The Death of Stonewall

This entry is part 11 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

Stonewall Jackson on Little SorrelThe Battle of Chancellorsville was Stonewall Jackson’s final and perhaps, his greatest tactical achievement. Jackson’s famous Flank Attack broke the Union lines and forced a rout of the Union Army.The Confederates marched silently until they were merely several hundred feet from the Union position, then released a bloodthirsty cry and full charge. Many of the Federals were captured without a shot fired, the rest were driven into a full rout. Jackson pursued relentlessly back toward the center of the Federal line until dusk.

Then Jackson decided to scout the forward lines personally. Stonewall Jackson had always been a hands-on commander and the night of May 2, 1863 was no exception. Having routed the Union XI Corps, he was anxious to continue the success the following morning.

In the aftermath of the successful flank attack, Jackson rode among his victorious troops who responded by cheering. The adjutant of a Georgia regiment recalled the the ground appeared “to tremble as if shaken by an earthquake, the cheering is so tremendous, caused by Gen. Jackson riding along the line.” 

After the exhausting exertions of the advance and then the attack, the two attacking divisions of Brig. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Raleigh E. Colston needed to be relieved by fresh troops. Maj. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill, who commanded following division, ordered Brig. Gen. James H. Lane to advance his 5-regiment brigade to the front rank. All five regiments were from North Carolina: the 7th, 18th, 28th, 33rd and 37th Infantry.

Hill ordered Lane to position his brigade in a line perpendicular to the Orange Plank Road in preparation for a night attack.The North Carolinians were confused and hesitant about their positions. The were uncertain how to form a line because “on each side the shrubbery was so dense as to render it impossible to march.” Jackson’s plan to attack was disrupted by an unnecessary artillery duel. The North Carolinians were caught in the road as the shot and shell came “as thick as hail.” Throughout this Jackson and A.P. Hill conversed on horseback almost oblivious to the assault.

After about 15 minutes the firing ceased and Lane was able to move his troops into their new positions. Lane placed the 28th on the far left facing east with the 18th between it and the Orange Plank Road. The 37th was positioned across the road with the 7th on the far right. Lane placed the 480 men of the 33rd as skirmishers across the entire from of his brigade. In the middle of the road were three artillery pieces from a horse artillery battery. Lane later said that it was so dark that he couldn’t read his watch.

All the while, Jackson rode back and forth restlessly, impressing upon each officer the importance of the coming attack. When he met A.P. Hill, he spoke emphatically, “Press them, Gen. Hill, press them and cut them off from United States Ford.”  Upon meeting Lane, Jackson told him , “Push right ahead, Lane, right ahead.” Lane had been one of Jackson’s students at the Virginia Military Institute and knew better than to ask for further Stonewall Jackson's Reconnoiterinstructions from his former professor.

Click Map to enlarge.

Jackson and Hill accompanied by a number of staff officers then proceeded to reconnoiter the front. Jackson’s group included perhaps eight men while Hill’s included a total of ten men. The least important man in Jackson’s group was also the most important one in terms of knowledge of the area. He was 19-year old Private David Kyle of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Kyle had lived in the area and was intimately familiar with the back roads having hunted in these very woods.

Earlier in the day, Kyle had delivered a dispatch from Rooney Lee to J.E. B. Stuart. When Stuart asked him why it took so long for him to arrive, Kyle explained in detail how he had detoured around the Union troops. Stuart asked him how he was able to do this and Kyle explained that he was quite familiar with the area. Stuart then sent him on to Jackson with a large sealed envelope. Kyle eventually joined the Jackson group where Jackson ordered him to remain with him as a guide.

Kyle directed Jackson onto the Mountain Road and the party rode eastward through the thick undergrowth. The scouting mission continued with Jackson stopping to confer with Generals Lane and Hill. The Mountain Road was parallel to the more undesirable Orange Plank Road which had been recently swept by artillery fire. The Mountain Road was between sixty and eighty yards from the main road .

As Jackson’s party approached the positions of the 33rd North Carolina skirmish line, the axes of the Union pioneers could be heard in the distance as they reinforced their defensive line. Upon reaching the clearing near Fairview, Jackson’s party reversed course and started to retrace their route.

In the darkness and confusion a group of men from the 128th Pennsylvania had interposed themselves between the 7th North Carolina and the 33rd North Carolina skirmish line on the far right of Lane’s lines. Some 200 Pennsylvanians were captured by the men of the 7th. This stirred up the Union lines and orders could be heard from the Union lines.

When 19-year old Sgt. Thomas Cowan was left in charge of the skirmish line in this area, he challenged a voice in the dark as to their side. When they responded “To the Union” Cowan ordered his men to open fire which was taken up by all of the troops in the area. In the firefight, the 7th was actually firing toward the rear of their own skirmishers.

The Mortal Wounding of Stonewall JacksonJackson’s party stumbled into this firefight far to the north of the original point of attack. The Confederates suspected that Jackson’s mounted party were Union cavalry who were advancing to the attack.

Jackson was hit by three bullets, two in the left arm and one in the right hand. Several other men in his staff were killed, in addition to many horses. Darkness and confusion prevented Jackson from getting immediate care. He was dropped from his stretcher while being evacuated because of incoming artillery rounds.

Jackson’s left arm had to be amputated by the chief surgeon of Jackson’s Corps, Dr. Hunter H. McGuire. The General’s condition was not helped by the rough evacuation to a farm some 18 miles from the battlefield. Jackson eventually succumbed to pneumonia.

A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks”—then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” Thomas J. Jackson died on May 10, 1863 at the age of 39.

His friend and commander, General Robert E. Lee on the night that he learned of Jackson’s death, told his cook, “William, I have lost my right arm” and “I’m bleeding at the heart.” 

The Confederacy never replaced Jackson’s superior command and tactical skills. Less than six weeks later, Lee was defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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