Symposium Fallout: Is Leading from the Front All that Bad?

This weekend’s symposium gave me a lot to think about on my drive home from the Jackson Shrine on Sunday. The thought bubbles did not stop popping up when I got home either. There was a lot to think about regarding turning points–they come on the battlefield as well as the homefront and in various shapes, sizes, and iterations.

Do we think Jackson’s decision to reconnoiter in front of his lines on the night of May 2, 1863, was a poor decision because it led to his death?

But there was one strain of thought I could not get out of my head, dealing with the important actions (perhaps turning points) of three leaders: Albert Sidney Johnston on April 6, 1862, Stonewall Jackson on the night of May 2, 1863, and John Reynolds on July 1, 1863. All received some criticism over the weekend for not being in their proper places when they were shot. Surely, Johnston was too close to the front lines to direct his army on April 6, Jackson was wrong to ride out in front of his lines on the night of May 2 and Reynolds made a poor decision on the morning of July 1, my fellow conversationalists reasoned. But, with the gift of hindsight, do we view their actions negatively because, in the end, they are mortally wounded or killed?

Examples abound of leaders commanding attacks or rallying troops that we also view as heroic, that are the stuff of battlefield legend. James Longstreet and D.H. Hill after the collapse of the Sunken Road position at Antietam, Stonewall Jackson rallying his troops at Cedar Mountain, William T. Sherman at Shiloh (though he was wounded), and George Meade on Gettysburg’s second day, are just a few examples that come to mind. These actions, which required commanders to put themselves on the front lines and in harm’s way, often come out in a more positive light. Again, none of them resulted in the death of these commanders.

Part of being an effective battlefield leader is not just having a good strategy or knowing tactics well. It’s also about inspiring your troops to carry out one’s tactical prowess, especially in trying times. John Reynolds, a native Pennsylvanian, no doubt sought to inspire his soldiers when he led them into the Herbst Woods on July 1, 1863. There are numerous examples of Albert Sidney Johnston trying to do the same with his green soldiers on April 6.

Winfield Scott Hancock’s famous words on July 3, 1863 sum up this concept best. With Confederate artillery shells sailing over his head and over his troops, an unnerving phenomenon no doubt, Hancock mounted his horse and rode up and down the lines so that his soldiers saw him. His men lay huddled behind a stonewall, some scraping into the ground to create as much cover as possible. An officer soon implored Hancock to dismount and head to the rear for safety. “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count,” Hancock replied.

Hancock’s July 3 ride has become the stuff of legend. This Dale Gallon painting portrays it and it is heroically shown in the movie “Gettysburg.”

Hancock did not mean that his life did not count. What he meant was at that trying time for his troops, his role as a corps commander was defunct. As a corps commander, he should have been behind the lines, directing the movements of his corps. Instead, Hancock adopted the other part of being an effective battlefield commander, of being a leader and setting an inspiring example, of promising to not send his troops into a place where he would not accompany them and showing that.

Getting shot while out on the front lines does not make an army or corps commander a bad one or necessarily make their decision to ride along the front lines a poor one. With hindsight, we can pick and choose what moments on Civil War battlefields where generals placed themselves at the decisive point of action were a good decision or a bad one based on the known outcome. Regardless, as was discussed multiple times at the symposium, a general inspiring his soldiers to stand firm in stressful situations or one becoming a casualty under fire can be a true turning point on a battlefield.

A Yankee’s Tale of Two Encounters with Stonewall’s Foot Cavalry at Chancellorsville (Part 2)

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson

Part Two: “I don’t know how I escaped”

Click here to go to Part One of this article.

Confederate prisoners and battle flags being taken to the rear at Chancellorsville (Edwin Forbes, May 3, 1863, Library of Congress)

The Yankees were fairly full of themselves when the May 2 fighting wound down at Catharine Furnace ironworks. The last elements of Jackson’s Second Corps rear guard— minus 250 men taken prisoner— were headed south and away from Chancellorsville. Federal Third Corps batteries were blasting away at their withdrawal. Some started to believe the Confederates could be “ingloriously” retreating, as their commander “Fighting Joe” Hooker had suggested could happen when they were confronted by his Army of the Potomac.

