In 2010 I read S. C. Gwynne’s EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History and thought it to be a magnificent book. I confess I came to the book in a roundabout way. I was reading an essay by Stephen Walt in “Foreign Policy” where he mentioned Gwynne’s book. Walt found similarities between our purported war on terror then and our war on terror now. He observed the previous one with the Comanches lasted four decades, and with our current one we were merely a decade in with little end in sight.
Also of note, in EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON Gwynne mentions Susan Faludi’s THE TERROR DREAM, another book I wanted to read and so I did. I will only say that I think the two books together make wonderful and necessary companions, and you will not be disappointed by either.
Now, for S. C. Gwynne’s new book. You will do well to consider REBEL YELL the definitive biography of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. It is also a wide window opening on America and the world he lived in. It’s all here and I propose you read for many reasons: Jackson the husband, Jackson the father, Jackson the teacher, Jackson the Christian, Jackson the slave master. Gwynne writes, “He was a deacon in the Presbyterian Church, to which he devoted a good deal of his time. He had a very decent brick house in town, and a small farm in the country, and owned six slaves.”
And of course Jackson the general: “In five battles and many smaller engagements from March 23 to June 9, he had marched his men 646 miles, knocked the entire Union war plan off balance, and had done it all at a cost of 2,750 men. In the late spring of that year he was very likely the most famous soldier in the world.”
If you have been avoiding the first half of the 19th century and the American Civil War you are in safe hands with Gwynne. He is such a good writer even chaotic battles fought a hundred and fifty years ago come onto the page with clarity and precision. He sorts out the politics and religion of the time. His pace is that of a good novelist. He has an eye for the telling detail and the revealing anecdote.
I have spent my own time swept up in Jackson fever. I have read the biographies, walked the battlefields where he fought and the one where he died, visited his home, and stood beside his grave. I find his interior life to be an absolute mystery and a provocation to thought. His exploits on the battlefield are adventures of wonder. He is not so much Stonewall Jackson as he is a representative of so many American men of the time.
But at some point my mind can no longer avoid what it knows.
Recounting history is dangerous business these days. On the eve of the Civil War nearly four million people existed in a state of perpetual slavery, one in five in the upper south and almost half in the lower south and Stonewall Jackson directed the killing of thousands and finally gave up his life to keep it just that way.
(In South Carolina where the black population outnumbered the white population by one hundred and twenty thousand, one might suggest the majority of people living in South Carolina actually did win the war.)
And yet, we continue to memorialize, valorize and redeem supreme white culture with its flags, generals, battlefields and statues. We create alibis of greatness. We avert our eyes when slavery is mentioned.
Perhaps one day our history will not be so bleached. Perhaps one day there will be an accounting.
These days I ask myself, was Stonewall Jackson a great general who happened to be a white supremacist or was he a white supremacist who happened to be a great general? He spent his whole life being one way and fourteen months the other.
REBEL YELL: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne