“If Jackson hadn’t gotten shot”: Facing the Counterfactual Specter of Stonewall Jackson’s Wounding

Imagine a grave tone of voice, a rueful shake of the head: “Oh, if Jackson hadn’t gotten shot….”

Sometimes, the phrase gets stated in the form of certainty: “If Jackson hadn’t gotten shot…” or even, “If Jackson had lived….”

The speaker hardly needs to finish the phrase. The unspoken suggestion hangs in the air plain enough: If Stonewall Jackson hadn’t gotten shot…the war would have been different.

Such a premise is, of course, impossible to argue with because if Jackson hadn’t gotten shot, of course the war would have been different by the mere fact that events themselves would have been different. That’s what “different” means.

Raising the “probability” of a different war, though, seems too easy, too self-evident, too smug. Most people who trot out that premise are ignorant about the context of Jackson’s wounding and so never bother to consider the assumptions behind it.

So let’s look at the question a little more closely: what if Jackson hadn’t gotten shot?

Despite the most hopeful wishes of Jackson fans and Lost Cause partisans, it is impossible to know what would have happened. Who’s to say he wouldn’t have hit his head on a tree branch by accident and knocked himself out of the fight that way? Or got pitched from a spooked horse? Or hit by a random Federal artillery shell?

I don’t say that to sound flippant. Had he not gotten shot, he might have just as likely had some other accident befall him. Or, perhaps, maybe he’d have simply changed his mind and waited until morning. The point is: there’s no way to tell.

Jackson’s hand-sketched map of the Chancellorsville area.

It’s more likely, I concede, that Jackson would have carried on as intended. That means he would have renewed his assault under the cover and confusion of darkness, urging A.P. Hill’s fresh brigades forward through the thick woods of Chancellorsville’s wilderness. “Allow nothing to stop you,” he told Hill. “Press on to the United States Ford.”

Of the 21,000 or so men who made up the first wave of Jackson’s assault—Raleigh Colston and Robert Rodes’ divisions, plus lead elements of Hill’s—about 800 of them ended up as casualties. Assuming all of the rest of Hill’s men made it into battle after their exhausting day of marching, that would have plugged roughly seven thousand new men into the fight, giving Jackson 27,000 tired, disoriented infantrymen for his planned night assault.

Ely’s Ford Road

In making for U.S. Ford, we know he intended to cut off the Federal route of retreat along Ely’s Ford Road. In doing so, Jackson would have driven even farther away from Lee than he already was.

Had he pushed toward Ely’s Ford Road and the road to U.S. Ford, though, Jackson would have run head-on into the Union First and Fifth corps.

The First Corps, 17,000-men strong, was literally just arriving on the battlefield via U.S. Ford after marching in from Fredericksburg. The corps had originally crossed the Rappahannock with the Sixth Corps south of the city on April 29 as part of Hooker’s diversionary force, but after the first-day’s fight at Chancellorsville, Hooker sent early-morning orders to corps commander Major General John Reynolds “to march at once, with pack train, to report to headquarters.” The summons brought Reynolds back across the river to join the rest of the army at Chancellorsville.

The Fifth Corps, meanwhile, had led the march to Chancellorsville from Falmouth on April 27, then led the northernmost thrust of the Federal advance out of Chancellorsville on May 1. Moving unopposed along the River Road, Major General George Gordon Meade’s men had advanced beyond the Confederate flank and were in the perfect position to swoop in. Instead, Hooker recalled Meade and ordered the corps into a defensive position that anchored the army’s left flank to the river. Meade blew a fuse, but he obeyed nonetheless.

By the evening of May 2, Meade was in a foul temper, spoiling for a fight. Reynolds, too, was ready to rumble. Both commanders demonstrated their offensive-mindedness on the evening of May 4 when Hooker called his Council of War: Reynolds and Meade both voted to resume offensive operations.

Aside from the two fresh corps that waited like juggernauts in the forest, Jackson had the rest of the Union army sitting on his right flank. True, Lee had held most of those Federals in place throughout May 2 with skillful demonstrations by the divisions of Lafayette McLaws and Richard Anderson. But Union forces, wounded and angry, had begun to mobilize to counter the Confederate flank attack. The fact is, the Union Second, Third, Twelfth, and remnants of the Eleventh corps all sat smack between the split wings of the Confederate army.

Lee recognized how dangerously vulnerable his army was by that point. He sent word to Jeb Stuart, who took over command of the Second Corps following Jackson’s wounding, to press the Federals “so that we can unite the two wings of the army.” Let nothing delay the completion of the plan, he stressed. “It is all important that you still continue pressing to the right, turning, if possible, all the fortified points, in order that we can reunite both with of the army,” Lee said, adding, “proceed vigorously.” In the two orders he sent Stuart, he reinforced the point six times.

The Wilderness was known as “a region of gloom.”

