Chancellorsville: The South gains a crucial victory but loses the general who won it

Apr. 27, 2013

At 5:15 p.m. on May 2, 1863, a doomed Confederate officer with striking blue eyes sat on his horse holding his pocket watch in the Virginia wilderness west of Fredericksburg.

He wore a civilian black rubber raincoat and gauntlets as he waited for the last of his 21,000 soldiers to spread through the woods into an attack formation a mile and half long.

There were only a few hours of daylight left, and his men had been marching all day. But the officer had carefully maneuvered his 45 regiments into position to launch one of the greatest assaults of the Civil War.

As the minutes ticked by, he asked a subordinate: “Are you ready?” Yes, came the reply.

“You can go forward, then.”

Here, two miles from a crossroads mansion called Chancellorsville, which would give this battle its name, Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and the Confederate States of America stood at the pinnacle of triumph.

Jackson’s forces would shortly sweep through woods, routing surprised Union soldiers at their dinner fires and culminating in a resounding victory that seemed to bring the South within reach of independence.

The battle would elevate the already-famous Jackson to mythical status and place him among the ranks of history’s best military leaders.

His death eight days later would cripple the Confederacy, and like Abraham Lincoln’s, would provide one of the most wrenching scenes of the Civil War.

And his funeral would become the largest public gathering in the South during the conflict. “With impious hearts we inveighed against the will of God in the destruction of our idol,” Richmond memoirist Sally Putnam wrote.

Orphaned as a child, Jackson had grown to become like a zealous Old Testament warrior, biographers have said, leading an army of Christian soldiers in defense not necessarily of slavery, but of piety.

He is the biblical Joshua slaying the Amalekites in the Book of Exodus.

But catastrophe awaited Jackson — and the Confederacy — in the dense woods up ahead that night. As the attack went forward, and the Union soldiers fled from the screaming rebels, the moon rose over the forest.

Jackson and an entourage rode out between the lines to reconnoiter. Picking his way back in the darkness, he surprised a jittery Southern infantry regiment that mistook the group for enemy horsemen.

In what is perhaps the best-known friendly-fire episode in American history, the rebel soldiers unleashed a volley at their famous commander, wounding him grievously in the left arm.

In a harrowing scene, Jackson was caught on a plunging horse in no-man’s land as the Confederate and Union soldiers, now both alarmed, fired on each other with muskets and cannon. He was helped to safety, but only after stretcher bearers dropped him.

His left arm was amputated at the shoulder and he was taken to a rear area, where he briefly rallied.

But eight days later, after his stricken wife sang him hymns and brought him his newborn daughter for a last visit, he died of pneumonia, murmuring battlefield orders in his delirium.

Although it was not evident at the time, some historians believe Jackson’s death began the ruin of the Confederacy. The Southern disaster at Gettysburg two months later only confirmed the start of the eclipse.

“The road to Appomattox — where the war ended — began on that Saturday night” at Chancellorsville, James I. Robertson Jr., Jackson’s best biographer, has said. “With his death, the southern confederacy began to die as well.”

“It was just a tragedy for the South,” Robertson said in an interview, “the greatest personal loss that the South suffered in that war . . . a horrible blow.”

Civil War scholar Robert Krick said: “It’s hard to imagine the war going the way it did with Jackson present.”

And in death, Jackson became the South’s great martyr, like Lincoln later in the North. His body lay in state in Richmond in a casket with a window, and then wound its way through tens of thousands of mourners across Virginia to his adopted home, in Lexington, Va.

To this day, signs on Interstate 95 identify the little house where he died as his “shrine.” There are also schools that bear his name, as well as a hotel, a hospital, a decommissioned submarine, numerous thoroughfares, a lake and several towns across the country. The Virginia Senate recognizes him every year on his birthday.

But all that lay ahead on May 2, 1863.

That evening, bugles sounded down the line as the Confederate host began its advance through the woods, preceded by frightened deer, rabbits and other wildlife.

