Oh, For the Presence of Stonewall Jackson

stonewall jackson

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.

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11 comments… add one
  • Scott A. MacKenzie May 10, 2013 @ 14:41

    I’m still frustrated by the presence of a Stonewall Jackson statue at the West Virginia state capitol in Charleston. He, a native of Clarksburg, fought hard to keep his fellow northwesterners under the rule of the slaveholders. The majority of them turned just as hard against people like him. Yet the United Daughters of the Confederacy managed to erect this monument in 1910. Such is the tortured memory of the War of the Rebellion in this Union state.

    • Bob Arrington May 13, 2013 @ 9:36

      I don’t see the reason for frustration. The Daughters placed the statue of Stonewall at the state capitol with the unanimous consent of both houses, which passed the bill in 1 day.
      Stonewall probably represent the sentiments of most West Virginans of that day than any other statue on the capitol grounds. To keep it short, most West Virginians did not want to separate from Virginia, Pierpont told Lincoln on Dec. 30 1862-“The Union men of West Va. were not originally for the Union because of the new state.” The telegram is in the Library of Congress. Statehood was a private enterprise of Pierpont and Co. There is actually no majority support for Pierpont at any time during the Restored Government’s existence. If you want an example of the facade of West Virginia history you only have to look at Gettysburg.


  • Dudley Bokoski May 10, 2013 @ 14:29

    “While Jackson was alive it was easier to imagine a war between two contending armies that had minimal impact on civilians…”.

    That is true if you consider the war only from the standpoint of the Eastern Theater. Out west, especially in Missouri, it always had an enormous impact of civilians, many of whom were actively involved in the process of persecuting and/or killing their neighbors. It was a much uglier war, perhaps in part because the armies seemed to be more “ad hoc”. In the east you had two established armies (The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia) with more of a West Point orientation, who prosecuted the war by attacking each other. Out west the lines were blurred from Day 1.

    To some extent, and that is a far leap, maybe one other impact of Jackson and how we remember him (and the Army of Northern Virginia) is that he and they were headliners who relegated the rest of the war very much to second billing.

    What the war in the west underscores is the bitterness between the civilian populations. In addition to slavery, in addition to state’s rights, and in addition to any other theory you might want to add regarding how the sections came to war, you have to also add the idea that the North and South had for quite some time lost the ability to comprehend each other and developed deep seeded contempt.

    It is a much cleaner shorthand to view the Civil War through the lens of Lee vs Grant and all his failed predecessors. And Jackson’s life makes a wonderfully interesting story. But all of it tends to obscure the fact these were people who didn’t like each other and did not go off to kill each other with much reluctance.

    • Kevin Levin May 10, 2013 @ 14:32

      You are absolutely right, but that is how we still remember the war. I did briefly mention that it is the charismatic personalities of the East that dominate our memory of the war.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro May 10, 2013 @ 8:59

    Fantastic essay, Kevin. I know that counterfactual history is a great place to daydream and that’s about it. And certainly, the ones who can’t put “Stonewall Jackson to rest permanently under the shade of the trees” NEED counterfactuals because many of them can’t accept the facts of history in the first place.

    But still, we’ve all wondered what might have happened had Stonewall lived to see the Gettysburg Campaign. Latley, I’ve been wondering if Lee really was a sick man in summer 1863 (I’ve heard he either suffered a heart attack or was ill with dysentery), what if Jackson could have been placed in overall command of the Army of Northern Virginia? Who knows?

    Anyway, I just wanted to share an observation. I’m reading “Gettysburg,” from the Time-Life series “Voices of the Civil War” (this is a series of primary source, first-person accounts of the War. These books are excellent). The cover of the book features the famous quote by Lee after the failure of Pickett’s Charge: “I thought my men were invincible.” Notice he didn’t say, “We lost, simply because we didn’t have Stonewall Jackson.”

    • Kevin Levin May 11, 2013 @ 3:43

      Thanks, Bryan.

      I’ve never been seduced by the what-if scenarios involving Jackson at Gettysburg. As I suggest in the post the question itself tells me much more about the individual asking the question than it does about Gettysburg. That said, I do think that on occasion counterfactuals can be useful, but the way it is posed must be thought through and this is something that rarely happens.

  • Brendan Bossard May 9, 2013 @ 19:13

    I don’t think that we will be able to let Jackson rest. There are too many agonizing what-ifs on the part of those who belong to the losing side. I mean no slight against the South by this, either. It is just a natural thing, like Chicago Cubs fans wondering what if one of their own hadn’t interfered with a catchable ball in the 2003 NLCS. It is especially galling, I am sure, that Jackson died of wounds inflicted by his own as the battle was dying down for the day. It would be much more palatable if he had died by the enemy’s hand in the heat of battle.

    In a sense, it is good that we cannot let Jackson rest, I think. Jackson symbolizes the death of what might have been not only for the hundreds of thousands of young men who died on the battlefield, but also for the nation that suffers racial and sectional ill will to this day partly because there were those who refused to let slavery die the slow but peaceful death that Lincoln believed the Fathers wanted for it.

    • Wallace Hettle May 10, 2013 @ 7:19

      Brendan: I think you are right, the nostalgic impulse to think of “what might have been” is a powerful thing. Think Pickett’s Charge, and Faulkner’s brilliant invocation of the lingering thoughts that the war came down to one event.

      As a Cubs fan, I must say that you always get to drink beer in a beautiful setting, and then then go out for good ethnic food. So it is not exactly like the Overland Campaign. 🙂

      • Brendan Bossard May 10, 2013 @ 15:06

        Wallace, thanks for taking my illustration in stride. 🙂

  • Wallace Hettle May 9, 2013 @ 16:22

    Well done, Kevin. The last sentence is absolutely beautiful.

    I have a mostly satirical piece on Jackson up at HNN–the serious part is to talk about biography as a genre. A couple of commentators don’t like it. My favorite insult so far: “self professed professor.”

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