But For Jackson

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville and we are already being subjected to a steady stream of interpretive flights of fancy surrounding the significance of Stonewall Jackson’s death.

Although it was not evident at the time, some historians believe Jackson’s death began the ruin of the Confederacy. The Southern disaster at Gettysburg two months later only confirmed the start of the eclipse.  “The road to Appomattox [where the war ended] began on [that] Saturday night” at Chancellorsville, James I. Robertson Jr., Jackson’s best biographer, has said. “With his death, the southern confederacy began to die as well.”

“It was just a tragedy for the South,” Robertson said in an interview, “the greatest personal loss that the South suffered in that war . . . a horrible blow.”  Civil War scholar Robert K. Krick said: “It’s hard to imagine the war going the way it did with Jackson present.”

I guess it should come as no surprise that Robertson and Krick are leading the way.  Upcoming editorials will likely wax poetic about Jackson’s flank attack on May 2 and his final hours at Guinea Station and ignore or run rough shod over the fighting that took place the following day, which was significantly more important.  We do love our stories.

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28 comments… add one
  • London John May 3, 2013 @ 3:32

    Is it generally considered by historians that replacing Hooker with Meade contributed somewhat to the Union victory at Gettysburg? If so, perhaps a counterfactual would be that if Jackson had done less well at Chancellorsville it might have been better for the Confederacy?

    • Kevin Levin May 3, 2013 @ 3:39

      One of the reasons why I rarely go down that rabbit hole.

  • Jimmy Dick Apr 30, 2013 @ 8:37

    I don’t think it would have mattered much in the long run. Jackson might have prolonged the war in the East so that Sherman would have marched into Virginia and finished them off if by some miracle Jackson could have managed to do better than what actually happened. There is also the chance that Jackson could have made some mistakes that would have accelerated the end of the war. It’s totally subjective.
    The main thing was that Jackson was only one man. He could not win the war singlehandedly. He could not be in the East and West at the same time. Grant still would have taken Vicksburg. Sherman still would have taken Atlanta. Grant still would have been the overall commander and running the show in the East in 1864. Jackson’s death as a turning point is kind of meaningless because that just puts too much emphasis on one man.

    Honestly, I think the main reason so many do place the emphasis on Jackson’s death as the turning point for the South starting to lose stems from the need to make the overall defeat more of a lucky incident for the North than the military victory it was. It’s a form of scapegoat, an escape into fantasy that if he had lived the war would have turned out differently and the Confederacy would have survived. That was never going to happen. The South was on a course to defeat well before Jackson died.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2013 @ 8:46

      Any Jackson counterfactual can be canceled out by another equally plausible counterfactual. In the end they tell us more about our own preoccupations than anything having to do with history. In the case of Jackson it’s a function of just wanting him around.

      • M.D. Blough Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:46

        The best response I ever heard of to the ancient chestnut of a question, “What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg,” was from a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, “Well, considering that he’d been dead for a month, I suspect he’d have been a tad gamy.”

  • Wallace Hettle Apr 30, 2013 @ 5:29

    Oh, no!! I’m beaten to the punch. I will have my own “good-bye” to Stonewall published on May 5 on HNN. In it I will of course mention my own book, _Inventing Stonewall Jackson._ Just saying.

    I agree with all the praise for Robertson as a military historian. And the speculation about what would have happened at Gettysburg appears in McPherson’s extraordinary _Battle Cry of Freedom_ as well. The difference is that McPherson is too strong a historian to make the interpretive leap from taking Cemetery Hill, which Jackson possibly could have done, and winning the war.

    And for all the amazing primary source research Robertson did on military matters, it seems that Robertson never got up to speed on a generation of social history regarding the Civil War and the South. Too bad, because that approach does not help with an unfortunate development that McPherson has labored to undercut: the isolation of military historians within the academy.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2013 @ 5:45

      I am looking forward to your piece in HNN.

      I don’t even think it’s worth speculating on what Jackson might have done on July 1 at Gettysburg. That question assumes so much about what was possible or prudent and has much more do with postwar bickering between various parties than anything having to do with the history of the battle anyway.

