Review: Such Troops As These, Such Hogwash As This

Alexander-coverA 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.

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12 Responses to Review: Such Troops As These, Such Hogwash As This

  1. David Corbett says:

    Challenging Guelzo ? “The horror, the horror!”

    • Just pointing out a factual error (a glaring one to those of us who know the story). No one likes to get facts wrong, of course, and even when we’re as diligent as possible, we sometimes still get them wrong. As I tell my students, though, fewer things undermine our credibility than getting facts wrong: if we can’t get the little stuff right, how can readers trust us to get the big stuff right?

  2. Thanks for the review! Sounds like over the top hero worship – too bad… I like books that help us see the CW leaders as real people, not mythological figures. While Jackson was a good general, I don’t know if I’d say he was the best America ever had or that he was better than Lee. Lee and Jackson were very different men and commanders. And maybe Alexander forgot Jackson’s tendency to court-marshal Stonewall Brigade officers and other quirks that impaired Jackson’s leadership. Jackson was a great general and a good man, but he was flawed…like every other human being.

    Thanks for the reminder of “The Smoothbore Volley” book – I really need to read that one.

    • “Smoothbore” is a fantastically thorough work. I highly recommend it.

      • Does it have a lot of medical information regarding Jackson’s wound and treatment, or is mostly about the NC regiment and the actual shooting incident? Both topics are interesting to me.

      • The essay focuses mostly on the wounding itself: the events that led up to it, the details surrounding it, and an analysis of the existing evidence to piece together the events themselves. For a more detailed look at the medical angle, read McGuire’s account, of course. You can also look at Matt Lively’s “Catastrophe at Chancellorsville.” Matt is a doctor, and he has a good eye for the medical stuff. He’s less reliable in his analysis of the wounding, although it provides an alternative perspective to Krick’s. However, no one has studied the AoNV more intensely over a greater span of time than Krick, so I’m skeptical of anyone who thinks they’re out-analyzing him.

  3. Absolutely right on “Such Troops as These.” Alexander’s shrill statements border on farcical. Sure all Lee had to do was take up a defensive position at Carlisle in the Gettysburg campaign and Meade would have destroyed his own army attacking the AoNV!!! Oh it was ALL SO SIMPLE!!!!! Except with no supply line, Lee had only two choices, keep moving or fight. And repeatedly, Alexander states “Jackson had to have known.” Mind reading from 150 years away — nice trick of you are so insightful. Don’t waste your money on this one.

  4. Janet Chase says:

    I’m a novice of Civil War history and am not familiar with AoNV. Could you explain what that means?

    • Hi, Janet. AoNV is the Army of Northern Virginia, the army commanded by Robert E. Lee. James Longstreet was the commander of the First Corps and, as senior corps commander, second in command of the army. Jackson commanded the second corps.

      Good luck with your continued explorations!

      • Janet Chase says:

        Chris, but of course! Thanks for clarifying. I had not come across the abbreviation before.

  5. Always believed him to be overrated- look at Antietam and the Seven Days…lackluster at best. Throw in Fredericksburg and Second Bull Run- that makes an overrated General.

  6. Tom McCrea says:

    Thanks for the rebuttal on this book. this is the 1st Civil War book that I have read in several years and I was surprised by Bevin’s assessment of Lee. I somewhat agree with him on his opinion of Jeff Davis. The facts that Davis was a control freak and kept many of his generals hands tied was mentioned frequently in many books including Lee’s Last Campaign. I found the comments that Bevin said about Lee disturbing but I was intrigued. The fact is the importance of being able to maneuver and fight “outside the box” of Napoleonic style battle has been stressed time and time again by armchair generals studying the Civil War. In the early years of the war Washington and much of the north was venerable to attack and if Jackson had been given the resources and backing to take the fight to the enemy while hey were weak the outcome of the war could have been different.

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