The Death of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson

This being the 149th anniversary of the death of Stonewall Jackson, I thought that I would re-post one of the site’s first articles.

Last known picture of Stonewall Jackson, April 1863. Taken at Belvoir near Fredericksburg Virginia.

The last two weeks of Jackson’s life held two of his greatest highs both personally and professionally.Personally, Jackson was able to meet his daughter Julia for the first time. The general was able to be both a father and husband for a short while.

Professionally, Jackson led one of the most daring maneuvers of the war at Chancellorsville, marching 28,000 men around the front of Major General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac to strike the enemy in the flank, eventually driving the entire Union 11thCorps from the field. However, at the height of his success Jackson was struck down by his own men, May 2, 1863.

Wounded in three places, the general’s left arm was amputated around 2:30 AM on May 3. Leadership decided to evacuate Jackson to Guinea Station, which was 27 miles south of the battlefield. Once at Guinea, the plan was to evacuate Jackson to the general hospitals of Richmond.  This plan was dashed, however, and when Jackson arrived at Guinea he was stranded. His old West Point roommate, Brigadier General George Stoneman, had cut the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Rail Road to the south. Jackson would eventually die at the small Virginia whistle-stop.

One of the first things I picked up on as a historian for the National Park Service were the many common misconceptions regarding Jackson’s death that a great many visitors held. Most who entered the Stonewall Jackson Shrine and knew the story of Jackson’s last days knew a clean and wholesome tale of a great leader quietly passing into the beyond. Unfortunately for Jackson this was not so. His last days were spent in and out of consciousness and pain. The building that housed him was cramped with staff and family and was very noisy. Guinea Station itself was full of soldiers and supplies for Lee’s Army. Far from being an idyllic, quiet passing, Jackson’s death was messy, noisy and difficult.

The Chandler Office Building (AKA, the Stonewall Jackson Shrine)

The small surviving office building, which served as Jackson’s makeshift hospital, is the perfect place to start looking at the death of Jackson. Today the building is quiet, clean and well maintained.  The grounds are meager when compared with 1863. The office building still stands along, and is now joined on site by a modern parking area and restrooms.

Chandler office building at Fairfield.

In 1863 the grounds were actually a sprawling 744 acre plantation owned by Thomas Coleman Chandler. Numerous structures dotted the landscape, including the main house, stables, tobacco barns, a goat barn and of course the office building (today known as the Shrine).

Naturally the site would originally have been dominated by the hustle and bustle of daily plantation life. The office itself would have been used for storage and would have been in a disorganized state when Jackson’s staff arrived a few hours ahead of the general. According to twelve-year-old Lucy Chandler, the building had been recently whitewashed in the months before the battle of Chancellorsville. Notwithstanding the neater outer appearance, the office itself would have been organized chaos by the time the patient arrived to stay at the plantation.

Though it was a hodgepodge of furniture and rooms, the office was a safe haven for Jackson during his stay at Fairfield, the Chandler Plantation. The office provided a haven from the responsibilities of a corps commander and from the plantation mistress Mrs. Mary Chandler. Mrs. Chandler had a reputation well-known to the staff of Jackson’s Second Corps as a woman who had to be in the know. For a short time during the Fredericksburg Campaign of 1862, Jackson’s staff camped on the front lawn of Fairfield, and Mrs. Chandler seized every opportunity to pry into Jackson’s business, often dropping by headquarters or sending messages inviting him to dinner. At one point she succeeded and held Jackson captive at a dinner for nearly four hours.

So instead of staying in the main house under Mrs. Chandler’s watchful eye, Jackson’s men sought refuge for the general and themselves in the office. The staff was able to justify using the office because of the wounded men being housed in the Chandler home as well as an outbreak of a disease inside the home.

Though the office was something of an escape from the hectic activity of the main house, it certainly wasn’t peaceful. Jackson was housed there along with much of his staff, and men and women were in and out of the building frequently. Though it was not the same hustle and bustle of headquarters on the battlefield, nevertheless it was no place to get much rest.

