A few weeks ago, I said I’d be looking at a pair of new Stonewall Jackson books over my holiday break: Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynn and Such Troops As These by Bevin Alexander. I’ve had a couple readers ask for updates, so I figured I’d offer a progress report.
To be perfectly honest, I found it tough to take Bevin Alexander’s Such Troops as These seriously at all. In the very first paragraph of his book, Alexander says Jackson was “by far the greatest general ever produced by the American people.” I love Stonewall Jackson, but not even I would try to make a claim that big and preposterous. Alexander’s man-crush on Jackson makes him sycophantic, though. It’s hard to tease out any of his interesting analysis from the midst of all his hero-worship.
The flip side of that coin is Alexander’s belief that everyone else in the Confederacy were knuckleheads. Lee, for instance, was “a second-rate individual.” “With this deadweight holding it down,” he says of Lee, “the army was unable to ascend to glory.” Jefferson Davis was even worse: “a decidedly third-rate leader.” Alexander’s doctrine is so rabid that it puts him through some remarkable contortions. “[Davis] was committed to a passive defense of the South,” Alexander contends. Anyone who agrees with Alexander should have a conversation with Joseph Johnston. It’s one of several demonstrably false statements Alexander makes in his book.
Alexander’s Stonewall-as-Southern-Messiah seems easy and breezy. “The only thing the South had to do to win, Jackson saw, was to invade the eastern states of the Union,” Alexander says with such matter-of-factness that you expect him to say “Duh!” at the end. It’s a position he explored at length in his 1992 book Lost Victories: The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson. That this book rehashes much of that should come as no surprise; its similar subtitle, “The Genius and Leadership of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson,” is a dead giveaway.
As an overview of Jackson’s career, Such Troops As These is only serviceable, and it lacks a lot of the first-person quotes that would give the narrative color. That’s not too surprising since Alexander’s draws mostly on secondary sources; the primary sources he does draw on tend to be the widely available published sources you see in most Jackson pieces: E. Porter Alexander, Robert Dabney, Henry Kyd Douglas, Jed Hotchkiss, etc.
My litmus test in all cases is how an author treats Jackson’s wounding and death, and here, Alexander fails spectacularly. He gets virtually all the details of Jackson’s last ride wrong, and his description of Jackson’s final hours has all the sublimeness of a high school health class’s sex ed video. For all his reliance on secondary sources, he would have done well to take a peek at Bob Krick’s definitive “Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy,” which he seems to have overlooked, according to his bibliography.
All in all, Alexander’s book is a bit of hogwash with all the prose stylings of an encyclopedia entry (the old, reader-friendly World Book encyclopedias, though, not the old academic Britannica).
Meanwhile, in Gwynn’s Rebel Yell, I’m only as far as Second Manassas, but thus far, I’ve been highly impressed with his writing. It’s magnificent. Although he doesn’t hero-worship like Alexander, Gwynn is sympathetic toward Jackson—although it certainly didn’t seem so in the book’s first section. I’ll talk more about that when I post an in-depth review of the book once I’m finished.
As a side note, I ran across a review of Rebel Yell written by Allen C. Guelzo for The Wall Street Journal last September. I was disappointed that the piece was less a review of the book than an excuse by Guelzo to share his own flawed thoughts about Jackson. For instance, his essay fingered the 16th North Carolina rather than the 18th North Carolina as the regiment that shot Jackson, and he blames the accident on the skirmishers, not the main battle line. If those are the sorts of “facts” Guelzo bases his opinions on, then they’re probably thoughts best kept to himself.