From Professor Jackson’s classroom of sailing spitballs to his Civil War brilliance

January 31, 2020
By Marcy Shortuse

BY MARY COOK, FRIENDS OF BOCA GRANDE – Sam Gwynne treated the Friends of Boca Grande crowd to a recording of the “Rebel Yell.” It was the prologue to his January 22 talk on “Rebel Yell, the Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.” Gwynne warned that the sound to be heard throughout the Community Center was a reproduction and lacked the spine-chilling quality of original rebel yells. Nonetheless, it was eerie enough for the gentle people of Boca Grande.
The yell, said Gwynne, is a mix of the “sequence of three sounds that registered between the screech of a bird and the bark of a fox: a short, high-pitched yelp, followed by a short, lower-pitched bark, followed by a long, high-pitched yelp.” Used first as Jackson’s forces charged in the Battle of Bull Run, this otherworldly battle cry caught on and was used in charges throughout the Confederate Army. It became the stuff of nightmares throughout Union forces.
“Transformation” is the core of the Jackson (1824-1863) saga, according to Gwynne. From 1851 to 1861, Thomas Jonathan Jackson was a withdrawn, ineffective Virginia Military Institute physics teacher with no apparent leadership qualities. He was often called “Tom Fool” at VMI. In 14 short months, the man who failed to control sailing spitballs and student pranks in the classroom metamorphosed into the rock star known as General “Stonewall” Jackson, military genius of the Western World.
Stepping into command in the Civil War summoned Jackson’s West Point training (Class of ’86), as well as an unforeseen focus on defeat of an enemy. He led undermanned, malnourished, ill-equipped troops, galvanizing the Southern effort through victories from Harpers Ferry, the first battle at Bull Run through the Shenandoah Valley campaign, Antietam, then the second battle at Bull Run and the battle of Chancellorsville.
Bernard Bee, another Confederate general who watched Jackson defend Henry Hill at the first battle of Bull Run, bestowed the moniker “Stonewall” upon him. “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall,” Bee told his regiment. “Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!”
In contrast to the former professor Jackson’s unpopularity and classroom chaos, the ingenious General Stonewall Jackson was an unrelenting disciplinarian who was actually idolized by his soldiers. He innovated practice marches, which kept the troops sharp, fit and fast on their feet. “Always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy, if possible,” he preached. And he followed those directives, pioneering the use of supply trains to relocate his regiments and making clandestine troop movement a central strategy. His tactical maneuvers were the talk of salons here and abroad.
When the shattering of Jackson’s left arm in the battle of Chancellorsville led to amputation and his death from pneumonia at age 39, it was, perhaps, General Robert E. Lee who grieved most profoundly. He said, “Jackson has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” It seemed then as if Stonewall Jackson’s disappearance from the Confederate effort took Southern power with it.
“Tom‘s Fool” was barely a memory. Dramatic mourning for Jackson engulfed not only the Confederacy but also the Union. Gwynne pointed out that this death “triggered the first great national outpouring of grief for a fallen leader in the country’s history.”
Samuel C. Gwynne is author also of “Empire of the Summer Moon,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award. He is a prize-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Time Magazine, Texas Monthly, the New York Times and many other publications. His talk was part of the History and Heritage lecture series with Friends of Boca Grande Community Center.