Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death. What follows is a short essay I originally intended for my column at the Atlantic. Unfortunately, my regular editor is out on maternity leave and there was no way to get it posted in time. No big deal. Here it is for your consideration.
The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863) last week means but one thing: Next stop, Gettysburg! But before Civil War enthusiasts can shift their attention to what is still commonly referred to as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy there is one loose narrative thread from the Chancellorsville campaign that needs to be brought to a conclusion. Eight days following his accidental wounding at the hands of his own troops in the early evening hours of May 2 General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson died. News of his death sent the Confederacy into national mourning and for some it raised profound questions about its future and whether God had forsaken their cause. Jackson’s death left Robert E. Lee without one of his most talented and trusted subordinates. His final days in battle and on his deathbed have never really diminished in our popular memory of the war.
Even a cursory glance at Jackson’s brief military career points to a life that could not be easily forgotten. His stubborn defense of crucial ground at First Manassas and Fredericksburg along with a successful offensive campaign in the Shenandoah Valley and dramatic turning movement that culminated with a rout of the Federal army at Second Manassas secured much needed victories for the Confederacy. Jackson’s exploits and victories rallied Confederate citizens at a time when the military news from out west along the Mississippi River was anything but promising. By the beginning of 1863 he was at the peak of his power. Jackson was the star of the Confederacy even eclipsing Lee’s own popularity.
At Chancellorsville on May 1, 1863 Jackson’s men stymied a Federal offensive under the command of General Joseph Hooker that emerged from a large area of tangled undergrowth known locally as the Wilderness on Lee’s exposed flank. Jackson’s aggressive advance sent the Federals back into the Wilderness and allowed Lee to assume the tactical offensive, which he never relinquished. On May 2 Lee ordered Jackson’s entire corps of roughly 29,000 on a daring 12-mile circuitous march that went undetected by the Federal Eleventh Corps, which was strung out along the Plank Road with little awareness of the growing threat to their position. The assault sent the Federals in full retreat, but with the sun quickly receding Jackson’s attack lost its momentum.
Aware that the attack had not accomplished a decisive blow Jackson reconnoitered beyond his lines looking for the location of the enemy. The lack of visibility in the dense tangled undergrowth of the Wilderness placed Jackson and his staff in a vulnerable position. While scouting two volleys from a North Carolina regiment slammed into Jackson and his party. Jackson himself was hit three times while others in his party were killed or wounded. Once removed from the battlefield Jackson’s left arm was amputated before being moved to the plantation home of Thomas Chandler at nearby Guinea Station. It was there that Jackson died of complications related to his wounds and pneumonia on May 10. Before dying Jackson spoke his final words that just about every Civil War buff can recite: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”
Jackson continues to loom large over how we remember this battle and our Civil War as a whole. For many, a visit to the Chancellorsville battlefield begins and ends at the visitor’s center, whose location reinforces a Jackson-centered narrative that highlights his flanking maneuver, assault, and accidental wounding. A premature departure from the field for visitors obscures one of the bloodiest days of fighting on May 3 as Lee continued to press the enemy and link up the two wings of his army, which were dangerously exposed to a much larger and still potent enemy. Of the 30,000 casualties suffered by both armies during the campaign, roughly 18,000 were incurred on the third day. For some visitors the roads from Chancellorsville take them to Jackson’s deathbed at Guinea Station, which is still operated by the National Park Service as the “Stonewall Jackson Shrine.” There you can spend time in the bedroom where Jackson spent his final days and contemplate his final words.
Our fascination with Jackson’s final days is somewhat curious. In many ways it is a comforting scene in a war filled with so much death. Perhaps we are reassured by the fact that Jackson enjoyed what nineteenth-century Americans referred to as a “Good Death.” He died in a setting as close to a familiar domestic scene as can be imagined during wartime; he was surrounded by loved ones at the end and; most importantly, he was able to utter a few final words that signaled an acknowledgment of the end and a reassurance that his soul would be at peace for all eternity.
Jackson’s death stands in such sharp contrast with the violent and sudden end that most soldiers faced on May 3 and beyond. It was away from loved ones, often surrounded by the cries of fellow wounded and the torn and mangled corpses of former comrades. Many died with no opportunity to share a final few words with friends and family. On the other hand, Jackson has two gravesites. His arm is buried in a marked grave close to where it was amputated and the rest of him is buried in a prominent location in Lexington, Virginia, where it is visited by tens of thousands of well wishers every year. This stands in sharp contrast with the thousands of Unknown Union and Confederate soldiers buried in cemeteries across Virginia.
Even in death Jackson is never far from our gaze. For those not quite ready to move on there are countless counter-factual scenarios where Jackson rides again. The most popular “what-if” scenarios place Jackson on the field at Gettysburg on the early evening of July 1, 1863 ready to take the high ground south of town that seemed within Lee’s grasp and which proved to be decisive. We can debate the epistemological value of well-crafted counter-factuals involving Jackson, but what is beyond dispute is that these imaginative scenarios allow us to keep him around for a bit longer. For many our Civil War is much more compelling and palatable with Jackson in it.
Jackson’s death sits at a crossroads. While alive the war can more easily be remembered as a series of bold Confederate offensives and daring flank attacks against overwhelming odds. Personalities seem to matter much more early in the war as the two armies cover huge swaths of territory in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania only to fall just short of their respective goals. Following Jackson’s death the war gradually loses its attraction as charismatic generals are either relocated or killed in battle. By the spring of 1864 the war in Virginia slows to a series of bloody confrontations that take a horrific toll, but fail to achieve decisive results while William Tecumseh Sherman hammers away at the enemy in its drive to Atlanta. The war gradually becomes more and more a question of numbers. The final nine months of the war finds the two armies locked in a stalemate around Petersburg, huddled in earthworks that anticipate the Western Front of 1917 as Sherman’s army barrels its way through Georgia and the Carolinas.
While Jackson was alive it was easier to imagine a war between two contending armies that had minimal impact on civilians and without much consideration of the gradual turn toward emancipation and the tough questions associated with the recruitment of African Americans into the army and the postwar struggles that the nation would have to face as a result of their service and sacrifice. What a postwar nation would look like was anyone’s guess.
Interest in the Civil War centennial declined sharply by May 1963 as the historical legacy of emancipation merged with the sit-ins and marches of the Civil Rights Movement. Whether Americans fifty years later will be able to confront the legacy of the second half of the war will depend, in part, on whether we can put Stonewall Jackson to rest permanently under the shade of the trees.