At a time when much was going wrong for the South in the Civil War, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson carried the hopes of a nation on his lightning marches through the Shenandoah Valley.
He was a rock star in 1862-63, legendary on both sides of the conflict.
When he died on May 10, 1863, eight days after being shot accidentally by his own troops at Chancellorsville, the hopes of a nation may have died with him. The Confederate States of America had been blessed with an abundance of leaders and heroes at the beginning of the war, but Jackson may have been the leader that the South couldn’t live without.
His death is the greatest “what if” moment of the Civil War, said John Coski, historian and vice president at The Museum of the Confederacy.
What if Jackson hadn’t been hit May 2 in a tragic case of friendly fire? What was it that made him so indispensible? Why does he remain a hero?
The answers are still debated among historians and studied in leadership classes at the University of Richmond.
“Chancellorsville is the true high-water mark of the Confederacy, not geographically but in accomplishment and in chances that the Confederacy had to win the war militarily,” Coski said.
“That’s what makes this such a pivotal moment. It’s a continual debate and fascination. What if Jackson had lived? Would the ending have been different?”
The Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, was Stonewall Jackson’s greatest success after his legendary Valley Campaign of 1862. In one of his lightning moves, Jackson marched his entire corps of about 28,000 men about 14 miles around the western flank of Gen. Joseph Hooker for a surprise attack that was instrumental in the Confederate victory.
That evening Jackson and his aides rode forward to scout in front of the Confederate lines. When they returned, they were mistaken for enemy troops. Jackson was wounded in three places, including his left arm. In carrying him, soldiers dropped him on his left side and compounded the injury. His left arm was amputated.
For several days after being moved to Guinea Station, Jackson seemed to be recovering. Then he began to suffer pain and nausea, leading to a diagnosis of pneumonia.
Physicians will debate the cause of death during a conference at the University of Maryland at Baltimore on May 10. James I. Robertson Jr., the retired Virginia Tech history professor who wrote the definitive biography “Stonewall Jackson,” will speak.
“Modern-day medicine challenges the diagnosis of pneumonia,” Robertson said. “They think it was sepsis. I tend to buy that. That ball had ripped his arm apart. The stretcher dropped him twice on that mangled arm. There was nothing to keep it clean.”
Robertson also will speak May 15 at Hanover Tavern in a sold-out program organized by The Museum of the Confederacy on the 150th anniversary of Jackson’s burial in Lexington.
Jackson’s body was brought to Richmond on May 11 for a state funeral. The Daily Dispatch described the arrival:
“The announcement that they would arrive at 12 o’clock caused an entire suspension of all business in the city, and a turn out at the depot of nearly all the inhabitants of the city, who were anxious to pay the last tribute of respect to the departed chieftain.”
Wrapped in a Confederate flag and topped with evergreen wreaths and flowers, the coffin was carried down Broad Street from Fourth Street into Capitol Square.
“The military having formed a line extending across the Square past Washington’s monument, the body was slowly conveyed down the line to the Governor’s mansion, and carried into the large reception room,” the Dispatch article continued.
“The bells were tolled till sundown, till which time hundreds of people remained on the Square. We have never before seen such an exhibition of heartfelt and general sorrow in reference to any other event whatever as has been evinced by all since the announcement of the death of Stonewall Jackson.”
Another procession May 12 accompanied the body from the mansion to Second Street and back to the Capitol to lie in state.
“Some 25,000 people passed his coffin in the House chamber in Richmond,” Robertson said.
“It was as if the world had come to a standstill. This was in the middle of the war. It was a dramatic and heart-wrenching thing.”
Most historians refuse to speculate what would have happened if Jackson had lived, Coski said, but those who do say the outcome would have been the same.
“It troubles me to say this,” said Josiah Bunting III, former president of Hampden-Sydney College and superintendent of Virginia Military Institute. “I think things would not have been different.
“Jackson’s reputation is for great gallantry, great strategy, the ability to rally and inspire. But, if you’re outmanned four or five to one, you’re low on provisions, you’re low on artillery, you don’t have resources, eventually you have to accede.”
“Too many things were against the South, especially Lincoln’s resolve,” Robertson said. He paraphrased the strategy of Confederate President Jefferson Davis as, “We can win this war by not losing it. Just hold out. The North will get weary, sickened and stop.”
Lincoln had no intention of stopping.
The qualities that made Jackson great wouldn’t have a close parallel in the Civil War until Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Union Army on March 10, 1864, 10 months after Jackson’s death.
Bunting is quick to make the comparison, having been immersed in all things Jackson at VMI and subsequently writing a biography of Grant.
“Grant’s opposite number in the Confederate army was Jackson, not (Robert E.) Lee,” Bunting said.
