A Stonewall Jackson “What If” I’d Never Heard Before

During a Q&A with the Franklin Civil War Roundtable last month, someone asked me a question about Stonewall Jackson that no one had ever asked me before. My presentation had been on “The Last days of Stonewall Jackson,” and someone had tossed me the underhand softball, “What if Jackson hadn’t been shot?” (I love that question and have a written about it here and here.) The new question came as a follow up to that:

“If Jackson had been at Gettysburg,” the man asked . . .

I’ve heard this one before, I thought.

“. . . would he have supported Longstreet’s plan to go around the Union left?”

Okay, I had not seen that twist coming!

Most people who consider the question of Jackson at Gettysburg wonder what he would have done on the first day when faced with the problem of Cemetery and Culps Hills. Lee purportedly told Jackson‘s replacement, Richard Ewell, to take the hill “if practicable” (I say purportedly because that phrase doesn’t actually show up in print anywhere until six months and a lot of arm chair generalling later). For several excellent reasons, Ewell did not find it practicable, and the Lost Cause has punished him for it ever since. (You can read more about that debate in a cover story Kris White and I co-authored for Civil War Times back in 2010.)

While I have entertained dozens of questions about Ewell’s actions and Jackson’s potential actions, no one has ever asked me a question that carries Jackson farther into the events of July 1. Questions about Jackson’s role at Gettysburg seem to die on that hill.

To put Jackson in the conference with Lee and Longstreet on the evening of July 1 forces us to torture the sequence of events drastically out of shape, but for the sake of argument and fun, let’s think out loud for a minute.

Remember, as a result of Jackson’s wounding, Lee reorganized his army from two corps to three corps—an idea he had been contemplating “for the past year,” he told 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.” Had Jackson not been wounded, Lee probably would have kept his command structure as it was if for no other reason than he did not have the convenience if unfortunate excuse to re-organize.

Without that structural change, the advance into Pennsylvania likely unfolds in a different way, so it’s quite possible the army never ends up in Gettysburg to begin with.

That said, for the purpose of this discussion, we still have to pretend that Jackson ends up on the north edge of town by the end of the fighting on July 1, and that he somehow pulls himself away from the action and leaves his command on the field while he takes a ride over to his commander’s tent. With those considerations all laid out, let’s put Jackson at the conference between Longstreet and Lee where Lee’s Old Warhorse suggested a move around the union left. All we have to do is to file around his left and secure good ground between him and his capital,” Longstreet pointed out.

I think Jackson would have been all in.

I think Jackson would have supported such a move because he fully embraced the idea of flanking maneuvers. (I do wonder how his thinking on that might have changed had he known he’d get killed executing one. Probably not at all because he believed in predestination and when it was your time, it was your time.)

That little hiccup aside, one could argue that flanking movements were Jackson’s forte. Chancellorsville serves as the most obvious example, but look at his maneuvers during the Second Manassas campaign. During the Seven Days, he was trying to execute a flanking maneuver at Beaver Dam Creek, even if he didn’t make it onto the field in time. Even his maneuvers to take Harpers Ferry during the Maryland campaign involved flanking maneuvers to pin the Union garrison down in town.

What’s less clear to me is how Lee might have responded had both his corps commanders advocated a flanking maneuver. After all, Lee’s dander was up. “If he is there to-morrow I will attack him,” Lee famously said. For the aggressive-minded and obedient Jackson, even that might have been enough for him to fold on the idea of a flanking maneuver in favor of Lee’s bidding.

But let’s say Lee reconsiders, understanding that a unified perspective from his trusted corps commanders was enough to give him pause. If he does send a corps around the Union left, does he send Longstreet, who was already best positioned to make that move? Or does he send his flanking expert, Jackson, who was positioned less effectively but who had more experience in such matters?

I have nothing more than a gut feeling with which to answer this question, but were I Lee, I would give the nod to Jackson. I would order Longstreet to extend his left, doing so as more of his corps arrives on the field, thus giving him the manpower to do so. That forces Jackson to move around behind Longstreet, perhaps even avoiding the route Longstreet eventually took that put him in sight of Union observers and forced a backtrack—although, really, I have no way of knowing what route Jackson would take, but I’m supposing Longstreet would be in the way and Jackson would have to take a wider arc to get around him.

I think Longstreet would even approve. On the morning of July 2, he proposed just such a similar move to Lee, “That General Ewell should withdraw his corps from Cemetery Hill and swing around to our extreme right and then unite with my corps.” A.P. Hill would flank them.

We’re already deep in the realm of conjecture, so I won’t carry the question forward into July 2 any further. This is fun territory to explore, but it has the solid footing of quicksand! That’s also why I love “What if” questions, though. They can provide a good excuse for thinking things through, and critical thinking, not wishful thinking, should always be our goal.

And besides—it’s fun!


My thanks to the Franklin Civil War Roundtable for the great conversation!

