“If Jackson hadn’t gotten shot”: Why There’s No Point in Refighting Gettysburg

“That old house witnessed the downfall of the Southern Confederacy,” said former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George after visiting the Stonewall Jackson Shrine in 1923. “No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten has ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived.”

The most common assumption, of course, is that if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t gotten shot at the Battle of Chancellorsville, then Gettysburg would have turned out differently.

And indeed, that’s true—because there probably wouldn’t have been a Gettysburg to begin with.

Last week, I challenged readers to reconsider the assumptions behind the commonly held belief “If Jackson hadn’t gotten shot….” A fuller examination of the situation on the ground offers better context for understanding those assumptions.

Jackson had been sick before the battle. Who knows how his illness would have progressed had he not been shot?

Beyond the immediate situation, it’s important to remember that Jackson died from pneumonia, not from the injuries he sustained in battle. Had he not gotten shot, he still would have had to content with illness, although it might not have been as severe. Because of his wounding and subsequent amputation, Jackson lost half his blood; it’s likely that his pneumonia progressed as quickly as it did, then, because of his weakened condition.

If he hadn’t gotten shot, there’s no way to tell how his illness might have progressed or what he’d have done to take care of it. It’s not impossible that he would’ve taken some time away from the army to recuperate. Or, had he stayed with the army, it’s not impossible that his fatigued state would’ve blunted his aggressiveness (as it had done on the Peninsula the previous spring).

How events would’ve played out in the woods of the Wilderness on the night of May 2, or how Jackson might have contended with his illness in the wake of battle–that all seems forgotten when people conjure the sense of Jackson-possibility: “If Jackson hadn’t gotten shot….” They hardly ever consider the immediate short-term picture because they’re already fast-forwarding two months ahead to July of 1863.

“If Jackson hadn’t gotten shot,” they suppose, “Gettysburg would have turned out differently.”

In most instances, that’s an implied condemnation of Richard Ewell’s performance on the first day of the battle and his decision not to take Cemetery Hill. Jackson, the assumption goes, would have found an assault there “practicable;” Ewell did not. It is, doubtless, the most second-guess decision of the war.

August 2010

In the August 2010 cover story of Civil War Times, Kris White and I explained why Ewell’s decision was militarily sound. I won’t rehash that here, but I’ll stand by what we’ve said all along: Ewell made a prudent decision.

It’s a major assumption to think Jackson would have assaulted the hill—although people make that assumption all the time. They assume, because of Jackson’s aggressive nature, that he’d have pushed forward even though the military situation—as Ewell very well knew—looked questionable. True, Jackson tended to push his men forward, sometimes (such as at Fredericksburg) when it was foolhardy to do so, but he also knew that not every position could be successfully assailed. “My men have sometimes failed to take a position,” he once told Heros von Borcke, Jeb Stuart’s chief of staff, “but to defend one—never!”

It’s safer to assume Jackson would’ve looked for a way to flank the Federal position—a Jackson trademark if ever there was one—and would have gone after Culp’s Hill instead. That’s exactly what Ewell tried to do. A recalcitrant Jubal Early, who refused to move although Ewell ordered him to, let Culp’s Hill fall into Union hands. It’s hard to envision Jackson letting Early getting away with that kind of insubordination.

Ever-after, in the memory wars of the post-war years, Early tried to cover up his foot-dragging by shifting the attention from Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Hill and the blame from himself to Ewell. Ewell died in 1872, unable to defend his own reputation from Early’s assaults, which lasted for another twenty-two years.

Gibboney's alternative history tackles the war's greatest What-If--and the South still loses.

Be all that as it may, there’s one salient fact underlying all Jackson-related scenarios in Gettysburg that everyone seems to forget. Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia into three corps following Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville because he didn’t feel comfortable elevating someone to take Jackson’s place. Instead, he made his army’s corps smaller and easier for his newly promoted lieutenant generals to handle.