“As far as character is concerned and ability to lead soldiers and get down and dirty, Stonewall Jackson and Grant, you might say, were brothers under the skin. They had the same kind of persisting character which saw what tactical advantage could be gained by certain things. They were superb tacticians,” with Grant’s Vicksburg campaign equal in many ways to Jackson’s Valley Campaign.
“Jackson was clearly a military genius. … He knew what he had to do and had the ability to inspire an army — a small army, tattered and not well provisioned, but with such a sense of their indefatigability that they were the best small army in the Civil War.”
Both men “had the kind of character that infuses itself throughout the entire army they commanded,” he added. “That’s a rare gift. Occasionally you see that at the head of a great university or corporation, a gift that penetrates and inspires everyone from the lowest private to the highest officer.”
Jackson’s hero status may have been sealed when he died at his peak. Call it the Marilyn Monroe factor.
“Jackson, I think, gets a lot of passes because he dies, like Marilyn Monroe, at the height of his popularity,” said Andrew H. Talkov, head of program development at the Virginia Historical Society. Those who live to fight other battles and grow old in defeat will suffer in comparison.
“(Confederate Gen. James) Longstreet is a perfect example,” Talkov said. “He doesn’t die during the war. He almost died at the Battle of the Wilderness, not that far from Chancellorsville. Longstreet was also wounded by his own troops.
“It’s interesting that, had the volley that was shot at Longstreet killed him in 1864, history would have been much more favorable to him ultimately.
“Jackson did not have to live through Reconstruction and be an ex-Confederate. He is forever a rebel. I think history is good to those people.”
Studies by psychologists prove the point, said professors George R. Goethals and Scott T. Allison at the University of Richmond. They co-wrote two books, 2010’s “Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them” and this year’s “Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.” Goethals also taught a class on Civil War leadership last fall with retired Army Brig. Gen. John W. Mountcastle.
“If you die, you’re much more likely to become a hero than if you stay alive,” Allison said. “Death really puts people up on a pedestal. It’s true of presidential reputations. The presidents with the highest reputations are presidents who are assassinated.”
Leaders aren’t necessarily heroes, Allison said, but all heroes are leaders.
“People who run into burning buildings and save others, they inspire, they motivate,” he explained. “They lead in a very different way, but they’re leading. We call it indirect leadership.” Direct leaders are those with the authority to issue orders on a battlefield or elsewhere.
No matter how they lead, heroes share characteristics that the authors have named the Great Eight. They are smart, strong, selfless, caring, resilient, charismatic, reliable and inspiring.
“Is the general who makes great command decisions different from the soldier who saves his buddies?” Allison asked. “I would say not. Maybe the general has to be smarter, but the soldier has to be braver. (The characteristics) could come in different proportions.”
Military leadership also thrives on a sense of theatricality and mystery, Goethals said.
“Jackson has a mystifying charismatic presence. He’s idiosyncratic, quirky. It led the troops to look at him skeptically. Who is this person and what’s he all about? That arousal from mystification energizes (the) following.
“That general idea of theatrics is extremely important. Things need to be hidden and revealed according to what followers require.”
Jackson’s tight rein on information sometimes rankled his officers. They wouldn’t know battle plans until they got the orders to march, which hobbled them in making independent decisions when conditions changed, Talkov said.
Jackson had the support of the common soldier because he led them to victory.
“Soldiers usually like that and are willing to endure increased suffering when they think it’s for a good cause that will bear results,” Talkov said. “The other thing was, Jackson was willing to share the suffering of the common soldier in the ranks. It’s a good leadership lesson in that respect.”
The South held an advantage in military leadership at the beginning of the war, not that there’s anything inherently Southern that made a better general, Talkov said.
“We tend to focus on Virginia, and in Virginia at the outset of war, the Confederacy had better people in place, but it was not endemic or genetic,” he said. “All these guys learned from the same people. All of them went to West Point. Jackson graduated with (Union Gen. George B.) McClellan. You couldn’t find two more different people.”
The North had to contend with political generals who were put in place to solidify support from certain regions or groups. Without a pre-existing military structure or competing political parties, the South could choose and elevate officers based on merit more easily, he said.
“The South had duds, too,” he said, “guys that were excised to the West and never heard of again.”
As the war continued and deaths mounted, the South exhausted its supply of leaders.
“I don’t think it’s the death of Jackson that undoes the Confederacy. It’s that at the Battle of Gettysburg they lose all kinds of middle management, the guys who really make the army work,” Talkov said.
“They have a limited amount of manpower to begin with. When you get successful people dying, it’s hard to replace them. That has more to do with the undoing of Confederate military success.”
Even if the war’s outcome would have been unchanged had Jackson lived, his death carried a huge emotional toll, biographer Robertson said:
“Jackson’s death was the greatest personal loss the South suffered in those four years.”