If you visit the structure the first thing you may notice when you enter is the deafening silence…until you take a step or two. Everything echoes in the building. The noises of footsteps, moving furniture, and conversations all reverberate throughout the structure; one hears everything in the small building. Ironically, when Mrs. Chandler entered the building, she noticed how quiet it was—due to the fact that few wanted her around and they didn’t want to tip her off to anything that could turn into camp gossip. Because it was so quiet, Mrs. Chandler actually brought the only clock that the Chandlers owned into Jackson’s room. This was done for two reasons. The clock both provided Mrs. Chandler with access to the room and was meant to give the room some sound due to its loud ticking noise.

The noise of an army camp would have also pervaded the walls and windows of the shrine. Guinea was a major supply depot for the Confederacy, and it was an evacuation point for wounded and prisoners alike.  Therefore, with thousands of soldiers outside and the windows open on the building, it may have been hard to very hard to get any rest.

The Illness

Jackson’s illness also brings about many misconceptions. By most accounts his last few moments were peaceful enough. He relived previous battles in his mind and quietly uttered his last words. Unfortunately the pneumonia that claimed Jackson’s life took a great toll on the man mentally and physically, as did the “cure.”

Shortly after Jackson’s wounding on May 2, he was placed on a stretcher to be evacuated to a field hospital. As the stretcher bearers attempted to take Jackson from the field they dropped the man twice from about five feet (his wounding will be examined in a later post).  He was heard to groan loudly when hitting the ground. Still, during his examinations his doctor, Hunter Holmes McGuire, stated that he did not find any broken ribs. We have no reason to doubt that McGuire was a very reliable source; he was an accomplished doctor, a founding member of the American Medical Association, and was what we would consider today a thoracic specialist.

Jackson awakened in the early morning hours of May 7 in a great deal of pain. McGuire was asleep, having been exhausted from the last few days of treating men on the battlefield and giving round the clock care to Jackson. For these reasons McGuire sought much-needed rest on the evening of May 6. Though Jackson awakened in a great deal of pain, two of Jackson’s aides were not allowed to awaken the doctor.

Jim Lewis, a hired slave, and Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy did what they could to assist Jackson, but despite their ministrations Jackson was in great pain. He asked Lewis and Lacey to apply cold compresses to the affected area. This did little to ease the pain. After a few hours the doctor was summoned. He immediately recognized the affliction as “Pleuro-Pneumonia.” Jackson had a high fever and pain in his sides.

(As a side note, a popular myth that came from Jackson’s treatment is that the cold compresses brought on the illness. According to McGuire. this was not so. “The disease came on too soon after this application to admit of the supposition,” he said. McGuire was also unaware that during the Chancellorsville Campaign Jackson was showing signs of what we would call the flu. He had a fever, chills and was seen vomiting even before his wounding on May 2.)

The treatment for the ailment was worse than one would imagine today. McGuire called in some pneumonia specialists from Richmond. In all, Jackson had five doctors tending to him, including McGuire. The doctors prescribed laudanum to dull the pain, and then they started cupping Jackson. Cupping consisted of taking a glass bulb with an open end and heating it until it is red-hot and then placing the cup on the patient.  This “treatment” produced blood blisters or boils that were then lanced to bleed the patient.

Bleeding was still common at the time. Unfortunately for Jackson, bleeding would have very negative consequences. The man had lost approximately half of his blood during the wounding and subsequent amputation, and now he was losing more blood and being weakened severely.

Next the doctors treated him with both antimony and mercury. These two drugs were meant to purge Jackson’s system. The two combined forced vomiting and diarrhea. Therefore any sort of food or fluids that went into Jackson to help give him strength were immediately expelled, and the drugs nullified the beneficial effects of food and fluids. To put it gently, Jackson would have soiled many sheets in his time at the office. Rest would again would have been hard to find.