“I have for the past year felt that the corps of this army were too large for one commander,” Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis on May 20, 1863. “Nothing prevented my proposing to you to reduce their size & increase their number, but my inability to recommend commanders…. The loss of Jackson from the command of one half the army seems to me a good opportunity to remedy this evil.

In other words, the corps were to big, but he didn’t have anyone he felt comfortable promoting; the loss of Jackson forced his hand. Had Jackson lived, then, Lee would not have had any incentive for making the shuffle.

Down the chain of command, Hill would have still then been in charge of his division, so Henry Heth, who stumbled into Gettysburg, would’ve still commanded his brigade and, consequently, would not have been in a position to stumble anywhere.

With only two corps instead of the three, Lee’s orders would have necessarily been different, even assuming he decided to still move north into Pennsylvania, which he did to avoid having to send men west to relieve Pemberton under siege at Vicksburg. It’s likely, still facing that same pressure, Lee would have chosen to undertake offensive operations—but with different marching orders, there’s absolutely no way to tell how things would’ve transpired.

So, to assume things would have been different had Jackson been at Gettysburg is to assume the armies would’ve been in Gettysburg at all—and that premise alone has serious faults.

The great What-If’s that surround Jackson’s death are central to Lost Cause mythology, and they have become as much a part of the legend of Stonewall Jackson as anything he ever did in life. “His name alone is worth ten-thousand men,” a Union soldier once said—and because of that, his absence still makes all the difference.

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Emerging Civil War, Leadership--Confederate, Memory and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to “If Jackson hadn’t gotten shot”: Why There’s No Point in Refighting Gettysburg

  1. Frank J. Piatek says:

    If there is no point in refighting Gettysburg based on speculation, then what’s the point of posing the question in the first place? If Lee contemplated making 3 corps out of 2 a year prior to Jackson’s death, can we definitely say that Jackson’s death was the impetus for this? That would be using conjecture to support the very point of the question that we cannot know for sure what might have happened. Likewise, to suggest that Jackson would have attacked the Federal flank, making Culp’s Hill his target is equally speculative, too, because it assumes that he would follow his usual tactical style and be in that position on the battlefield to accomplish that goal. If we pose a question the requires us to engage in speculation based on assumptions and then seek to demonstrate one cannot make those assumptions based on equally speculative assumptions where does that leave us in this whole discussion?

  2. Please note, Frank, that I’m not posing the questions. Rather, I’m asking the tens of thousands of people who DO ask them to consider the full context of the assumptions they’re making when they do. Likewise, I’m asking them to consider evidence rather than mere speculation or dreamy wishful thinking.

    For instance, you ask “can we definitely say that Jackson’s death was the impetus” for splitting the army into three corps. Yes, we can definitely say that because Lee himself actually said it.

    Your final question is the very point these posts have tried to raise: people make assumptions based on assumptions based on assumptions, which is ripe territory for speculation or—from my perspective—ripe for a discussion about critical thinking.

  3. Meg Thompson says:

    No matter what, Chancelorsville would have been a Confederate victory. Hooker would just have had a more beaten Army to draq back “home.” If, 2 months later, Lee had been moving into PA, the Union would have made about the same moves they did anyway. Gettysburg was not simply the result of Heth’s stumble–both armies were looking for a fight. I think there would have been a Gettysburg anyway, but I am sure just who would have had the high ground.

    • That’s a HUGE assumption, Meg. A split, exhausted Confederate army with a giant, angry Union army–much of it fresh–right between the isolated Confederate halves doesn’t strike me as a situation for an automatic Confederate victory. And then cut off the Union route of retreat so that fighting is its only option?

      I’m still not saying the Confederates can’t/don’t win, but I’m not going to look at that situation and say it’s a lock, either.