In a letter home to New Hampshire, Lt. Marden puffed up a bit about his unit’s performance, reflecting the celebratory mood in the ranks, where “the praise of the Sharpshooters was in everybody’s mouth.” Marden was picked to lead a detail escorting captured Georgians to the rear. While they were marched to the north, some of the prisoners began gloating that Stonewall had a special surprise still to deliver that day. The Sharpshooter’s letter didn’t record exactly what was said, but the threats likely resembled a taunt remembered by another Union soldier: “You may think you done a big thing just now, but wait till Jackson gets around your right.”[i]

Marden and his party were headed for an abattis (a barrier of felled trees) that crossed the planked surface of the Orange Turnpike and extended into the woods on either side. From that point, the federal Twelfth Corps line stretched east, towards Hooker’s headquarters in Chancellorsville center. The army’s right flank, guarded by Eleventh Corps, followed the turnpike to the west for two miles before it abruptly ended. Hooker anticipated the battle’s major combat would occur on the Union left flank.

As they approached the barrier, the sharpshooters could see that their talkative prisoners were not liars. Far from retiring to the south with his men, Jackson had led them around to the west of the Eleventh Corps flank. The Second Corps column had emerged on the Orange Turnpike and formed up for battle, out of sight of Eleventh Corps’ flank. As Marden’s party drew close to the plank road in the fading evening light, Stonewall’s surprise attack was well underway.

“Jackson came around [the flank]… driving the 11th Corps down the plank road regular Bull Run style,” wrote Marden. Chaos reigned as panicked federal soldiers stampeded down the turnpike, many without rifles. Some burst out of the woods in front of his detail, disappearing into the thick growth on the other side.

“They are the men who used to fight mit Siegel*,” the lieutenant spat out in his letter, referring to the thousands of native born Germans who served in the Eleventh. “I never heard a more conglomerate dialect of cursing, fright and blubbering in Dutch English and French than they presented.” (Many troops— especially New Englanders—referred to the immigrant soldiers as “Dutchmen.”) In a later letter Marden’s tone softened. “I am not ready to condemn them,” he wrote. “They had overwhelming odds and were completely surprised.”

Suddenly, Minie balls were buzzing over the Sharpshooter’s party, fired by terrified Eleventh Corps soldiers on the turnpike barrier. The right was now the main front in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Marden and his men, travelling with a large group of gray-uniformed Georgians, were in the confused space between a desperate Yankee line of defense and Stonewall Jackson’s hard-charging infantry.[ii]

The stampede of the Union Eleventh at Chancellorsville. From Harper’s pictorial history of the Civil War (Chicago, Ill/ McDonnell Bros., 1868) Part 2, p. 494. (Artists Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, Library of Congress)

While Marden was readying to march his prisoners north, Third Corps commander Daniel Sickles reported his success at the furnace to Hooker. Believing his foe was abandoning Chancellorsville, Hooker pulled 25,000 infantrymen, cavalry troopers and supporting artillery south from his main lines, massing them around Hazel Grove and the ironworks. Sickles would take some of them to pursue Stonewall’s retreat. The other troops would confront the Confederates who had remained east of Chancellorsville with their army’s commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee. Assuming his enemy also was about to exit Fredericksburg, at 4:10 p.m. Hooker telegraphed the Union force opposite the town to be ready to chase those Rebels when they retreated.[iii]

On the Union right that afternoon there had been reports of Confederate movement south and west of the Eleventh Corps. A few units heeded the warnings and took defensive measures, but most of the Eleventh’s brass, including corps commander Maj. Gen. General Oliver Howard, dismissed the alarms. By late afternoon, most rifles were stacked for the night. Wood smoke, the aroma of cooking meat and strains of fiddle music permeated the air around the Union campsites.

The long red line traces Jackson’s route from the federal left flank to its right flank, on the Orange Turnpike. The Second Corps charge is represented by the red arrow. The Confederates reached and, in places, went over the barrier where Marden had earlier transferred his prisoners. (Creative Commons, map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com)

Jackson arrayed his men in mile-long lines facing perpendicular to Howard’s positions and launched his assault about 5:30 p.m. Although hot, exhausted and hungry from a hard march in eighty-degree weather, the Confederates charged full bore down the plank-covered turnpike and through the woods alongside the road. The shrieking attackers drove all manner of wildlife— even a bear— in front of them and through Eleventh campsites. Soon the sounds of rifle and artillery exchanges added to the confusion. Union soldiers were fleeing eastwards, accompanied by galloping horses and terrified mules. Valiant pockets of federal resistance that formed along the line quickly were overrun. There were few nearby troops to rush to the aid of the Eleventh. Many of units that Hooker redeployed south that afternoon had come from positions on the Orange Turnpike.