      Your point about Robertson’s grasp of recent social history is a good one and pretty clear through a perusal of the endnotes and bibliography. I think it’s pretty apparent in the area of recent studies of religion. That said, it’s still well worth reading for any number of reasons.

  • Dudley Bokoski Apr 30, 2013 @ 2:26

    The trouble with Jackson, and what makes him so interesting, is he was nearly everything both his admirers and critics thought he was.

    What the Confederacy lost with Jackson’s death was not so much Jackson himself but what he meant to Lee. Jackson was a subordinate who, once a plan was determined by Lee, would carry out his orders with a single minded determination. (Granting his inexplicable performance in the Seven Days campaign gives lie to that point of view). After his death Lee had to expend much more energy in managing an increasingly troublesome set of corp commanders.

    Jackson what Patton would in World War II, which was a restless urge to engage the enemy. His nature was such he lived by the biblical adage “Take not counsel of your fears.” Where others second guessed, delayed, doubted, and debated Jackson felt a compulsion to act. Lee would never, after his death, have a subordinate of that disposition again. To that extent, his death at Chancellorsville diminished Lee’s effectiveness and undoubtedly have an impact on subsequent events.

  • Jonathan Mahaffey Apr 29, 2013 @ 19:46

    While Jackson’s death was certainly a blow, I don’t think it was the death blow that Dr. Robertson makes it out to be. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg and his subsequent elevation to the overall Union command was also a blow to the Confederacy, and I don’t think Jackson surviving Chancellorsville would have had a material effect on the Vicksburg campaign and at best would have only hastened Lincoln’s decision to elevate Grant.

  • Boyd Harris Apr 29, 2013 @ 16:14

    Best answer I ever heard concerning the what ifs about Jackson was from one of the seasonal park rangers at Appomattox Court House. He was asked by a visitor: “What would have happened if Jackson would have been at Appomattox C.H.?” His answer: “He would have been smelling really awful, because he died in May of 1863.”

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2013 @ 16:18

      What I find interesting is that most of the popular counterfactuals involve a certain amount of selectivity to make it convincing. That is certainly the case when it comes to Jackson.

  • Brent Apr 29, 2013 @ 15:31

    I admit that Stonewall Jackson’s reputation is somewhat overblown, but can you honestly say that his death wasn’t a severe blow to the Confederacy’s fortunes? I’m sure historians tire of hearing this particular “what-if,” but Jackson’s absence from Gettysburg, particularly on the first day of the battle, was a great hindrance. Would the Confederacy have won its independence if Jackson had survived? Probably not. But to act as though his death had little or no relevance to the outcome of the war is a bit shortsighted, I think.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2013 @ 15:40

      Hi Brent,

      Thanks for the comment. I have no idea how the battle of Gettysburg or any subsequent campaign would have turned out had Jackson been alive. Let me be clear that I never said it had “no relevance.” Jackson’s death clearly had implications in terms of the organizational structure of the Army of Northern Virginia and for Lee as its commander. That has been studied in great detail by any number of military historians. I was simply responding to what I see as unjustified speculation on the part of two historians.

      • Brent Apr 29, 2013 @ 15:48

        I see your point, and I know you didn’t specifically say there was “no relevance,” but I detected an implication there. Guess I was mistaken. But I don’t see anything wrong with speculation; it can make the study of history even more interesting.

        I really enjoy your blog, by the way.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2013 @ 15:51

          First, thanks for the kind words re: the blog.

          I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with it either, though it is not a preoccupation of my own. In this case, however, it was speculation without any justification. That’s not necessarily the fault of Robertson and Krick since this was part of a larger story in which they were interviewed. At the same time, I don’t see how you can offer much of an explanation given the statements. In the end, I think all they were saying was that Jackson was an important military figure. Who would disagree with that?