  4. Edward S. Alexander says:

    Regardless of what ramifications it may have had, we can agree that the death of Jackson certainly had a profound impact on the war. Speculation on that role Jackson would have played if not for his wounds on May 2nd demonstrates how we should not try to ignore the events on the battlefield in order to interpret the war through wider lenses. While playing the “what-if” game is probably best reserved for slow days at the Shrine, it is a reminder that we cannot forget that it is the battles themselves which provide the greatest contingencies on the course of the conflict. And it is for this reason that our work as military historians is still meaningful and your earlier description of the on-the-field conditions leading up to the wounding remains ever relevant. I really appreciated both posts.

  5. Johannes Allert says:

    Great article and follow up posts.
    One thing I keep reminding myself of is the larger picture. If Jackson lived to fight another day, Meade draws a defensive line at Pipe Creek where he intended to make a stand all along. Futhermore Vicksburg still falls to Grant and the south’s back door is open for the north to exploit.

  6. Steward Henderson says:

    I have been in several conversations with visitors on this subject. In various scenarios, I have said that there would not be a change in the outcome of Gettysburg or perhaps there would not have been a Gettysburg. If Jackson had been ali…ve and in the place of Ewell, there may have been a Battle of Harrisburg, instead of Gettysburg. We must also consider, as Chris has said, that Jackson may have been to ill to fight.

  7. joseph truglio says:

    What if;s are fun. they raise interesting questions and cause serious conversations. In this case one shoould remember that if Jackson survives, everything changes. All events are subject to different results and one can never surmise that the end result will conform to your expectations. What if the ‘7 Days Jackson’ showed up the next day instead of the’Valley jackson’? Have fun with the premise but deal with the real results and not the anticipated ones. In combat, anything can happen and it usually does.

    • Very true, Joe: anything can happen and usually does.

      Jackson is a great candidate for what-if games because he’s so high profile. What if I were to ask “What if Corporal Barton Mitchell had gotten killed at Cedar Mountain?” Most people would scratch their heads at a question like that, yet one could argue that Mitchell impacted the war at least as significantly as Stonewall Jackson.

  8. Meg Thompson says:

    I am a big fan of “what ifs.” If there is one problem with history (and I think there is NO problem with history!!) it is that the overall outcome is already known. Napoleon never beats Europe, the 13 Colonies always break away from Great Britain, and there IS a Gettysburg. Each one of us has a zillion ‘what ifs” to discuss. My experience is that my “what ifs” are usually implausible and my logic has fallen back from the onslaught of my heart. I am, however, world’s most gracious loser. I always come away from these sessions with a much better understanding of the “what really did” due to the discussion of the “what ifs.” And I bring good beer to the party. :-)

  9. joseph truglio says:

    Meg- Let me know when the next party is and I will come and enjoy your good beer! Hardest thing to be is a gracious winner.

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  11. William Richardson says:

    First, you are making a big assumption that Jackson would have gotten sick. Let’s remember he was shot FIRST and then got SICK. His illness may have been brought on by his weakness and loss of blood. Too many modern “Historians” are using the “Lost cause myth” way too much and as a crutch.

    Thanks,

    • Ah, but he was sick BEFORE the battle ever started. He complained of chills, and even during the march, while temps soared well into the 80s, he was wearing every article of clothing he owned (including his rubber rain coat). His wound hid the fact he was sick because his body suffered such severe trauma, and only after his body began to recover from the trauma did the illness become apparent.

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  13. Dwayne Davis says:

    Jackson not dying is one of the hardest “what if’s” to discuss, because the possible outcomes are so different. If he emerges un hurt and vigorous, there is unity of command (all divisions leading into PA were from the former 2nd corps) and in all likelihood more aggressive actions. The result might well have been on a different field. If, on the other hand, he’s wounded, but unable to lead immediately, Lee may have kept the 2nd corps together under a temporary commander (Hill, Stuart, Ewell, etc) with even worse results in the field.
    An equally interesting and difficult “what if” is how the additional brigades would have been absorbed into the Army if it retained the 2 corps structure

  14. Francis Gallo says:

    I have a great “what if” but you’ll have to wait for the book to be published.

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