Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, one of Robert E. Lee’s most outstanding generals in the Army of Northern Virginia, was born in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), on January 21, 1824.
General Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory is said to have been the Battle of Chancellorsville, the largest battle in Virginia’s history. But it was also the scene of Lee’s greatest loss, for this is where friendly fire slew Stonewall Jackson.
Robert Krick, former chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for thirty years, published a series of articles that examines the Chancellorsville campaign in detail. They are no longer available online, but I managed to copy them before they were removed.
He sets the scene:
“At the end of April 1863, an immense Northern army maneuvered into the dense thickets west of Fredericksburg known as ‘the Wilderness of Spotsylvania,’ trying once more to beat the Confederates who had slaughtered their comrades so easily the preceding December in the Battle of Fredericksburg. The battle that ensued involved more men, and resulted in more casualties, than any other engagement ever fought on Virginia soil.”
Lee was relying on the prowess of the “Mighty Stonewall” Jackson, whose accomplishments so far had seemed to live up to his legendary status. Krick writes, “[a]ll day long on May 2, 1863, Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson led a column on a secret march across the front of the Federal army around Chancellorsville. Late in the afternoon he reached a wonderful vantage point behind his enemy, who remained unaware of impending disaster.” Although the Federals had mounting evidence that Confederates were slipping west, they thought their enemies were retreating, and that they might even take off in pursuit the next day. But as they looked forward to a quiet night, something changed. Krick reports: “Then some thrashing in the thickets to westward began to draw attention. Quail and rabbits dashed out of the brush. Behind them arose the spine-chilling, blood-freezing, ululating screech of the Rebel Yell. No one would be chasing Confederates in the foreseeable future.”
Surprise, a hallmark of attacks by Jackson, unhinged the Federal line. Krick relates: “Confederates heading east in the fading twilight of May 2, 1863, ran roughshod over their foes. An evening full of excitement and victory for Southerners offered no real options for Northerners other than brief resistance followed by flight. Many Federals – probably most of them – made no resistance at all, nor could they reasonably have been expected to do so. Troops never have tolerated surprise attacks from behind.”
“The spectral image of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson heightened the impact. ‘Jackson was on us,’ an Ohio soldier wrote, ‘and fear was on us.’ An attacker from Alabama professed to know that ‘Jackson went forth from every Yankee tongue as they broke pell-mell.’ In his official report, a colonel from Massachusetts drolly described his fleeing friends as being ‘under the influence of an aversion for Stonewall Jackson.'”
Later on the night of May 2, 1863, Jackson rode out in the darkness to determine how he might exploit the day’s victory and turn it into an even greater triumph. Unfortunately, an entire regiment of Carolinians had gone forward as skirmishers, and moreover they had encountered a group of wandering lost Federals. In the brush and the darkness, shots rang out. General A.P. Hill tried to yell out and halt the fire, shouting through the darkness that there were friends to their front. A Confederate major bellowed back, “It’s a lie! Pour it into them, boys!” And as Krick writes, “the boys did.” Three bullets found their way into the arms of Stonewall Jackson; two shattered his left arm, and another went nearly through his right hand. He died eight days later.
His death was a severe setback for the Confederacy, affecting not only its military prospects, but the morale of its army and the general public; as Jackson lay dying, General Robert E. Lee sent a message to Jackson saying “Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right.” When Lee learned of Jackson’s death, he told a friend, “William, I have lost my right arm” and “I’m bleeding at the heart.”
It could be argued that Lee’s success was in large measure a result of Jackson’s brilliance and courage, and that once Jackson was gone, the Southern cause lost its best hope.
Robert Krick is widely regarded as the foremost authority on Chancellorsville. He has a number of books that retell the story of what happened to Stonewall Jackson, such as The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy: The Death of Stonewall Jackson and Other Chapters on the Army of Northern Virginia (Louisiana State University Press, 2004).