  • Dan Apr 29, 2013 @ 12:07

    …an adopted Virginian, to be sure, in Krick’s case, but a Virginian nonetheless…

    • M.D. Blough Apr 29, 2013 @ 13:14

      Well you know what is often said, converts tend to be more fanatical than those born into a religion. I’ve never understood Krick’s rage against Longstreet. I’m reasonably sure Longstreet was dead decades before Krick was born so could not have done him any personal harm. I was once asked if I thought that there would ever be a Longstreet statue on Monument Row in Richmond. I replied that if there ever were, we’d have to learn to both ice skate and barrel jump to view the statue because (1) Hell would have had to frozen over first; and (2) we’d have to jump over the dead body of Robert K. Krick to get there. His son Bobby (Robert E. Lee Krick-I’m not kidding. His brother is William Barksdale Krick) has a sense of humor about it. Bobby spoke at the Second Longstreet Memorial Fund Symposium in Richmond in 2006, co-sponsored by the MOC. Bobby’s name tag was totally messed up and, when he spoke, he said it was probably a good idea for his protection. I like Bobby a lot. He has his father’s skills as a historian without having his obsessions.

      As for Robertson, I deeply admire him but I think he fell prey to one of the two greatest dangers for a biographer, falling in love with his subject (the other is coming to hate the subject. After doing the first volume of a projected multi-volume bio of Braxton Bragg, Grady McWhiney came to despise Bragg so much that he turned over the project to someone else). I once said that if Robertson came across irrefutable evidence that Jackson was in the habit of going through his camp(s) and shooting every 10th soldier, Robertson would publish the information. He’s too honorable and meticulous a historian not too. However, he’d then explain that this showed Jackson’s genius as a commander; that he did so in order to keep his troops constantly alert and practicing their math skills (to make sure they weren’t the 10th man) and staying on good terms with their Lord and Savior in case they were the 10th man. If you think I’m kidding, read his treatment of Jackson’s vendetta against his commander, Major William H. French, at Ft. Meade, FL, after the Mexican War because, based on camp gossip, he suspected French of having an affair with his servant girl. It turned into a bitter mutual feud that led to Jackson’s resignation from the Army to accept the VMI position (the Army was relieved to accept it.).

      • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2013 @ 13:23

        I’ve said it before that I think R.K. Krick is a dynamite historian of the Army of Northern Virginia and Jackson. That’s about it and that’s enough for me. He clearly has his interests.

        Robertson’s Jackson biography was one of the first Civil War books that I read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now that I’ve read more there are places in the book where I disagree with his interpretation. That’s to be expected and in terms of how I understand history it does not show any disrespect. You are probably right that he is a little too close to his subject, but all in all I think he is a first-rate historian.

        That said, I think their assessment of Jackson’s importance to the war is just a little over-the-top. 🙂

    • Scott A. MacKenzie Apr 29, 2013 @ 16:32

      A northwestern Virginian too. His cousin John J. Jackson presided over the United States District Court in Wheeling, Clarksburg and Charleston during the war and up to 1900.

  • Dan Apr 29, 2013 @ 12:04

    Can you really blame ’em, though? They’re Virginians; what else would they do with Jackson’s legacy?

  • M.D. Blough Apr 29, 2013 @ 12:03

    I have never been a Jackson worshipper, and that was true even before I got interested in Longstreet. As Longstreet pointed out, Jackson’s Valley opponents were distinctly second raters. He had major gifts, which only Lee, out of all his commanding officers, seemed able to control, in swift movements that demoralized the Valley opponents. He was not nearly as skillful in field command at pitched battle. He certainly energized the spirit of both his troops and Confederate civilians. However, he had enormous difficulty in dealing with people. It’s noteworthy that Lee did NOT back him on his vendetta against Richard Garnett. I think, in the level of his gifts, not his personality, his more recent equivalent would be Patton. But he could not be at what Bradley or Eisenhower did.

    Jackson’s greatest gift was getting inside of his opponents’ heads. They’d practically defeat themselves when they knew they were about to face the Great Jackson. I don’t think he’d have done well against someone like Grant who was not intimidated by Lee either.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2013 @ 12:16


      Based on what I’ve read, including Robertson and Krick, you’ve offered a very reasonable assessment of Jackson. I’ve always found Jackson to be of interest as well as his influence on how we interpret the war as a whole.

