“Battle of Jackson” Day

Being neck-deep among the eastern battlefields of May—and this year, in particular, being the 160th anniversary of the Overland Campaign—I have to be especially deliberate to take time out and cast my gaze to the west. My adopted battle of the Western Theater, the battle of Jackson, Mississippi, took place on this date in 1863.

For an Overland guy like me, it’s natural to focus on the fight for Myer’s Hill, a key action in the second week of the battle for Spotsylvania Court House, and one that took place right across the road from my home base at Stevenson Ridge. (Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has thankfully done a lot of preservation work there over the past few years).

The battle of Jackson, however, occupies a special place in my heart, if it’s not weird to say such a thing. I had such a fulfilling experience writing my book about Jackson, though. The fact that the battlefield has essentially been lost makes me feel all the more protective of its story.

Perhaps the most important takeaway for me from that project—and this is kind of “Civil War 101” except it gets ignored by so many people—was the reminder not to look at the East and West as discrete pockets. Events in Mississippi and Virginia in the early part of May 1863 had direct impact on each other, so to look at each separately is to fail to appreciate the full context of their influence on each other.

For instance, as Grant was crossing the Mississippi to land at Bruinsburg, Joe Hooker was kicking off the Chancellorsville campaign. Jefferson Davis spent months wringing his hands about events in his home state, but when the hour of crisis arrived, his attention was immediately absorbed by events 50 miles north of the Confederate capital.

That same interrelationship occupied, Henry Halleck’s attention in Washington, and so he could not reply in a timely fashion to questions from Grant, who took full advantage of the wiggle room by literally changing course on the campaign—a decision that I have come to believe ranks as one of the underrated turning points of the entire war.

In the wake of Chandlersville, Davis wanted to respond to Grant’s movements by stripping part of Lee’s army and sending it west. Lee, in turn, responded to Davis suggestion by suggesting instead his invasion of the north—a move intended to draw Federal attention, and, hopefully, resources from Tennessee and Mississippi, but also one that would let Lee to keep control over as much of his own army as he could.

The dynamics of mid May 1863 on the strategic level were driven as much by personality as my military developments. It’s fascinating. Imagine the implications had Hood’s and Pickett’s divisions shown up in Jackson, Mississippi, with Joe Johnston acolyte James Longstreet at their head, in time to take on a divided Army of the Tennessee on the outskirts of Jackson?

I also think of the Stonewall Jackson connection. The death of Stonewall Jackson overshadows the Fall of Jackson, Mississippi. One Jackson gets forgotten while the other gets immortalized. That holds true today: a lot more Civil War buffs know about Stonewall than the battle for the capital of the Confederacy’s largest cotton-producing state.

My friend Jim Woodrick, who was so helpful as I worked on my “Battle of Jackson” book, called me to wish me a “Happy Battle of Jackson Day.” To an ear unaccustomed to such salutations, that might sound odd, but for those of us who have our annual commemorations and memorializations, it makes perfect sense. It was nice to hear from Jim today. While our shared experience about the battle of Jackson pails in comparison to the shared experiences of the soldiers, the shared experiences of the soldiers allowed Jim and I to have our own shared experience.

That’s perhaps an under-appreciated legacy of the war: we hear about how divisive it can still be, but we forget, too, that it brings people together to discuss a shared interest. My friendship with Jim is perhaps the happiest legacy of Jackson, for me. That, by itself, is reason to recognize the day.

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6 Responses to “Battle of Jackson” Day

  1. Richard Taylor and Nathaniel Banks, friend and foe of Jackson’s in the Valley campaign, had just concluded the Bayou Teche campaign across the river by mid-May of 1863. Washington would then have Banks re-direct his army/corps to Port Hudson and a possible rendezvous with Grant.

    All goes through Jackson. And I say this as someone raised in Jackson, Louisiana.

  2. Even if Longstreet and his corps were sent west, could the rickety Confederate rail system get them to Jackson in time?

    1. A legit question–but by premptorily saying “no,” Lee ensured the answer would be “no.”

      1. The Confederate rail system was rickety. Read “The Battle of Jackson,” which addresses politics (poly = many, ticks = bloodsuckers) of sending supporting troops to the Vicksburg arena. Beauregard sent 5,000 men by rail from the South Carolina district, departing on May 6, some arriving in Jackson on May 13, the battle of Jackson happening on May 14, so the rail system may been up to getting the job done. It’s a good book, Sherman’s future face-to-face foe, General Johnson, comes across as being two-faced, you have to read it to believe it.

        Confederate rail story you may already know – General Edward Porter Alexander, who had his own experiences with rickety Confederate rails, but I diverge, invested everything in Confederate war bonds, which were worthless after the war. The war’s over, he gets home, and he finds that the man managing his finances didn’t sell Alexander’s railroad stocks, despite instructions so to do. The man said, “Porter, they kept going up in value and they paid a dividend, I couldn’t sell them.” And thus Porter Alexander after the war didn’t starve.

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