Jackson rode behind, caught up in the stampede and the excitement, urging his men forward to cut off the Union army. He wanted more than victory. He wanted its destruction.

“Press on!” he cried. “Press on!”

Five months earlier, on a cold, quiet night, Jackson had led his weary and hungry staff toward a grand brick mansion perched on a plateau near the Rappahannock River in Caroline County, Va.

The woman of the house recalled years later that the general had an earache.

The place was called Moss Neck Manor and was the country home of Richard Corbin, the scion of an aristocratic Virginia family. He was fighting in a Confederate cavalry regiment and would be killed in battle nine months later.

It was Dec. 16, and Jackson and his command were fresh from the slaughter at Fredericksburg, a brutal battle that had ended three days before with the Confederates’ thorough defeat of the Union army, about 11 miles upriver.

Jackson had taken his corps downriver to check a report of an enemy crossing, but found it to be a false alarm. Night had fallen and now he and his men had been caught in the open with no food and no place to camp.

Jackson had resisted taking refuge in the house, preferring to stay with his men. But he relented finally in the cold, saying, “Let’s go to the Moss Neck house.”

The stately home — which still stands — was elegant, low-slung and comfortable, and it was part of the Corbins’ 1,600-acre plantation, from which most of the slaves had fled.

At the time, the house was occupied by, among others, the absent owner’s wife, Roberta, their only child, a 5-year-old daughter named Jane, and Roberta’s charming sister-in-law, Kate Corbin.

Here, in the plantation business office, Jackson would spend the winter, resting, refitting and reflecting, perhaps, on the tumult of the past 19 months.

They were intoxicating times, in which he had risen from an eccentric professor at the Virginia Military Institute to the war’s most celebrated general.

He had earned the nickname “Stonewall” for the steadiness of his men at the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861. He had run several Union armies ragged in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862.

In August that year, he had outfoxed another Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He had bagged Harpers Ferry and withstood withering Union attacks at the Battle of Antietam in September. And he helped with the rebel victory at Fredericksburg in December.

At Chancellorsville, he had proposed to his commander, Gen. Robert Lee, that they split their outnumbered army. While Lee held the Yankees’ attention, Jackson would march his men quietly across the Union Army’s front, and then pounce on its right flank.

It was an audacious gamble, but Lee agreed and the plan worked. The Union army, under Gen. Joseph Hooker, was unhinged and then pummeled until it fled back across the Rappahannock River three days later.

It was one of the greatest coups of the war.

Handsome and clean-shaven as a young man, Jackson appears in an 1863 photograph as a bearded patriarch with a receding hairline. The soldiers called him “Old Jack,” though he was only 38.

A native of Clarksburg, in what is today West Virginia — about 35 miles southwest of Morgantown — he was a West Point graduate and a veteran of the Mexican War. He spoke Spanish and had traveled in Europe.

But death had already claimed his first wife and two infant children, and it informed his already deep religious faith. He saw the hand of God at work everywhere, especially on the battlefield, and sought to obey, and execute, His will in all things.

He was, however, extremely secretive, sharing his plans with few subordinates, and he became known for feuding bitterly with fellow officers when his instructions were not obeyed to the letter.

His confidants were seldom his top lieutenants. Instead, he gathered around him an unusual military “family.”

They included an extraordinary mapmaker, a top aide who was the son of an Episcopal minister, a former divinity student, his physician, a favorite clergyman, and his leased slave.

Most settled around Moss Neck for the winter, when the fighting ceased.

Jackson slept in the plantation business office with the Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy, an old friend who became his chief chaplain and would be with the general in his final hours.

Jackson’s top aide, Maj. Alexander Swift “Sandie” Pendleton, 22, bunked in with the physician, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, 27.

They slept in a tent and read Dickens and Shakespeare, and over time Pendleton became enamored of Kate Corbin.

For his part, Jackson, who adored children, became entranced by 5-year-old Jane Corbin.

She was “a sweet child . . . with a happy face and fair, flaxen curls,” Jackson subordinate Capt. James Power Smith, the former divinity student, recalled. “She was . . . as happy and sunny a child as I ever saw. . . . She was the general’s delight.”

