hiroshima.

His war department thought he was flat crazy and dangerous for advocating this. But look what happens to General Robert E. Lee a few years later: He marches into Pennsylvania.

Q: What was Jackson’s legacy in the long term?

Jackson had a profound effect on war in the 20th century, the ultra-fast movements and quick strikes. The German blitzkrieg is partially based on Jackson and his style of fighting.

Q: What was his legacy in the war itself after he was killed on the battlefield?

He was brave, and he was feared on the battlefield. He was seen as this underdog who could take small armies against bigger armies. It absolutely shattered the South when he died, and his death was as shattering as Lincoln’s was to the North two years later.

When Jackson died, it was the first outpouring of grief for a fallen hero in American history. The leaders who had fallen before tended to be old men.

His death touched every heart and hearth in the South and took away one of their great heroes. When he received that wound, Jackson and Lee had just engineered the South’s greatest victory. The immediate legacy was a shattering of Southern spirit.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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