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (between 1855 and 1865). From the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs.

Howard suddenly appeared riding up the turnpike, an American flag wedged under the stump of an arm lost in an earlier battle, calling on his men to take a stand. Rank held no authority in the midst of this horde. His horse spooked and threw him to the ground.[iv]

Marden’s letter vividly describes the deteriorating scene that he witnessed that unfolded:

Jackson was… sending grape and canister down the plank road. All this happened just as I was going up the road on the left (A to B on his hand-drawn map) with some of my prisoners. I hurried as fast as Rosy [Marden’s horse] would go, but [that] was not fast enough— just as we turned the bend (at B) our Dutchmen were formed behind the abattis at the corner and seeing the graybacks as we went along they supposed the rebs also [were] coming up that road and they gave us the compliment of a volley. Fortunately, they fired high and did not hit me.[v]

This map was drawn in a letter to illustrate the road (marked “a” to “B”) on which Marden and his detail took their Confederate prisoners north from Catharine Furnace. The log abbatis on the Orange Turnpike (“Plank Road” on the map) where the Confederates were transferred is marked “B”. Jackson would be mortally wounded later that evening, just to the north of the barrier (n.b.: on this map, north is to the right of the Plank Road.) Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellor House is marked “D.”)

In another letter, the Sharpshooter described the precarious situation he faced while returning to his unit:

I forgave them their volley… the first time, but the second time was not so funny and vastly more dangerous… I got the prisoners and guard over the abattis and turned [back] down the road [to the south]. As I turned our cavalry came rushing up… with sabres [sic] drawn and filled the narrow place. The gallant Howard’s men again took a panic and the whole line fired. I don’t know how I escaped. I could not go backward or forward. I got off my horse and squatted down in the pines, the Minies whistling in a perfect shower about my ears. Several of the Cavalry were killed and the confusion was extreme.[vi]

As darkness approached, federal commanders rallied some of the fleeing soldiers to fight. Troops diverted south by Hooker rushed back to the turnpike, pushing their way through waves of retreating soldiers to counterattack. It grew too dark to fight at about 9 p.m., but sporadic combat continued. Some Confederates had reached to within a half mile from Hooker’s Chancellor House headquarters. Jackson’s men reorganized on a line facing east that crossed the turnpike and included the barrier where panicked Eleventh Corps men fired at Marden and his party. Meanwhile, federal forces fell back and feverishly constructed new works around Hooker’s headquarters.

Sporadic musket and artillery continued, as men on both sides blundered about searching for their units. A Union general later wrote that the May full moon shed “just enough of its light to make darkness visible.” In fact, many of those killed and wounded that night were shot by someone from their own side, as was Stonewall Jackson, near where Marden’s detail delivered their prisoners.[vii]

The sharpshooter slowly rode south to rejoin his brigade. It would not be until the next day he discovered his horse had been hobbled by a musket ball. His letters do not mention any encounters with Second Corps soldiers that night, a remarkable stroke of lucky timing, as Jackson’s men soon would pierce the abattis where he had delivered prisoners.

Exhausted, the lieutenant reached his brigade in Hazel Grove and bedded on the ground, under his coat. The men knew that Third Corps’ positions now lay to the southwest of Hooker’s new defensive lines. The sharpshooters “bitterly thought of the morrow” as they tried to sleep, wrote Marden, knowing they were vulnerable to attack from at least three sides. The next day, May 3, promised a major battle. Confederates now were east and the west of the Army of the Potomac. And from the sounds in the woods around Hazel Grove, they were preparing to fight.[viii]

This detail shows the reconfiguration of the two sides after Jackson halted his assault, at about 9 p.m. What was the Union right is now populated by the Confederate Second Corps. The shattered remnants of Eleventh Corps collected north of Chancellorsville Center. Confederates under Lee are to the east of Union lines. George Marden’s Sharpshooters and the Third Corps, meanwhile, are in and around Hazel Grove, outside the defensive line encircling Hooker’s headquarters. (Battle of Chancellorsville, detail of Map 6, National Park Service, illustrated and produced by John Dove.)

Notes and Sources:

* Marden is referring here to the German-born former commander of Eleventh Corps, Franz Sigel and the popular slogan of German immigrants joining the army, “I’m going to fight mit Sigel.” The slogan became the title of one of the most popular songs of the Civil War.

[i]  Marden Civil War letters, April 30, May 4 (Available at Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover N.H); John L. Collins, Battles and Leaders Ed. Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel (New York: Century Co., 1888) Vol. 3, Pg. 183, quoted in Ernest B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave (New York, Alfred A. Knoph, 1992) 156

[ii] Marden letters, May 4, May 8

[iii] Stephen Sears, Chancellorsville (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996) 268-269; Furgurson, 187; Theodore Dodge, The Campaign of Chancellorsville, (Boston: J.R. Osgood and Co., 1881) Retrieved at : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5715/5715-h/5715-h.htm#link2H_4_0013 P. 32.

[iv] Sears, Chancellorsville, 260-271, 275-281, Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863…, 180-181.

[v] Marden, May 4.

[vi] Marden, May 8; Furgurson, 187-188.

[vii] Sears, 286-288; From The Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters Of General Alpheus S. Williams, edited by Milo M. Quaife (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1959), quoted in Sears, 290; Marden, May 4, May 8; The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the Confederacy’s Greatest Icon, by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White (Emerging Civil War Series, California, Savas Beatie, 2013) 16 [Compare Marden’s above map to the Mackowski/White map locating where Stonewall was shot.]

[viii] Marden, May 4, May 8

A Yankee’s Tale of Two Encounters with Stonewall’s Foot Cavalry at Chancellorsville (Part 1)

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson

Part One: A “most splendid affair” at Catharine Furnace

On May 2, 1863, the day that Lt. General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville, his Second Corps “foot cavalry” fought two separate times with the Army of the Potomac. The first encounter took place in the afternoon at the Catharine Furnace ironworks, south of the main Union positions in and around the town, along the Orange Turnpike. Regiments of the Federal Third Corps engaged there in intense skirmishing with the rear guard of Jackson’s 28,000-strong force, capturing nearly an entire regiment. That small success, however, proved inconsequential. Most of the Second Corps column had marched south, then stealthily circled to the west for their second combat of the day, emerging a half mile from the endpoint of the Union army’s right flank. Stonewall launched a ferocious attack from there at about 5:30 p.m., surprising and completely routing the 11,000 men of the federal Eleventh Corps, and setting the stage for a significant Confederate victory.

I’ve found only one Union soldier whose writing provides first-person accounts of both engagements. The stories are contained in a series of letters about the Battle of Chancellorsville written by my great grandfather, George A. Marden. At the time, he was a 24-year-old lieutenant and a recently-appointed Acting Assistant Adjutant General for the U.S. Sharpshooters Brigade (U.S.S.S.), 3d Division of Third Corps. Marden provides a ripping-good narrative of the sharpshooters in action at Catharine Furnace. His second account, about escorting prisoners taken that afternoon to a supposedly-secure federal position on the turnpike, evolves into a survival story. Nearing their destination as rifle and artillery fire sounded to the west, Marden’s party was confronted by a stampede of panicked Union soldiers being driven by Stonewall’s oncoming charge. 

May 2 was the second day of fighting at Chancellorsville. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the Federal commander, discretely had moved four of his corps across the Rappahannock River to the town, ten miles west of Confederate-held Fredericksburg. Seventy-two thousand Union troops and 184 artillery pieces now occupied the town. Meanwhile, a federal force was left near Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, to be ready to attack the Rebels from the east. The general’s complex campaign plan— which he at one point declared “perfect”— was to trap his enemy between these two wings of his Army. In a written message circulated among his officers on April 30, he predicted that Army of Northern Virginia commander Gen. Robert E. Lee would be forced to “ingloriously fly or come out from his defenses [at Fredericksburg] and give us battle on our own ground, where destruction awaits him.” Marden, a collector of documents for a history of the Sharpshooters he hoped to write, copied Hooker’s decree verbatim and later mailed it home.[i]

Maj. Gen Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Prior to the battle, the architect of the complex Chancellorsville Campaign strategy boasted “My plans are perfect.” Stonewall Jackson’s surprise May 2 attack would prove those plans anything but. (Mathew Brady, public domain, Library of Congress; Photographer unknown, National Archives & Records Administration)

Hooker’s strategy worked, insofar as Lee and Jackson were made to “come out” from their Fredericksburg defenses with reinforcements for the small Confederate force positioned east of Chancellorsville. Lee now had 48,300 men on hand to oppose “Fighting Joe’s” 72,000.

There was limited fighting on May 1, but Hooker pulled his men back when they met resistance moving towards Fredericksburg. Lee reckoned that pursuing and attacking his well-entrenched opponent from the east could lead to his army’s destruction. He and Jackson sat up late that night to hatch an audacious plan to counter the Union battle strategy. Lee would stay put with 14,000 soldiers, demonstrating enough to keep the Yankees expecting an attack on their well-manned left flank. Jackson would march Second Corps along narrow roads south of Hooker’s army and circle around to its rear, emerging on the opposite side of Chancellorsville from Lee. He either would seize U.S. Ford on the Rappahannock or attack the reportedly weak federal right flank on the Orange Turnpike. If Stonewall attacked and succeeded, Lee would move in from the east. If the day did not go well, retreat was an option.[ii]

In the early-morning light of May 2, Union lookouts in Hazel Grove, a meadow south of the Turnpike, spied the Confederates rapidly marching through a clearing at the Catharine Furnace ironworks, about a mile south of their post. Hooker moved Third Corps, under Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, to the meadow. His artillery opened up, with little effect. Shortly after noon, Hooker approved Sickles’ request to cautiously advance on Jackson’s column. Nine regiments of the Third moved out, spearheaded by Col. Hiram Berdan’s two-regiment Sharpshooter Brigade. Additional regiments followed, in case Jackson counterattacked. Following a creek bed south, the men thrashed their way through the thick, scrubby woods native to the region locals called the Wilderness. “I came very near to losing all my clothes as well as my eyes,” Marden declared.

The above map detail shows the Third Corps advance at Catharine Furnace, with the two regiments of the U.S.S.S. at the tip of the spear. Elements of other Confederate regiments and artillery batteries, not shown here, participated in the rear guard action with the 23d Georgia. (Battle of Chancellorsville, detail of Map 3, National Park Service, illustrated and produced by John Dove.)

As his men approached the Furnace, Berdan ordered Marden to “superintend” a skirmish line and advance on the Confederates’ rear guard, the Georgia 23d Infantry. A staff aide and quartermaster prior to his promotion to A.A.A.G., the sharpshooter had chaffed for such an assignment. He was anxious, however: this would be his first combat experience on a skirmish line. In an April letter home, he revealed his previous duties “hardly served to show what sort of stuff I was made of… I feel myself but an untried soldier.” Once the fighting commenced, however, his apprehensions apparently faded. “The bullets began to whistle uncomfortably close but in a few minutes I got so excited I did not think of them,” the soldier later wrote.[iii]

The sharpshooters moved forward, steadily firing their breech-loading Sharps rifles, which could reload and fire up to three times faster than the muzzle loading Springfield and Enfield rifle-muskets commonly carried by infantry on both sides. A soldier in a supporting Pennsylvania regiment got a demonstration of the marksmanship, teamwork and tricky tactics for which Berdan’s men were becoming well-known. Creeping through the long grass along the creek bed, the Pennsylvanian wrote, one of the sharpshooters raised his cap on a ramrod. When fired upon, the soldier instantly “gave a leap and fell on the grass as if dead. This caused several Rebs to look out from their hiding places.” Other sharpshooters then opened fire.

The men in the 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S., mostly seasoned veterans, slowly pushed their foe out of the woods and into the ironworks clearing. Once there, the lieutenant watched “the rebel train skedaddling double quick.” Although losing ground, the outnumbered Confederate rear guard had delayed their attackers and most of Second Corps had passed south. Fighting continued and some in the 23d Georgia sheltered in an ironworks building. Their pursuers formed a line about 400 yards away and took aim.

An artist’s depiction of the Catharine Furnace complex. (National Park Service illustration on an interpretative plaque.)

The U.S.S.S. 2nd Regiment chaplain Alonzo Barber— known for both his marksmanship and his popular sermons— was on the skirmish line. The so-called “Fighting Preacher” carried a custom-made two barreled rifle, a combination long-range target rifle and shotgun. Marden’s letter captured him in action:

“When the enemy showed their flag of truce he thought it was some trick and wanted to fire. The sight of a butternut looking through a barn window at 400 yards was too much for him, and as they did not come out right away he blazed away and the rebs dropped out of sight like so many prairie dogs… In a few moments the rebs showed a white rag and came in.”