Her mother, “Bertie,” remembered many years later how Jackson would summon the girl to his office and she would play for hours, cutting out paper dolls.

Jane admired a new hat the general had been given, and he cut off the gilt braid decoration and gave it to her, Roberta recalled.

The child wore it like a crown, and her mother kept it as a memorial “with precious associations” for years.

The season came and went “like a dream,” Kate Corbin wrote a friend. There were dinners, music and good company. And she and Sandie Pendleton eventually became engaged.

He had a “splendid, almost boyish, exuberance of spirits,” she wrote a friend, according to his biographer, W.G. Bean, and “is a sincere, professing Christian.”

A year later the war would claim him, too.

The advent of spring brought the coming of battle season.

In March, Jackson moved his headquarters from Moss Neck to be closer to his commander, Gen. Lee. He came to say goodbye to little Jane Corbin, who had been sick with scarlet fever.

Shortly after he left, the child suddenly died. Pendleton was still there.

“Never have I witnessed such a scene,” he wrote a sister. “It was truly appalling to witness the heartbroken anguish.” The child’s mother “seized me and began afresh her wild lamentations. . . . Death on the battlefield is not half so fearful as this.”

Fifty years later, as an old woman, the mother wrote of her daughter’s death as a portent for Jackson’s: “She seemed but the avant courier of the brilliant star so soon to set.”

On the rainy evening of Monday, May 4, a two-horse ambulance, escorted by cavalry, pulled up to a whitewashed cottage at Guinea Station, the railhead of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad.

Jackson and another wounded officer lay on mattresses inside the wagon, according to biographer Robertson’s account. McGuire sat beside the wagon driver. Jedediah Hotchkiss, the mapmaker, led the way. And Smith and Rev. Lacy rode inside with the general.

The cottage was the business office of Fairfield, a 1,200-acre plantation about 30 miles southeast of Chancellorsville, where Jackson hoped to spend a day or two before moving on to his home in Lexington.

He was carried inside on a litter and placed on a double bed in a first-floor room with a fireplace and a clock on the mantelpiece.

Jackson was tired but seemed to be doing better. He had told Lacy before they left that he was perfectly content with his amputation and believed God had ordained it for his own good.

During the trip he had chatted, and he had some bread and tea once he arrived. The next day he continued to do well. He slept but had no appetite.

Early Thursday, Lacy and Jackson’s servant, Jim Lewis, were awakened by Jackson’s groans. The general was nauseated and feverish and had a severe pain in his left side.

Lacy and Lewis wanted to summon the exhausted McGuire, who was sleeping in the next room. But Jackson wouldn’t let them. He called for a wet towel to be placed on his side. It did no good, and finally, around dawn he allowed McGuire to be awakened.

The doctor examined Jackson and realized that he had pneumonia.

There was little McGuire could do. Treatments for pneumonia in those days were primitive and largely futile. McGuire applied mustard plasters. He administered opiates, and by some accounts mercury and antimony. He even tried the ancient technique of cupping.

The disease rapidly ran its course. Jackson slipped in and out of delirium. His wife, Anna, was summoned and arrived with their infant daughter, Julia, later Thursday. He grew worse Friday and Saturday.

Lacy prayed with him. His wife sang him some hymns. His daughter was brought for him to see one last time.

That Sunday, May 10, Lacy held a service for him at army headquarters that was attended by 1,800 soldiers. Pendleton came to visit him and said the entire Confederate army was praying for him.

“Thank God, they are very kind,” Jackson said, adding “it is the Lord’s day. . . . I have always wanted to die on a Sunday.” Pendleton, who would later say he’d have given his life for Jackson, left the cottage and broke down on the porch.

By noon a silent crowd had gathered outside. Inside, Jackson was slipping away. “His mind began to fail and wander,” McGuire remembered. He began to shout orders as if in the heat of battle: “Pass the infantry to front rapidly!”

Then he quieted down, and as he died, said, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Copyright © 2013

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