Preview: S. C. Gwynne, “Rebel Yell”

7 10 2014

downloadOK, so here we have a new release from mainstream publisher Scribner. This will be brief. The author, S. C. Gwynne previously authored Empire of the Summer Moon, a biography of Quanah Parker which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. So from a literary standpoint, he’s no hack. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson is 575 pages of well-strung-together words. Sources look pretty good, manuscripts, etc. I’ve read selected (by me) passages, and there’s nothing particularly irritating so far. But nothing particularly insightful or surprising, either. For example, go to the section on 2nd Bull Run and look for an explanation of Jackson’s declination to join in/support/or even recognize Longstreet’s assault. You’ll find a paragraph basically putting the onus on Lee. Nothing particularly wrong with that, and most folks who read this, again, well-written biography won’t have a problem with it. But I suspect most folks who read this and similar sites will be looking for more, and probably have read enough on Jackson already (perhaps Robertson’s epic love letter)  that a popular biography is not really something in which they’re interested. If you’re just testing the waters, at the beginning of your studies, or interested in a broad range of biographies (not just Civil War related), this is probably right up your alley. Jaded old folks like me, probably not. This assessment ain’t bad, it ain’t good, it just is.


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7 responses

8 10 2014
John Foskett

Harry:

Thanks for the preliminary insights. For the moment I’m foregoing this one. I really wish that somebody would do a book which is tightly and competently focused on Jackson’s military achievements. in the tactical arena (as opposed to the operational/maneuver sphere), there’s a pretty strong track record – First Kernstown, Front Royal, Port Republic, Seven Days, Cedar Mountain Brawner’s Farm, Day 2 at 2BR, the vacant frontage at Hamilton’s Crossing – there’s a lot to explore regarding the Tactical Stonewall and it’s not all pretty. The study I have in mind would also explore the effects of his often-toxic relationships with subordinates and his legendary “secrecy”. I’m afraid that these biographies just don’t cut it. And not all of these events – indeed, not all, of the Seven Days – can in my humble opinion be attributed to everybody’s favorite excuse for June 26-July 1, 1862 – exhaustion.

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8 10 2014
Harry Smeltzer

John,

It’s not easy to find objective analyses of Jackson as tactician because, as you point out, it’s not all pretty. Really wanna piss off a Jacksonite, mention that his crowning achievement, Chancellorsville, showed him waiting until all was in order even as time flew by – that is, Jackson acting more like the senior ANV corps commander, James Longstreet. Then duck. In the meantime, for some intelligent discussion of this aspect of Jackson, see Gary Ecelbarger’s “Three Days in the Shenandoah” and “‘We are in for it”: The First Battle of Kernstown.” Gary has threatened for years to do just the kind of study you suggest.

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8 10 2014
Pat

“Then duck.” I love it. :)

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8 10 2014
John Foskett

Harry: I agree. Ecelbarger definitely is one of the authors who has dared take on Stonewall, and he’s done it regarding the Holy Grail – the ’62 Valley Campaign. I meant to mention that other Holy Grail (the flank attack at C’ville) which could (and should) have been blown up based on repeated sightings and whose less-than-estimable execution played a role in Stonewall conducting a scouting mission in the dark that evening. I love the Ewell/July 1/Cemetery Hill counterfactual. I had an exchange a couple of years ago in which the guy on the other side suggested I perform an impossible act after i told him that Stonewall would simply have dribbled troops into the fight until it was too late or dark, or he would have nodded off with a half-eaten biscuit hanging from his mouth.

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9 10 2014
civilwarlibrarian

Once I told a Jackson worshipper that if Jackson had been at Gettysburg, he would have been shot my his own men on the east slope of Culp’s Hill or at Spangler’s Spring during the late hours of July 1.

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9 10 2014
Harry Smeltzer

Nice.

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13 10 2014
Chris Evans

Thanks for the post on this book.

Interesting to see some more assessments of this new biography of Jackson and how it compares to the others.

I own most all of them. I still think Lenoir Chambers biography from 1959 is underrated. It was a incredible achievement and stands alongside Robertson and Henderson’s books. Vandiver is still a good relatively compact read.

Peter Cozzens can be critical on Jackson in the Shenandoah campaign of ’62. At a symposium a couple years back he said that Jackson had about as bad of relationship with subordinates as Braxton Bragg did. That might be a bit much.

Now a full biography that is rather critical of Jackson is Byron Farwell’s from 1993. It is a very interesting read from a 19th century military historian. It is hurt by lack of footnotes and endnotes plus some mistakes but I don’t think Farwell is making stuff up and it is interesting to read a perspective on the subject by one who is not Civil War mainstream like Gwynne now is doing.

Chris

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