The Union army wouldn’t have been the only opponent Jackson would have had to contend with, either. The Wilderness itself had worked against Jackson’s assault all day, diverting men into soggy creekbeds, tangling them in thorny bushes, swallowing them up whole. And that had been in the daylight. “A more unpromising theater of war was never seen,” one officer later wrote. It was, said another, “a wilderness in the most forbidding sense of the word.”

So, had Jackson not gotten wounded and had, instead, carried out the night attack he’d contemplated, he would have had to keep 27,000 exhausted, disoriented men in formation as they pushed through the dark, close woods of the Wilderness at night, led by two men, Colston and Rodes, brand new to division command, fending off Union threats to his right while facing, head-on, two of the Union army’s freshest (and most battle-hardened) corps.

With all that in mind, it’s still impossible to know what would have happened had Jackson not been wounded.

However, a fuller appreciation of the situation on the ground makes it readily apparent that Jackson’s presence doesn’t automatically mean a Confederate win.

————

Those grave voices who conjure the counterfactual specter of Jackson’s survival are quick to make the jump from Chancellorsville to Gettysburg. However, that question, too, begs fuller consideration—which we’ll examine next week.

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21 Responses to “If Jackson hadn’t gotten shot”: Facing the Counterfactual Specter of Stonewall Jackson’s Wounding

  1. I think that many people look at the counterfactual question of Jackson’s survival with regards to assumptions that Jackson would have been more aggressive than Ewell to attack the Union troops on Cemetery Hill on the evening of July 1st–though I suspect that is what your post next week will be about.

  2. People look at it to mean a lot of things, but at least in my experience dealing with the question, people almost NEVER consider what it means in the immediate short-term. Until people recognize that, any long-term suppositions/assumptions they might make are moot.

    I will get to the Gettysburg thing next week. In the meantime, check out the article Kris and I co-wrote for the August 2010 issue of Civil War Times, which examines the question of Ewell’s supposed lack of aggression.

    Thanks, Nathanial.

  3. Daniel Davis says:

    I like it. The first response I always had for folks when asked that question was that he is still battling the cold he has contracted. Had he not been shot, he would have had to deal with health problems in some form or another, with the very real possibility of having to take a leave of absence to recover depending upon the severity.

  4. Zac Cowsert says:

    Very glad to see your post on this topic! The what-ifs surrounding Jackson’s wounding should start at Chancellorsville, not the quick jump to Gettysburg (which assumes that the Battle of Chancellorsville would have gone exactly the same and that the opposing armies would find themselves on the exact same ground in the exact same dispositions on the exact same day in Pennsylvania weeks later–a gigantic assumption). I think your point about the First and Fifth Corps at Chancellorsville could be applied in a broader sense to the war as well. Jackson or no Jackson, God tends to side with the heavy battalions. Great read and thought provoking.

  5. Frank J. Piatek says:

    At the time Jackson was wounded in the evening, it is my impression that the Confederate attack was substantially over for that day. He was shot by his own men by accident due to darkness. I don’t think he could have even gotten his men together to resume the fight that evening had he not been wounded. There was simply inadequate coordination complicated by the darkness. This scenario was more compelling than the first day at Gettysburg where there was at least more daylight and very few reserves on Cemetery Hill while the Confederates were on the heels of the retreating Federals. While Jackson might have had more success at Gettysburg had he been there (a position that I don’t subscribe to anyway), the circumstances at Chancellorsville were far worse and could possibly result in disaster for him. We tend to admire the military prowess of certain commanders because of the several campaigns they had waged in which they achieved unpredictable success, even though fortuitous circumstances might have played a role in the final result. We then like to think that the same result will occur in other campaigns. It doesn’t, though. Grant’s successes at Fort Donaldson and Vicksburg are matched by his failures at Cold Harbor. Lee’s greatness during the Seven Days and Chancellorsville is matched by his mediocrity at Antietam and his poor judgment at Gettysburg. Burnside did well in the Carolinas but fell badly at Fredericksburg, even though his initial concept was good. Events tend to get in the way of execution sometimes, and it is a rare day when everything works smoothly. Jackson’s main trait that I find appealing is his sense of flexibility and acceptance of discretionary command. He could improvise and didn’t need to check back with Lee for every little detail. I think he also understood his own deficiencies and would not take unnecessary risks either, notwithstanding those who characterized him as Tom “Fool” Jackson.

  6. You’re right, Frank: the assault had basically petered out, dwindling from a battle line of about two miles wide to a line only a few hundreds yards wide. Although momentarily stalled, Jackson had every intention of pushing onward, though. When he launched the assault, he had Colston’s and Rodes’ divisions but only part of Hill’s. Even as the attack bogged down around 8:30, the rest of Hill’s division finally came on line. Jackson intended to use those troops–relatively fresh compared to the rest of his forces–as the new leading edge and ordered Hill to push onward in the direction of United States Ford (which would’ve taken Hill to the northeast, not due east). Jackson’s intent is well documented in multiple sources (for a list of them, see footnote 79 on page 915 of Robertson’s biography, which is all I have handy at the moment to draw from).

