Friday, May 10, 2013

Stonewall Jackson... and his arm

Lexington, VA. Visited August 2000

Photo taken a week before Jackson
was mortally wounded at
Reader's note:  In doing posts on the Civil War I will include both Union and Confederate figures.  I would appeal that these posts be read as human interest stories, not as commentary on that difficult period in American history and the slavery that required such a tragic war to be fought for its eradication.

This post occurs on the 150th anniversary of the death of Stonewall Jackson as a result of wounds received from friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. A feature of this post on Stonewall is that it comes together over a twelve year hunt to collect the various parts of Jackson together in one narrative.  Maybe most significant is my less-than-legal after dark gambit in search of Stonewall’s arm. We’ll get to that later. First some bio.

Thomas J. Jackson was born in what is now West Virginia in January 1824. His great grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, but Thomas grew up mostly poor and was orphaned as a child. Living with relatives, he was largely self-taught but was able to obtain an appointment to West Point – graduating with the class of 1846 along with other Civil War figures George McClellan, George Pickett and A. P. Hill. Upon graduation Jackson was sent to directly into combat in the Mexican War where he distinguished himself in battle in several engagements.

Jackson as a young officer - date unknown
From 1851 to 1859 Thomas Jackson taught at the Virginia Military Academy where he was regarded as a knowledgeable scholar but poor communicator. He married in 1853, but lost his wife during childbirth. He married again four years later. Thomas Jackson had a complicated relationship with slaves, seeing the institution as God-sanctioned but believing that it was the duty of slave-owners to actively better the lives of the slaves in their ownership. In November 1859 Jackson was requested by the Governor of Virginia to lead a column of VMI cadets to assist in the crowd control for the trial and hanging of John Brown at Harpers Ferry.

Thomas Jackson entered the Civil War as a colonel responsible for drilling cadets. He was eventually given command over an infantry brigade. His first significant command action was at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 where he arrived on the field as reinforcements and effectively turned the tide of the battle toward the Confederates. It was at Bull Run that Jackson received the nickname ‘Stonewall’. It’s actually uncertain whether this was a positive or negative assessment of his performance, since the officer who said it was killed before he had the chance to say anything else. But from then on he was most commonly known as Stonewall Jackson.

Mort Kunstler painting of Stonewall Jackson in prayer
Jackson was a devout presbyterian, which has given rise to much speculation on how his faith affected his generalship. Most scholars see his strong confidence in the providence of God as a reason for his absolute personal fearlessness in the field. He is viewed by some as religiously fanatic, but it is maybe best to view him as a fully Christian man in a very non-Christian profession. One of the soldiers under his command described him this way,

"The human side of this man has almost no record during those years (the war); apart from what comes to us through letters to his wife; he was not a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, and life seems to have always been to him a trust, for which he held himself strictly accountable, and which was not to be squandered in trivialities of any sort."

Your blogger at the Cornfield at Antietam
where Jackson's corps engaged in some
of the bloodiest fighting of the war. 4/12
Following Bull Run Jackson and his ‘Stonewall Brigade’ distinguished themselves through a series of five battles in the Shenandoah Valley during the Spring of 1862. Over the course of a month and half, Jackson’s audacious tactics and rapid troop movement allowed his army of 17,000 to defeat Union forces which outnumbered him three to one. Jackson’s army fought with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Peninsula Campaign, Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam and at Fredericksburg. By the end of 1862 Stonewall Jackson had gained legendary status in both armies and was the most feared commander in the war.  

The only other portrait (besides
the one at the top of this post) of
Stonewall during the war
The Battle of Chancellorsville (Virginia – April 30 to May 6) was Stonewall Jackson’s crowning achievement and his tragic end. In the wilderness west of Fredericksburg, VA Robert E. Lee engaged his army against forces under Union General Joseph Hooker. Lee risked total annihilation by splitting his army in half though he was outnumbered two to one. Jackson’s corps swung wide around the Union flank and was able to launch an attack against an unprepared foe, resulting in the total rout and retreat of the Union army. However, on May 2 Jackson and his staff were riding in the dark and surprised a Confederate picket line. The pickets fired on the party, killing several officers and shooting Jackson twice in the left arm and once in the opposite hand.  A historically credible dramatization of Jackson's unfortunate ambush is portrayed in this clip from Gods and Generals.

Me and the kids at Chandler Plantation. 
building behind us is where
Jackson died.  6/02

In the confusion it took and extended time to get the wounded general to a safe place for treatment. This resulted in the need to amputate his arm – which factors into our story below. However pneumonia set in and Thomas J. Jackson died at the age of 39 on May 10, 1863. Upon hearing of his shooting Robert E. Lee lamented, ‘I have lost my right arm’. He was laid in state in Richmond and then was returned to Lexington where he was buried in the town cemetery near VMI, just a few hundred yards from General Lee's tomb at Washington and Lee University

Most historians view the loss of Stonewall Jackson as one of the most significant setbacks in the Confederate cause. Less than two months later his loss would be felt in a catastrophic way with the defeat of Lee’s army at the Battle of Gettysburg. The lack of battlefield leadership and instinctive responsiveness to Robert E. Lee that Stonewall Jackson brought into all his campaigns was sorely missed at several points in this most significant defeat.

Your blogger at the Jackson Parade Ground at VMI - August 2000

I first visited Stonewall’s grave at the Jackson Memorial cemetery in August 2000. I had a memorable return visit in July 2006 with my dad, several of my kids and nephews. Jackson was moved from his original simple grave to a family plot underneath a statue nearby. All of him, however, but his arm. That’s a whole other story.

Your blogger at original Jackson grave -
August 2000

Me, two of my kids, two nephews and
my dad at Jackson memorial and
burial spot.  7/06

Stonewall’s missing arm – Visited November 2012

After he was shot, General Jackson was taken to the nearby plantation belonging to Thomas Chandler. Seeking to save his life, Jackson’s surgeon amputated his wounded left arm. The general lingered for several days before he passed away May 10. After his body was moved to Richmond the Jackson’s chaplain felt that his arm should receive a proper Christian funeral. It was buried in a local family’s private cemetery and a stone was eventually placed on the spot where the arm was interred. When offered the chance to rebury the arm with the rest of the general, Jackson’s widow declined because she didn’t want to disturb a Christian burial site. There were rumors that Union soldiers tried to dig up the arm toward the end of the war, but is generally beloved to still be in its original location.

Jackson's horse 'Little Sorrel' is buried at the base of the Jackson
statue on the parade ground at VMI.  8/00

I’ve always felt that I couldn’t do a proper post on Stonewall Jackson without getting to his arm. And with the 150th anniversary approaching I was running out of time. So I used a trip south to my mom’s for Thanksgiving to try to get to Ellwood Plantation, a part of the Chancellorsville National Battlefield Park, where the arm is buried. With me in various degrees of enthusiasm were my son Grant and nephew Craig. However my great plan was thwarted by a massive traffic jam on I-95 south of Washington. By the time I reached the park office it was dark and the plantation was closed. Massively bummed, I decided to drive over to the entrance of the plantation and hope to maybe get a technical glimpse of the burial site. But the entrance is just a little driveway into the woods with gate leading to the long driveway to the house. Maybe I was too close to my goal, maybe I was crazed by the traffic. But it was dark and we were alone, so we jumped the fence and embarked on a stealth visit to Ellwood Plantation. Unexpectedly this required a jaunt down a quarter mile driveway across open ground. Not a problem except we were trespassing on government property and had to leave our rental car parked in view of the highway.

My son Grant at Stone Mountain, GA.  Jackson is riding third
in the giant carving behind Lee and Jefferson Davis.  6/05 

We made it to the house and stumbled around the yard in the dark looking for some sign of the cemetery hoping not to break something or injure ourselves.  Eventually Craig discovered a marker in the dark pointing to the way to an open field with a small fenced area. Quick jaunt to the spot for the attached picture and then we high-tailed it back up the road to the car. Safe back on the right side of the law I pondered both the morality and sanity of how far I had gone to finish my Jackson pilgrimage. But I kind of rationalized it as a bold Jacksonian flanking maneuver. I'm pretty sure that wouldn't hold up in court, it's my story and I’m sticking with it.

Your blogger at final resting place for Jackson appendage
at Ellwood Farm. The marker reads, 'Arm of
Stonewall Jackson.  May 3, 1863. 
Spooky dark and proof of trespassing
on federal property.