Sunday, January 21, 2024

Stonewall Jackson, a brief summary


Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had a meteoric career in the American Civil War, from 1861 to his death in 1863. Today (1/21/2024) is his 200th birthday.

He rose to fame in the 1861 Battle of Bull Run/Manassas. When the Confederate left was driven back in disorder after a hard fight, Jackson deployed his reinforcing brigade on Henry House Hill. At this time, the usual Confederate infantry brigade had a 4-gun battery attached. Other guns from the retreating units rallied on Jackson. I noticed during a visit to the battlefield back in the 90s that Jackson had 13 guns around his brigade. At this early battle, green brigades were incapable of making coordinated assaults, instead sending one regiment forward at a time. Regular Union artillery aggressively closed to canister range, one battery shot down by rifled muskets that out-ranged smoothbore muskets by some 50 yards or more in the hands of ordinary recruits, the other at close range by a Virginia regiment in blue uniforms. Jackson’s stand stopped the Union attack. Other reinforcements arrived and drove the Yankees back. Jackson’s nickname and reputation were made.


In January 1862, promoted to major-general, Jackson launched a winter campaign to recapture West Virginia. His campaign was delayed by the slow movement of Brigadier-General Loring, who resented being under Jackson’s command. The prickly Loring would also prove difficult under Pemberton in 1863. Snow and mud slowed Jackon’s marches. He sought to destroy a smaller Union garrison at Bath, but this evaded his move, joining other troops at Hancock, Maryland behind the Potomac River. Unable to find a crossing, Jackson settled for trading artillery fire with the Yankees. Jackson then moved on the town of Romney. Again, the Union garrison flew the coop. In miserably cold weather, Jackson ordered Loring to hold the town while he withdrew his troops to Winchester. Loring’s officers circulated a petition demanding a withdrawal. Loring endorsed it and sent it to Jefferson Davis. Davis’s ok ended the one-month campaign. Jackson tendered his resignation. The governor of Virginia talked him out of it. The campaign did clear the upper (southwestern) Shenandoah of Union forces. The lower (northeastern) end of the Valley pointed at Washington D.C. like a gun.


After the victory at Bull Run, southern fortunes declined, with Union victories in the west and along coastal North and South Carolina. Secessionist morale and international prestige sank.


Jackson then embarked on his Valley campaign, outmarching three separate Union forces, defeating each in turn and escaping an attempt to coordinate them against him. This raised southern morale. Any Confederate victory in the Valley threatened Washington and raised Lincoln's blood pressure. Lincoln learned that sending orders over the telegraph was no substitute for having a competent military officer in charge on the scene.


Jackson next marched to Richmond to take part in Lee’s offensive against McClellan, which would be known as the Seven Days. Here Jackson let Lee down. He was physically exhausted, possible feeling that the other troops should shoulder the burden of fighting. Extremely pious, he also avoided fighting on Sundays. Lee’s plans usually had Jackon’s left flank striking the Union right. Jackson either showed up late or not at all for most of the fights. He once went to sleep while his troops halted in mid-day, after ordering a bridge built over a stream that was fordable. Lee got rid of most commanders who let him down during this campaign, except Jackson. McClellan did manage to escape from a tight squeeze.

Next, Jackson was sent north to raid the supplies of John Pope’s army. Pope had been given command of the various forces that had been embarrassed by Jackson previously. Jackson torched an enormous supply depot at Manassas and then hid out, while Lee and the rest of the Confederate army hurried north to join him. Jackson then held out against Pope’s superior numbers at 2nd Bull Run/Manassas until Lee and Longstreet arrived to crush Pope’s left flank. The Union troops fell back on Washington. Pope was relieved and McClellan was back in charge.


Lee then invaded Maryland, figuring that Little Mac would be slow as molasses as usual and the Union troops were demoralized by their defeats. The first count was right, until a copy of Lee’s orders was found, lighting a fire under Little Mac, who advanced at a moderate pace. Lee was wrong on the second count. The Union troops were looking for a chance to show what they could do when properly led. They got less than stellar leadership but still came within a whisker of destroying Lee’s army at Antietam/Sharpsburg.

McClellan was sacked for his glacial moves after the battle. Burnside was put in charge. He advanced to Fredericksburg, wasting a week waiting for pontoon bridges needed to cross the Rappahannock River. During this time Lee’s army arrived and lined the opposite shore. Jackson held the right. When Burnside’s large army finally crossed, an attack was launched at Jackson’s corps. Meade’s division found a several hundred yard gap in Jackson’s line in a swampy wooded area thought to be impassable.  As is often the case, when the passable terrain is swept by enemy fire, “impassable” terrain becomes rather inviting. Gregg’s Confederate brigade, relaxing in what was thought to be a reserve position, was overrun and Gregg slain. Jackson then organized a fierce counterattack that drove Meade back with heavy losses. That pretty much ended the fight on the right. The rest of the battle saw a series of hopeless Union attacks against the left, where Longstreet had prepared a killing ground. Bodies piled up in front of his position. It was a lopsided victory. Jackson lost most of the Confederate casualties while Longstreet caused most of the Union losses.

Burnside was soon replaced by “Fighting” Joe Hooker. Longstreet was away, waging a low-key campaign in coastal North Carolina aimed mainly at bringing in crops from areas near coastal Union positions. Hooker started out with a bang, crossing the Rappahannock and flanking Lee’s army. Then he got cold feet, falling back into the Wilderness, waiting for Lee’s attack. Lee sent most of his forces under Jackson to fall on the Union right flank. Jackson hit like a sledgehammer, routing Howard's XI Corps. Scouting forward in the dusk, he sought to find another weak spot. Union cavalry had collided accidentally with Rebel infantry, people had actually been sabered. The word spread down the line to watch out for insane enemy cavalry. Back through the woods came Jackson and his staff. Rifle fire broke out. He fell from the saddle, badly wounded. Jackson’s left arm was amputated. Seeming to recover, he then succumbed to infection and became a martyr of the Lost Cause.

Many people think Jackson’s flank attack was the decisive moment of the battle of Chancellorsville. While certainly nothing that the Union was happy with, they had six more corps and the battle raged for days afterwards. The decisive moment was likely the next day when a solid shot hit the column that Hooker was leaning on. He was concussed, not enough to give up command of the army but enough to render his further decisions even more ineffective. In time he ordered a retreat, with many of his troops angered that they hadn’t been beaten, just their commander.