    Your comments about the ups and downs of other commanders are good ones. I like to think Jackson died at what I call his “Jimi Hendrix moment”–he was at the absolute peak of his powers, at the height of his fame.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about Jackson’s sense of flexibility. True, he worked best when he had the discretion to act within a set of orders, but the records suggest he was Draconianly inflexible with his subordinates. The list of men he brought up on charges is legion!

  7. Frank J. Piatek says:

    Jackson was flexible in the sense that he was able to adapt to changes. Witness what he did in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign (ie. marching and countermarching). His relationships with subordinates, however, was definitely inflexible. Witness the court martial against Garnett and strained relationship with A.P. Hill. Those personal traits notwithstanding, he was definitely not conservative in his approach to tactics.

  8. Frank J. Piatek says:

    I don’t question the fact that Jackson wanted to “press on” in the evening at Chancellorsville, But I do not believe that he would have been successful had he done so for the reasons stated in my first reply. Had he not been shot and continued the attack, his reputation might have suffered for it. Trying to resurrect an assault at night after the army had fought hard and was no longer coordinated in a massive front is not conducive to success. Jackson was a good finisher who never let a hurt opponent off the ropes. But this time around, discretion would have been the better part of valor since the bell was sounding the end of the round. After Jackson fell and Hill sustained his wound, it appeared to Rodes (who was temporarily in command) that the attack might not work, and so he called it off. An interesting commentary on this issue had been presented years ago in 1958 by Edward Stackpole in his book about Chancellorsville. While Biglow, Ferguson, and Sears are probably more detailed in their analysis, Stackpole does not shirk from being opinionated in his, contending that the Federals might have initiated a counterattack of their own. (See pg. 266)

    • I tend to avoid the “I believe he would have…” or “I don’t believe he would have…” discussions because there’s just now way to tell how circumstances would’ve played out. I try to stick with what was and use that to come to a fuller understanding of what might have or what might not have. I really try not to presume.

      • Frank J. Piatek says:

        The very question posed “If Jackson had not been shot…” presumes speculation. There are always circumstances that could change the result, irrespective of the wounding of a commander. Given the fact that the question focuses on a particular man rather than just an event, it is relevant to make conclusions, even if based on conjecture, on what he might have accomplished had he not been shot based on his style, personality, etc. After all, isn’t this what many have done when asking the question “what would Jackson have done if he were at Gettysburg?”

  9. Meg Thompson says:

    I love you guys! I want you all to come over this evening. I will provide beer. Then I want you to get out the maps and the notes, and refight that awful first day for the 11th on my dining room table. I miss the collegiality of historians very much. The “what-ifs” are part of the intellectual duel. Would Lee have listened to Jackson any more than he did Longstreet? Could Jackson have done anything about Pickett’s Charge? Did any on the Reb generals see the big picture, or were they all focussed on that stand of trees? Would you like another slice of pepperoni?

    • Meg,

      This whole thing started sitting on our buddies porch drinking and smoking cigars.

      I like your question would have Lee listened to Jackson or Lee more. My answer Longstreet. Reason, he made Longstreet his second-in-command.

      Pickett’s Charge question. Never would have happened because if Jackson lives there is a whole other story line, they may never have fought at Gettysburg.

  10. The late start that Jackson got on the morning of the 2nd was a a real issue. He lost much day light because of his illness and the fact the Union Army was not where it it should be. The 11th Corps’ right flank was not where it was supposed to be. Therefore the flank attack was delayed yet again.

    Jackson was preparing for a night assault to finish off his foe when he was wounded. He made a real mistake doing a self recon. The recon was the job of a lieutenant not a lieutenant general. Jackson is overly aggressive at times and at Chacellorsville it got him shot. He was ready and willing to make the night assault. He was issuing orders to Hill to cut the AOP off from United States Ford “press them.” He refused to tell his subordinates what the next step was. He refused to tell/use commanders intent. His subordinates didn’t know what the next step in the plan was. He was notorious for this. When his is wounded and asked by Stuart what to do next he told Stuart to do what he thought was best. In reality the tactical situation changed little from when he was hit. Any type of help would have been ideal for Stuart. Jackson left the ANV in a bad spot when he was wounded. The next steps were to reunite the army and smash Hooker. Yet he didn’t tell Stuart even these basics.

    Most people see the flank attack as a stunning success, it was successful to a point, but Jackson really had not finished all that was needed to be done prior to his wounding. Lee knew this and attempted to get intel and orders to Stuart but the problem he and his messengers ran into was the fact that the AOP was in the middle of the two wings.Luckily for Lee Stuart had a brain in his head and saw that the best thing to do was get the army back together what ever it took.

    Jackson himself was flexible when he was in charge of the battle, but on the Peninsula he chaffed under Lee’s command at first. He was VERY inflexible when it came to subordinates. There was no gray area when it came to the chain-of-command. It was all black and white. This was a huge issue between him, Hill, Garnett, etc…With the chain-of-command look at the reasons he left the regular army pre-war and went to Lexington. He did not approve of his commanders indiscretions and it was his way or the highway and off he went to VMI.

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