We spent days poring over the historical accounts, talking to Park Rangers, and trampling through the undergrowth outside Chancellorsville, Virginia, in search of the precise spot where, on 2 May, 1863, Stonewall Jackson was shot. Given the catastrophic effect on the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, we naturally expected some sort of physical marker, but there was none to be found. We’re pretty sure the thicket in the photo was the scene of the crime, but wouldn’t have bet Jackson’s life on it.
For the uninitiated, General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was the Confederacy’s tactical visionary to General Robert E. Lee’s strategic genius. He personally saved the day at the First and Second Battles of Bull Run and, prior to being shot at Chancellorsville, enveloped the Union forces in a maneuver that is still taught in military academies. He prided himself on always knowing what was going on–no mean feat in the burning, smoke-filled forest of a US Civil War battlefield–and would wander all over the terrain in search of intelligence. So it was no accident that he found himself outside the Confederate lines when one of his own pickets challenged and shot him off his horse.
Three bullets hit the General in the left arm and right hand, but in the primitive medical conditions of the US Civil War, even the most superficial wounds could prove lethal. Transported to Chandler’s Plantation in nearby Guinea Station, he suffered amputation before contracting pneumonia and dying the next day. Lee and the rest of the Confederacy were grief-stricken. As Lee said without irony, “He has lost his left arm but I my right.” Jackson would be sorely missed at Gettysburg, where Richard E. Ewell would fail to read Lee’s mind and then fumble his one great chance to win the battle and end the war.
In the occasionally bizarre and gruesome way of death in 19th century America, Jackson and his arm were buried under separate monuments 140 miles away from each other. The man was laid to rest in Lexington, Virginia, and the arm in Fredericksburg. As late as 1921, the illustrious Marine Major General Smedley Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor winner, would refuse to believe the story and order his men to dig the arm up. The offending member was still there, mouldering away in its original wooden box.
Chancellorsville would go down in history as either Lee’s greatest victory or the Union’s most pathetic defeat. But even though Lee ran rings around a far larger Union Army, he used up too many of his precious men and let the success tempt him, as it always seems to do, into overreach.
And then there was Stonewall Jackson, who died just when he was most needed.