Delirium:

Much has been made of Jackson reliving the past in his last few days and hours. Why would he be so delirious at some times and so lucid at others? Simply, the treatment was weakening Jackson, and mercury was poisoning his system. He had lost a great amount of blood due to the wounding, surgery and cupping.  Laudanum was dulling his senses, and he was become malnourished and dehydrated. On top of it all he had a high fever. A combination of many factors contributed to Jackson’s delirium.

The bed that Jackson died in. The blanket on the foot of the bed was one of many that covered the general.

Why a “clean” death?

Jackson’s death on May 10, 1863 is described by the witnesses and those close to him as a clean and peaceful death. The foundation for this can be based around two major points. First and foremost, many of the key participants lost a husband, father, friend and mentor. To cope with Jackson’s death on a personal level, those closest to him wanted to remember those last few days not as much as a man in agony, but as a man who was going peacefully to his creator. This coping method is understandable as many of us cope with loss the same way.

The second reason was the “Lost Cause” literature that pervaded the writings of many of Jackson’s staff officers and even his wife in the postwar years. This is not the Lost Cause questioning what would have happened if Jackson had lived—it is the Lost Cause surrounding the memory of the man/soldier and the struggle to define the real Stonewall Jackson. Was he the leader who was the embodiment of the Christian soldier or was he the blood-lusting combatant that pushed his men to the brink, favored the Stonewall Brigade, and hanged all deserters from the highest tree?

In the days following Jackson’s death, many in both the north and the south saw his death as a great loss for the Confederate cause. Some dissenting voices were heard then, as there were many others in the south who were not that keen on Jackson, but hindsight and the loss of the war brought many around to a new view on the man, for better or worse. Those views were at least partially influenced by his wife Mary Anna Jackson and the staff officers of the Second Corps.

Mary Anna and Julia Jackson.

In the years following Jackson’s death, Mary Anna wrote The Memoirs of Stonewall Jackson.  She would have had a personal insight to the man that only a handful of people would have had, and she had others who knew Jackson well to help in the writing and research of the book. Yet Mary Anna naturally painted a glorified picture of her husband.

Mary Anna also embraced the role of the “Widow of the South.”  In the postwar years, she went from veterans group to veterans group accepting gifts of money and material while parading Julia around as the “Child of the Lost Cause.” This never sat well with Julia, and a large rift grew between them through Julia’s teenage years.  According to Julia’s writing, she felt that her mother was taking advantage of the kindness of these veterans. Much of the money that Mary Anna accepted was meant to build memorials for Jackson—memorials that never saw the light of day.

It seemed to Julia that she was taken to events to draw more money from donors. In her later teenage years, Julia refused to be part of these events. The rift between mother and daughter grew so large that once Julia married, she and her husband William Christian moved across the country to San Diego, California to start a new life.

Following Julia’s death in 1889, Mary Anna penned Memoir of Julia Jackson Christian: Daughter of Stonewall Jackson. This volume paints a softer light on the relationship between her and her daughter. It does not show Mary Anna as the dominating force that she was over her daughter and son in law at times. In the short volume, Mary Anna drew many comparisons between Thomas and his daughter. One must wonder if this is her way of coping with the past, connecting two loved ones lost or was it a calculated way to keep up the image of the “Widow of the South”? That is a question to be answered in a more in-depth post.

Jackson's last words.

Jackson’s last words on his monument at Chancellorsville.

Conclusion

In the end, Jackson passed away and into history even as the war ended and the battle for how to remember the war and its cast began.  Yet even to this day, few know the gruesome details of how one of the most famous generals of the American Civil War died. One can never fault those who cared for Jackson as a husband, friend and mentor for not wanting to re-tell in such vivid detail the death of a loved one. Luckily for us, there were a few who did put pen to paper and tell us the true story of Jackson’s final days on earth.  McGuire himself revisited the past time and again, writing letters and papers and presenting speeches on those final days.

Jackson should be thought of as a great leader of men, a solid tactician and a tenacious adversary, but in the end it should also be remembered that he was human. At no point in the war is he more human than in those last few days. © 2011 Emerging Civil War

Authored by Kristopher D. White, co-author of the Last Days of Stonewall Jackson.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Leadership--Confederate, Personalities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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