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!