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.
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.
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 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.