The sharpshooters took 56 prisoners from the building, noted Marden. When he later asked them why they didn’t flee, the men told him “the balls came too close whenever they showed themselves.”[iv]

The only remaining remnant of the Ironworks at Catherine furnace. This cylindrical oven was used to melt low-quality “pig iron” ore mined locally (Chris Mackowski, 2013 ECW photo).

The fighting continued, with additional artillery and regiments from both sides drawn into the battle. Eventually, the rear guard was ordered to retreat. The remaining soldiers of the 23rd Georgia never got the summons, continued to fight and were pushed south of the furnace, into a cut for an unfinished railroad.

“We then advanced those of us still on the left and in sight firing and keeping their attention, those on the right in the woods quickly and silently until they had entirely outflanked them,” wrote Marden, describing the scene. “Then they opened fire and [when the enemy] could not retreat they gave up, with… the single exception of the Lt. Col. who being mounted got away.”[v]

Was this a Rebel retreat? Hooker initially thought it might not, earlier expressing concern that later there might be an attack on the federal right. When Sickles reported his successes at the furnace, however, “Fighting Joe” overruled his initial caution. Thinking his “perfect” plans were working, the general began planning for the pursuit of what he thought was a fleeing Army of Northern Virginia.[vi]

Marden later wrote home that the afternoon fight at the furnace had been “a most splendid affair” for the sharpshooters.  His evaluation of the evening adventure he was about to have on the Orange Turnpike was the opposite. The young lieutenant would recall that event as one of his most unusual and more dangerous wartime experiences, writing “I don’t know how I escaped.”

To be continued…

Sources:

[i] Edward J. Stackpole, Chancellorsville: Lee’s Greatest Battle (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Co., 1958) 95, quoted in CAPT Margaret Harris, “Lee Uses Audacity, Surprise to Defeat Union Forces,” Infantry Magazine, April-June, 2015, 73.; Stephen Sears, Chancellorsville (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996) 120, 236.; George Marden, Civil War letters, April 30, 1863, available at Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover N.H.)

[ii] Sears 198, 212, 252; Theodore Dodge, The Campaign of Chancellorsville, (Boston: J.R. Osgood and Co., 1881) Retrieved at : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5715/5715-h/5715-h.htm#link2H_4_0013 P. 32.

[iii] Ernest B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave (New York, Alfred A. Knoph, 1992) 148, 150; Sears, 254; Dodge, 67-69; Marden letters, May 8, April 16.

[iv] Furgurson, 151; Sears, 255-256; Marden, May 8

[v] Sears, 255; Marden, Ibid.

[vi] Sears, 256; May 2 dispatch from Brig. Gen. J.H. Van Alen to Gens. Howard and Slocum, quoted in Furgurson, 148.

Telling Stonewall Jackson’s Story Atop Henry House Hill

Chris Rob Manassas 157th

This is just a picture of the Facebook video, not the video itself.

I always think of July 21 as Stonewall Jackson’s birthday. Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born on January 21, 1824, so that’s his actual birthday, but he got his famous nickname at the battle of First Manassas, which took place in this date in 1861. That’s when he became “Stonewall.” That’s where the legend was born.

I had the privilege to tromp around on the Manassas battlefield for part of the day with my ECW colleague Rob Orrison, who invited me to participate in a series of Facebook videos shot throughout the day in “real time” to commemorate the 157th anniversary of the battle. We were joined by historians Bill Backus and Paige Gibbon-Backus, both of whom have made some great contributions to ECW over the past couple of years. Rob, Bill, and Paige all work for Prince William County’s department of historic preservation, and they were all over the battlefield all day long shooting these videos. They brought in a cool line-up of special guests, and I was lucky to be among them. 

My job was to get Stonewall Jackson onto the field at Manassas, first by marching the 2600 men of the Stonewall Brigade passed what is now the Ben Lomond Historical Site (which Paige manages). Then, we picked up the story in a field behind Jackson’s line at Henry House Hill and carried it onto the hilltop itself, finally ending next to the statue of Ares, God of War, atop his Warhorse of the Apocalypse—er, I mean, the Stonewall Jackson statue.

