On the morning of September 15, 1862, Stonewall Jackson had just completed a profound military achievement. Three separate columns all nominally under his command converged on a single point–Harpers Ferry–nearly simultaneously. They ensnared the Federal garrison positioned around the town and forced its surrender. Roughly 12,500 Union soldiers surrendered and were removed from the war map in the summer of 1862 all at the cost of just 39 Confederate lives.
It is in this supreme moment, as the victorious Jackson rode toward Union lines to accept the largest surrender of United States forces in American history at the time that the humble, quiet, backcountry born Jackson failed to fit the scene. In all his glory, Jackson appeared as “the worst-dressed, worst mounted, most faded and dingy-looking general” anyone had ever surrendered to. At least, that was how one of Jackson’s staffers, Henry Kyd Douglas, remembered the scene.
In the eternal war of opinions and facts fought (and still being fought) over Jackson’s legacy, two of the general’s other staff officers, Jedediah Hotchkiss and Hunter McGuire, vehemently denied Douglas’ account. In fact, they denied almost all of them. Hotchkiss wrote of Douglas’ recollections of the war, “He shoots with a long bow and generally misses the mark.” When it came to Jackson’s appearance at the time of the Federal surrender on September 15, Hotchkiss, buttressed by a similar statement from McGuire, claimed, “Jackson was always neat in his person and his faded old grey cap had been replaced by a handsome soft slouch hat that I had bought him in Frederick and his uniform was neat and well fitted but of course more or less dust stained and therefore looking faded. He was always neat in his person. I think that at that time he also had on the handsome blue military coat that he always had with him as the morning was decidedly cool.”
Here comes the rub for historians. Who is right? Douglas or Hotchkiss and McGuire? Both wrote their accounts decades after the war. Both refuted the other with different details of the same story. In short, it is a judgment call for historians.
In the end, the details of the story do not detract from the larger picture. Jackson freed the Shenandoah Valley of Federal forces at a crucial time in the Maryland Campaign. Did he do so as a “dingy-looking” commander or as one “always neat in his person”?