Hi S.C. Gwynne (better known as Sam Gwynne): Thanks so much for talking to me. I’ve admired you for years, since I read Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.
Not only do I admire the job you did with Empire, I’ve recommended the book to many people and they’ve always been amazed at how good it is.
Now I’m reading Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (just published readers) and enjoying it.
So let me begin with Empire.
Q. Many authors who write non-fiction histories of tribal peoples fail to mention some of the more unpleasant aspects of each tribe; such as torture, raping captive women, etc.
Was your honesty a conscious decision on your part?
Were you apprehensive other writers, pundits or tribal peoples would attack you for that same honesty?
A. Fortunately I was too naïve to know any better. I just approached it objectively, and objectively that is what happened. There is no denying it.
What was even more surprising to many people versed in the ideas from Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and other books was that American Indians were not always victims.
It is true that they got steamrolled by the westward rolling American empire, but they were not always victims or losers.
The Comanches were immensely powerful and, yes, in Anglo-European terms (though not in theirs), cruel.
Q. Have you ever been attacked in print, or at a conference?
A. No. I have been waiting for it, though.
Native Americans have many different opinions about the book. Many are positive. Some do not believe that a white historian like me should write a book like this.
I fully respect their opinions, though I do not agree with them.
Q. You didn’t create good guys and bad guys in the book. How do you personally feel about the war between the white settlers and the Comanches?
A. I feel that it is impossible to get to a moral place where you can say “this is good,” and “this is bad” in absolute terms. It would be just as hard to do that today in the Middle East.
Who is to blame?
Texans had a deep, abiding hatred for Comanches, who returned it in kind. I tried my best just to be a fair observer…..My background is largely as a reporter. The idea of fairness is very important to me.
I can find you a white atrocity for every recorded Indian atrocity.
Q. You seemed to feel a great deal of sympathy for Cynthia Ann Parker, writing you like to think of her, “On the immensity of the plains, a small figure in buckskin bending to her chores by a diamond-clear stream. It is late autumn…Above her looms a single cottonwood tree, gone bright yellow in the season, its leaves and branches framing a deep blue sky. Maybe she lifts her head to see the children and dogs playing in the prairie grass and, beyond them, the coils of smoke rising into the gathering twilight from a hundred lodge fires. And maybe she thinks, just for a moment, that all is right in the world.”
Can you tell me more about how you felt while researching Cynthia Ann?
A. She is one of the most tragic figures of the American west.
She was kidnapped in a brutal raid, then adapted brilliantly to a new society, learned the language, married a powerful war chief, bore three children.
The cruel irony is that she was asked to adapt twice, the second time after she was taken in the 1860 raid and given back to her white family. She was unable to do that.
She became a pariah, was moved ever farther from the plains. I feel immensely sorry for her.
Q. After reading the book, I came to admire Quanah Parker. He was successful in the Comanche culture and he was successful in the White culture.
He did not seem to feel sorry for himself.
Do you also admire him?
A. Quanah was a great man, and proof that there are second acts in American lives.
That one of the greatest plains warriors later started a school district and testified brilliantly for Indian rights in Washington is one of the most amazing things I have ever heard.
Q. Many biographies have been written about Stonewall Jackson. Why were you attracted to this subject?
A. The idea of transformation.
In 14 months he went from being an obscure, eccentric physics professor who was the worst teacher anyone had ever seen to being the most famous military man in the western world.
I rest my case.
Q. Your Rebel Yell subtitle reads, The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.
Redemption? Do you believe he needed redemption? Do you believe Gen. Jackson himself believed he needed redemption?
A. He did not require redemption from sin, unless you consider fighting for the Confederacy a sin.
I meant redemption from the ordinariness and failure of his life.
He was just a bad physics teacher when the war started. He would have been a preacher if he had had any sort of people skills or ability to speak in public or if he hadn’t been so shy.
He had left the army under less than ideal circumstances.
He then becomes a war hero and the driving force behind the great waves of revivals that swept the Confederate army in the winter of 1862-3.
Redeemed from his own inadequacies, perhaps. Brought back to an earlier state of grace.
Q. Stonewall was a strange man, seemingly two people in one body, an eccentric professor who couldn’t teach or relate to people, and a mighty and brilliant warrior.
What do you think about this contradiction?
A. I think it is why I wanted to write the book in the first place and the book itself is the answer to the question.
Q. One of the blurbs about the book calls Jackson an “American hero,” a characterization William T. Sherman might argue with.
How can a man fight against the Union and yet be an American hero?
(By the way, my three-times great-grandfather fought with the Confederacy and was killed at the Battle of Kinston, N.C.)
A. A good question and well put. I am trying to reclaim Jackson as a true American hero and not just some crazy/brilliant Confederate.
He went to West Point and fought with amazing bravery for his country in the Civil War.
He was a patriot. He was widely admired in the North during his life and after his death for his bravery, his humility and his Christianity.
I am just trying to get back a little of that genuine feeling.
Q. Many African-Americans feel a horror for the Confederacy. You obviously do not. Why?
A. There is no doubt that slavery was a great evil in this country. I think most of us do feel horror and shame when we watch a movie like Twelve Years a Slave.
But I do not feel horror at the mere idea of the Confederate nation.
In my book I write about Jackson’s many intersections with slavery and how they influenced his life.
He owned slaves. He founded and ran a Sunday school for slaves in Lexington, in defiance of a Virginia law that said you could not teach African Americans the Bible.
When he fought his Valley Campaign it was the first time slaves crossed through Union lines in large numbers.
Q. I know many Southerners who fought for the Confederacy weren’t fighting for slavery, but because Northern armies were invading their states.
A. Yes, absolutely. But it was not entirely about slavery in the beginning, particularly for people from Virginia, like Jackson and Lee.
Q. I’ve read other Jackson biographies and came to feel Jackson had a spiritual conflict about fighting against the Union.
I’m only 20 percent into Rebel Yell, so I don’t know what you believe about that.
A. Just before the war started, Jackson worked hard to prevent it. He thought it was ungodly, a monstrous evil. He even tried to organize a national day of prayer to avoid war.
But once it started his goal was to kill as many Yankees as he possibly could.
One of his ideas early in the war was to march north and burn Baltimore and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He even briefly advocated a “black flag” war, giving no quarter.
So I guess there might be two answers to the question. He is a fascinating and complex person.
Q. What are you working on?
A. Right now all of my efforts are going into a two-month book tour that will take me to 15 cities. I have barely time to get my dry cleaning done.