If you’d like to check out the videos, you can watch them on the Prince William Historical Foundation’s Facebook page (even if you’re not on Facebook, you can still watch them). Rob, Bill, and Paige filmed a series of ten segments–great stuff!

I grabbed a couple photos during the course of the day as we roamed around the battlefield around Henry House Hill. It was a gloomy day, and it started raining on us the moment I firs got out of the car, but it was still an excellent day to be on the field, on the anniversary, telling one of my favorite stories of the war.

And if you think you know the story of how Jackson got his name, I really encourage you to watch the video. The story as it happened, versus the story as people think it happened, are a bit different, although it’s every bit as dramatic.

Happy birthday, Stonewall.

UDC @ Manassas 2018

The United Daughters of the Confederacy have an annual wreath-laying ceremony for the Jackson statue at Manassas, but they got rained on today.

Bill Backus @ 4th Alabama Field

Bill Backus prepares to video Rob and me in the field where Stonewall Jackson got his name. Note: No Stonewall statue in this field. Surprised? Perhaps you only *think* you know the story….

Ricketts Battery

Ricketts’ Battery took a point-blank volley from the 33rd Virginia–part of the Stonewall Brigade–because the Virginians were wearing blue uniforms, which made them look like Federals.

Stonewall @ Manassas in Distance

There stands Jackson, off in the distance, like a stone wall.

Challenging an Assumption About Stonewall Jackson’s Death

David_Lloyd_GeorgeThose of us who tell the story of Stonewall Jackson’s death are often asked to share our thoughts on what might have happened had Jackson lived. (I usually respond by challenging the basis of the question, as I’ve explained here and here.) While often fun, speculating on counterfactual history is nearly impossible, so many of us try to avoid it, at least in a professional capacity. Instead, many of us dodge the question using a variety of sidesteps. One of the most common is to whip out a quote from former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

During a 1923 visit to the United States, George made a point to visit the building where Stonewall Jackson died—today known as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. “That old house witnessed the downfall of the Southern Confederacy,” George said. “No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived.”

George’s comment certainly frames Jackson’s death as a major turning point of the war, and many people who share that view use George’s comment to reinforce that perspective. However, I’ve had reason of late to reconsider George’s words. 

If we unpack George’s comment a little, we can see that it’s quite literally true: “the history of America would have to be rewritten had ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived.”

However, the same exact thing could be said of virtually any major historical figure. You could say, “No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had Abraham Lincoln lived.” It doesn’t even have to even be a live-or-die scenario, either. No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had Abraham Lincoln never moved to Illinois, or had Abraham Lincoln never learned to read, or had Abraham Lincoln never been born.

Pick anyone. Pick any event, big or small, in their life. Had that event turned out differently, the person’s life would have turned out different; if that person’s life turned out differently, the story of American would have turned out differently.

So, George’s statement carries a sense of gravitas, but it’s actually a statement of the blindingly obvious. In that regard, it serves as a useful bit of rhetorical sleight of hand because it sounds so good.

Quoting George carries a particular weight. After all, as the former British prime minister during World War I, George knew a thing or two about war and the factors that impact it. He had a strong sense of history and understood the sorts of things that affected its ebbs and flows. So, perhaps his judgment about Jackson’s death did come from a place of particular insight.

That’s the logic, anyway—but I’ve come to wonder about that, too.

Recently while reading a biography of Winston Churchill—Thomas E. Ricks’ Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom—I came across a passage that made me reconsider the wisdom and insight I’d also given George credit for. Specifically, George called Adolph Hitler “a remarkable man” whose good sense “has not been turned by adulation.”

George would not have been the only person snowed by Hitler, by any means. But if David Lloyd George had such remarkably good insight about the flow of history, yet he got Hitler wrong, then perhaps I should not automatically assume he had special insight into Stonewall Jackson, either.

To be clear, I am not comparing Hitler to Stonewall Jackson. Rather, I’m challenging one of my own long-held assumptions—something we all should so once in a while. Perhaps David Lloyd George did not speak with the authority I always I assumed he had.

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We’ll be exploring Jackson’s death as a turning point of the Civil War at this year’s Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge. Our Sunday tour on Aug. 5th will concentrate on Jackson’s wounding and death. Tickets are still available for the weekend for $155.