      • Rob Baker Apr 29, 2013 @ 17:56

        I would disagree. For starters, much of Longstreet’s memoirs are self serving. Also Jackson’s tactics and strategy on the field did not match Grant’s. They were two different avenues designed around the resources each man had at his discretion. Grant advocated a military strategy that the U.S. would continue well into the 20th century, which is one of the reasons the American military stalemated in the Korean War and lost the Vietnam War. I think it is interesting that you’ve made the “head to head” match-up of Jackson v. Grant. In terms of “grand strategy,” Jackson’s advocacy mirrors Grants strategy as far the operational.


        Simply, Jackson advocated the type of total war that eventually defined the military conquest of the South in 1864-’65. The logistical and tactical levels differ in that respect.

        Other historians recognize, or recognized what one could call Jackson’s military brilliance. Frank E. Vandiver noted as much in 1957:

        But death struck him down at the height of a military fame enjoyed by no other Civil War figure, struck him down at the high point of Confederate success. After he passed from the stage, the Southern armies began a long retreat on a road that led downhill and inexorably toward that poignant day at Appomattox in 1865.

        As far as ignoring the second day, it is a continuation of the imbalance the Union Army found itself in after the initial attack. Thus, the more important aspect, does not lie on Hooker’s inadequate subordinates or the Confederate’s superior firepower (a rarity in the war), but the death of what was the Confederacy’s ablest commander by reputation and pedigree.

        That being said, though I don’t always agree with Dr. Roberson, disagreeing with his arguments about Thomas Jackson is like disagreeing with Remini about Andrew Jackson.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2013 @ 1:47

          Much of the weight given to Jackson counterfactuals seems to hinge on the absolute priority of the fighting in the East as opposed to West. I am coming more and more to see that the war hinged on events along the Mississippi. Again, I am not suggesting that Jackson was not important to the course of the war in Virginia during the first half of the war. Whether the war hinged on his presence is another story entirely.

          • Rob Baker Apr 30, 2013 @ 2:37

            Whoa whoa whoa, you’re a West > East guy? I have a new found respect for you 🙂

            • Bryan Cheeseboro May 1, 2013 @ 1:13

              I understand the importance of Union military success in the west (New Orleans; Forts Henry and Donelson; Shiloh; Vicksburg; Port Hudson; etc.) as opposed to the many failures of the Army of the Potomac to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, particularly in stalemates like Antietam. But I still believe the Eastern theatre was the more significant arena of the war. The Confederate military lived and died on the success of Lee and his soldiers. I think the surrender of the ANV ends up being more significant than the fall of Richmond, which was supposed to be the prize the AOP was after for four years. I know period newspapers can be dubious as reliable sources, but I think the April 10, 1865 Richmond Whig put it best when it said that “the surrender of General Lee and his army is tantamount to an end of the Rebellion and the termination of the war.”

              I kind of look at the Eastern Theatre-Western Theatre “which-is-more-significant” thing the way I look at New England sports championships of the 2000s. The Patriots won two Super Bowls (XXXVI and XXXVIII) before the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. Since you actually live in Boston now, Kevin, you should know better than I do… but I get the feeling that Red Sox championship, like victory over the Army of Northern Virginia, meant more to most people than those two Patriots championships, like the military successes of the West, did.

              • Kevin Levin May 1, 2013 @ 1:29

                This is essentially Gary Gallagher’s argument for the primacy of the East and I think it’s a good one.

    • Ben Allen Apr 29, 2013 @ 13:45

      I agree with you (except that I wouldn’t call Bradley a person adept at dealing with people). No great commander is perfect. Frederick the Great lost plenty of battles in the Seven Years’ War. The Lorraine Campaign of 1944 didn’t see Patton at his best, nor was old Blood and Guts good at attending to logistics. Grant, when he ordered an attack, was also negligent in attending to logistical matters. And of course many competent commanders on the Great War’s Western Front failed from time to time– notably Henry Rawlinson at the first day of the Somme (July 1, 1916).

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