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“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.