16 Responses to A Stonewall Jackson “What If” I’d Never Heard Before

  1. Before the pandemic Jim Hessler Eric LIndblade I had planned to do a symposium in battlefield tour on the entire subject of Jackson at Gettysburg.
    I’m sure that question will have come up.
    Hopefully, that event will ultimately take place once things get back to normal.
    They did do a podcast on the subject but the question did not come up regards regards to the flanking maneuver.

  2. My husband loves “What If” questions of all sorts and I rarely have answers that satisfy him when it comes to the Civil War epic “What Ifs”. I’ll have to share this one with him. Thanks for the insight!

    1. I LOVE Civil War What-Ifs, but as critical thinking exercises, not as exercises in wishful thinking.

  3. Well, seeing how it is a “What if?”, ‘what if’ it was the Stonewall Jackson that was often lethargic and confused and flat-out strange that was on display at crucial moments of The Seven Days battles who showed up at Gettysburg? These things can always cut any number of ways. Who knows, maybe Stonewall’s presence and decisions would have set in motion events that led to the destruction of the Confederate army? The Union forces and leadership were getting more experienced. They were on their own territory. They had a new commander in Meade who would prove able in such a capacity. As I said, these “What ifs” can cut any number of ways, i.e., you can go anywhere with them. The Union lost three general officers at Chancellorsville (Berry, Whipple, and Kirby). While they don’t have anything approaching the stature of Jackson, much less the responsibilities Jackson had in his position as a corps commander, might the battle have presented one or two or all of them opportunities to contribute to decisively affecting the outcome at Gettysburg? Why stop with them?

    I’ll add this when it comes to Jackson. The information Lee sorely desired from Jeb Stuart would have affected Lee’s communications to Jackson. EVERYONE on both sides were probing along in the first hours and day of battle at Gettysburg. Would Jackson have adhered to Lee’s wish to avoid a general engagement there? It was Jubal Early’s division which pushed on to the Susquehanna River just before Gettysburg erupted. Would THAT have transpired with Stonewall still alive. As Chris Mackowski pointed out, it’s possible if not probable that Lee would not have reorganized his army if that was the case. Early’s division was part of the corps Jackson commanded. But if that event had unfolded as it did, would Jackson have had him pull back, or might he have continued on to take Harrisburg and other locations in PA? Had he done so how would THAT have affected Union decisions? All fun questions to contemplate.

    1. These are all great points. I’d add a couple of more questions: Was Jackson shot at Chancellorsville anyway? Did he still lose his arm? The answers to those will likely influence his stamina and potential performance on the field, much like wounds and health issues affected Ewell and AP Hill.

      1. That’s the thing (which you’re spot on about): Let’s say any “What if” takes place…there’s still the chance of some random accident or some other unforeseen circumstance that could crop up. He could’ve gotten hit by another bullet elsewhere in the battle. He could’ve gotten bitten by a snake or fallen off his horse or survived unscathed and still ended up bed-ridden with pneumonia or on and on. That’s why I never try to take these things too seriously.

    2. All great questions, Doug, and all great considerations.

      And yes, that “Seven Days” Jackson is one few people like to talk about, but he definitely could’ve made an appearance depending on how the campaign had treated him up to that point.

      What Ifs are great fun to ponder, but they always need to be taken with a grain of salt.

  4. The late Jackson scholar Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr. was asked if the Confederacy would have won at Gettysburg had Jackson been there. His answer, and I’m paraphrasing is “No, because had Jackson been alive at that time the Confederate army would have been in Maine.” Love that answer!

  5. It would have been interesting to see how much Jackson’s thinking would have evolved, fairly quickly, on earthworks. He was definitely not a fan.

    I can also see Jackson supporting working himself around Meade’s left and back down to Pipe Creek to try and setup another 2nd Manassas.

  6. The interesting thing about counterfactual arguments is where you choose your point of departure. People sometimes forget that Chancellorsville was less than half over at the point Stonewall was wounded. If he hadn’t been wounded, that battle would have had a significantly different outcome, and not necessarily better from the Confederacy’s viewpoint. However, assuming he was only slightly wounded, returning to command shortly after the battle, he would no doubt have led the march into Pennsylvania. He and Stuart had already established a good working relationship, and I tend to think the leash on the latter would have been a lot shorter. In which case there may not have been concerns about what to do on July 2d at Gettysburg, as Jackson would have been in Harrisonburg by July 1st ? But had there been that conference, he would have stood with Longstreet.

    1. Yeah, the later the point of departure, the harder it is to even set up the situation in the first place because of all the things that could’ve unfolded differently.

  7. How about this one instead: Stonewall buys the ranch at Chancellorsville and after the battle Lee leaves Stuart in command of one of the resulting corps. At least we’re getting away from that Cemetery Hill canard (Stonewall the mediocre tactician would have dribbled troops into the attempt and would not have taken the Hill, by the way. Dick Ewell is vindicated).

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