The Smoothbore Volley and the Calamity at Chancellorsville

Me and Dr. Matthew Lively, author of "Calamity at Chancellorsville," which challenges Bob Krick's traditional interpretation of the wounding of Stonewall Jackson
Me and Dr. Matthew Lively, author of “Calamity at Chancellorsville,” which challenges the interpretation of Stonewall’s wounding as chronicled in my “Last Days of Stonewall Jackson,” co-authored by Kris White. Nothing like a little friendly rivalry, though, to stimulate good discussion!

Physician Matthew Lively says historian Bob Krick is wrong about the wounding of Stonewall Jackson.

In the mid-nineties, historian Robert K. Krick redefined the story of Jackson’s wounding with his groundbreaking essay “The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy.” In 2002, he updated and improved upon his study with a revised edition published in a hardcover for the Civil War Trust.

But now a new book is challenging Krick’s findings.

Krick’s investigations determined that Jackson had not been on the Orange Turnpike as traditionally believed; rather, Jackson and his staff had been traveling down the Mountain Road—a road that didn’t show up on most maps of the time because it was little more than a livestock trail.

Most of Krick’s contemporaries bought into the traditional interpretation, including Stephen Sears’ Hooker apologia/battle study Chancellorsville.

But no one has studied the Army of Northern Virginia as meticulously or as thoroughly as Krick. His keen assessment of the primary source material, his knowledge of the cast of characters, and his familiarity of the ground around the wounding site itself combine for an authoritative knowledge that’s hard to beat.

With Krick’s new narrative as its guide, the National Park Service changed its interpretation of the Jackson wounding story, and for nearly twenty years, historians have led battlefield visitors down the Mountain Road trace, still there, to relive Jackson’s fateful last ride.

Layout 1However, Lively’s new book, Calamity at Chancellorsville: The Wounding and Death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, directly challenges Krick’s interpretation.

According to Lively, the star witness who placed Jackson on the Mountain Road, David Kyle, was full of bunk, writing well after the war. (Sears thought Kyle was full of malarky, too.) Instead, Lively uses other accounts to place Jackson somewhere in the woods between the Orange Turnpike and the Mountain Road.

“I just had questions that I couldn’t get good answers to,” Lively told me at Chancellorsville this past weekend—and so he kept digging and digging until he could piece together a story that brought the details together in way that finally made sense to him.

One such question that dogged him: according to the Kyle version, how could Jackson get wounded in the spots he did—right palm; left forearm, elbow to wrist; upper right arm just below the shoulder? Jackson had to be traveling from south to north to get wounded the way he did. Current interpretation explains that apparent inconsistency by suggesting that Jackson’s horse reared and wheeled away, and Jackson threw his left arm up to protect himself—certainly a sufficient explaination. As a horse owner myself, I completely understand why Jackson’s horse would behave the way he apparently does.

LDJ-cover 72dpiBut let’s be honest: it’s no secret to any of Emerging Civil War’s regular readers that I’m a Jackson guy. With ECW co-founder Kris White, we have our book about these very same events, The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson, which offers a reader-friendly version of Park Service’s current interpretation, shaped by Bob Krick. And believe me, the Park Service official who commissioned the book was in NO way a fan of Krick’s, so felt no personal loyalty to Krick or his version of events. (That fact that Bud Robertson’s biographical tome Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend also places Jackson on the Mountain Road is also of note because Robertson has no reason to show loyalty to Krick’s interpretation, either.)

With Frank O’Reilly as our mentor, Kris and I were both trained under the Krick school of interpretation, so we’re well familiar with Kyle and Jackson’s trek down the Mountain Road. We both know the ground intimately and know how impenetrable the Wilderness was and how hard it would’ve been for Jackson’s horse to move cross-country through the foliage, and how hard it would’ve been even for bullets to travel through that dark, close wood.

So I’ll admit: I’m invested in the story as it’s currently told. But as a former journalist and current college professor, I’ve been in the business of inquiry all my life, so I’m open to having my perspectives challenged. I am skeptical of Lively’s interpretation—an assessment based solely on bits of conversation, a look at the book’s maps, and my own biases—but I do intend to give him a full hearing by reading his book, and I recommend that any serious enthusiast of the battle read it as well and judge for him/herself whether Lively holds up against Krick.

I’ll dive into Calamity once my semester wraps up and once I get through the sesquicentennial anniversary of Jackson’s death, where I’ll spend the day working at the Jackson Shrine…telling visitors all about Jackson’s wounding along the Mountain Road.

8 Responses to The Smoothbore Volley and the Calamity at Chancellorsville

  1. Outstanding post, Chris. Thanks for your support, especially since Dr. Lively’s book, in a way, competes with yours. But there is more than enough room for both on the shelf of one reader–they are that different. I love the way history can be reinterpreted, studied, new sources uncovered, and prior sources reexamined. It is all about the reader, and the reader gets to decide. How cool is that? And of course, my hat is off to Bob Krick, who has done so much for so many, opened hundreds of doors, and stands on the top shelf of living CW historians. He’s a wonderful researcher and magnificent writer. Whether he is right or wrong–we will leave up to readers.

    1. Well, Ted, if the publisher thought there was room in the market for “competing” books that’d he’d go with both, who am I to argue. 😉

      As a professor, I’m in the business of inquiry (similar to my former career as a journalist). I’m never as interested in hearing a student regurgitate what I think because I already know what I think–I want to know what he/she thinks! So giving them the tools to make up their own minds is a key component of that. And the day I’m too insecure to have my interpretation challenged–or too afraid to rethink it–is the day I need to pack up and hit the road.

      1. Chris,
        Thanks mentioning my book along with yours. As the author of Calamity and a reader of Last Days, I feel the books are more complementary to each other than competing. While there may be some differences in the details, there is still plenty of information in each book that is not contained in the other. Anyone interested in a full story on the events before, during, and after Jackson’s wounding should read both books.

  2. Jackson had to be on the Mountain Road for one glaring reason. Two groups of Confederate officers were shot at that night, one on the Orange Turnpike, the other somewhere nearby, odds are…the mountain road. AP Hill and his aides were on the Orange Turnpike when the Confederate line opened up on Jackson and the firing moved down the line and hit members of Hill’s group. If Jackson had been on the Orange Turnpike, he would be have been with Hill. He wasn’t with him, so there goes Lively’s argument…blown into little bits of wreckage.

    Of course, the roads are not all that far apart, and it doesn’t change anything important where he was shot. It is something to argue about, but in the big scheme of things…was he killed here or there? A 40 yard difference in location doesn’t seem like much of an argument.

    1. Thanks for your comments, and as the author of Calamity at Chancellorsville, I’ll point out that in my narration, Jackson is not wounded on the Plank Road, but in the woods between that road and the Mountain Road. The story maintains a separation between the groups of Jackson and Hill throughout the event.

      I agree that in the big picture what matters is that Jackson was wounded and he died. But I wanted to tell that story, and to do so, I had to give details. As Chris mentions in his post, the narration I wrote was the one that allowed me to better assimilate in my mind the multitude of facts and accounts that I had obtained.

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