- - Monday, November 17, 2014

By S.G. Gwynne
Scribner, $35, 672 pages

For two years, 1861 to 1863, Gen. Thomas Jonathan (“Stonewall”) Jackson, West Point graduate, hero of the Mexican war, and in the interim a quirky eccentric former Virginia Military Institute professor plagued by a host of 19th-century afflictions, became not just a hero of the Confederacy, but a brilliant military tactician who out-thought, out-anticipated, outmaneuvered and outfought the enemy.

It’s the story of those battles and the man who inspired his men to fight them with ferocity and determination that S.C. Gwynne, a former senior editor at Time, executive editor at Texas Monthly, and author of “Empire of the Summer Moons,” tells in rolling, highly readable prose, sweeping us along through the battles, beautifully described, and in the process bringing his idiosyncratic but brilliant central character fully to life.

Like Robert E. Lee, he opposed secession and dreaded the prospect of war, praying that it wouldn’t come. But as an intensely religious man, he believed that if war did come, it would be God’s will for him to fight it to win in God’s name. After the Battle of First Manassas (also known as Bull Run), where he was wounded and earned his sobriquet, he was asked how he was able, unflinching, to stand his ground in the hail of shells and bullets.

My religious belief, he answered, “teaches me to be as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.”

After First Manassas, his five Virginia regiments would share in his growing fame. “For the rest of the war and into the annals of American history, they would be called the Stonewall Brigade, the most famous fighting unit of the Confederacy.”

Speed, deception, audacity — from March to June of 1862, with fewer than 17,000 men, he had fought five battles, “taken on and routed 52,000 troops in three Union armies,” seized a vast store of supplies and weapons, “and had kept more than 40,000 Federal troops from joining McClellan in front of Richmond.” In the process, and engaging in a number of smaller battles, “he had marched his men 646 miles, knocked the entire Union war plan out of 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.”

In June of that year, when Jefferson Davis replaced General Joseph E. Johnston with Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia — as Mr. Gwynne puts it “probably the single most important decision of the war” — Stonewall Jackson would become the working partner of a military man, also destined for lasting fame, who valued his strengths and knew how to direct them.

“Lee was the mastermind, the great genius of war,” and “Jackson was Lee’s iron fist,” or as Lee himself put it, “my right arm.” The two men, writes Mr. Gwynne, “thought alike and acted in concert. Lee trusted Jackson, alone of his generals, to make his own decisions,” and the result “was a product of a sort of high-command teamwork not previously witnessed on either side.”

That teamwork was key to the great victory of Second Manassas, followed by the capture of Harpers Ferry, the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, and the rout of the Union Army at Chancellorsville. At Chancellorsville, Gen. Jackson, reconnoitering after sundown, was shot three times by North Carolina skirmishers, mistaking him for the enemy. He was badly wounded, his left arm amputated, and after a brief recovery, relapsed and died of what was diagnosed as pneumonia.

His last words are part of the legend. He was told he had only hours to live, slept, awoke to give battle orders, fell silent, then smiled and said: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

The effects of his death were profound. As Jed Hotchkiss, his mapmaker, put it, “nearly all regarded it as the beginning of the end.” Weeks later, that view seemed to be validated at Gettysburg. Without Jackson, writes Mr. Gwynne, “Robert E. Lee would never again be so brilliant. After the war, he commented only once on what might have happened if Jackson had lived. He was talking about Gettysburg. “Jackson would have held the heights which Ewell took on the first day,” he told his brother.

In other words, “Jackson would have seized and held the high ground where the Union made its famous defensive stands: Cemetery Ridge, Big and Little Round Tops. There would have been no Pickett’s charge because Jackson would have held that ground before the battle started.” If so, the Confederates might have won at Gettysburg, with all that entails. But, as Mr. Gwynne adds, “It’s all hypothesis. We will never know.”

What we do know, however, is that Stonewall Jackson deserves to be viewed as a uniquely American hero. Mr. Gwynne’s splendid book makes that case admirably.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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