When I was a teenager I visited Virginia's Chancellorsville battlefield and I was unimpressed. It's not like Gettysburg or Antietam, where you can see much of the battlefield stretched out before you. Chancellorsville was fought in the woods and remains mostly woods today. I must also confess that I'm bored by the typical presentation of battlefield history--big signs with lots of arrows showing troop movements.
But seeing is not the only way to imagine what happened here, as I discovered when I returned to Chancellorsville to follow in the footsteps of Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. It turned out to be a great way to appreciate what Stonewall himself believed was his finest military maneuver. I did it by car with a guided tour audiotape purchased at the visitor's center. Even on a Saturday in mid-summer, I had the narrow, winding route through the woods mostly to myself. At every stop I shut off the engine, listened to the tape, read a little and was transported back to May 1863, in the company of one of the Confederacy's most fascinating personalities.
When Stonewall Jackson died just after 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 10, 1863, people all over the South were praying intently for his recovery. Shot accidentally by his own men eight days earlier at Chancellorsville, Jackson was a true hero to the Confederacy. He had earned international fame earlier in the war with his brilliant fighting in the Shenandoah Valley. His early campaigns later became textbook reading at the English Military College at Sandhurst, and soldiers from Erwin Rommel to Norman Schwarzkopf have studied his tactics. Park service historians still take military commanders on tours of the Shenandoah Valley with some regularity.
On the day Jackson died, an emotional Robert E. Lee confided to Jackson's chaplain, "I prayed for him last night as I never prayed, I believe, for myself." A Richmond girl breathlessly following the newspaper accounts recalled thinking, "He cannot die--he is an immortal reality."
But Mary Chandler, who owned the farm in Guinea Station, Virginia, where Stonewall spent his last days, knew it was over when she looked from her window and saw the general's sobbing wife being helped from the small building where he lay. Henry Kyd Douglas, one of Jackson's staff officers who was miles away at the time, claimed later that his watch stopped at exactly 3:15 that afternoon. When Jackson's soldiers heard the news in camp, another officer recalled, "The sounds of merriment died away as if the Angel of Death himself had flapped his muffled wings over the troops."
The Confederates had won a smashing victory at Chancellorsville, beating an army twice their size. But with Jackson gone, Lee had lost his "right arm" and the South some of its hopes of winning the war. Visiting the Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station many years later, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George remarked, "In this little house, the Confederacy also died."
Jackson's death at age 39 elevated him from world-renowned warrior to patron saint of the Lost Cause. Stonewall biographies, Stonewall songbooks and syrupy Currier and Ives prints of the general on his deathbed sold well even in the North. Faked portraits of him with his wife and daughter, who was only five months old when he died, did steady business.
Stonewall relics became as prized as bits of the True Cross. A soldier holding the general's horse immediately after Jackson was shot managed to overcome his grief enough to snitch a piece of the bridle. The raincoat Jackson wore on the night of his wounding was put on display in Scotland in 1866. Even the sentinels guarding his casket helped themselves to the flowers.
Why all the adulation? Of course, part of it was due to his abilities on the battlefield. The legend began at the first Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, when Jackson's brigade of Virginians took a stand on Henry House Hill and held back a strong Union attack. But there was more to Jackson's appeal than just his prowess at war. He was a Character. Even though some of the legends are exaggerated or untrue--for example the story that he was constantly sucking lemons--Jackson's eccentricities, like raising his hands repeatedly to Heaven during battle to give thanks, added to the mystique. Stonewall's faith was genuine, but it was strictly Old Testament.
The fascination with Jackson continues to this day. The latest of at least a dozen biographies, James I. Robertson's Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, will be out this spring. It runs more than 900 pages. On May 2 last year more than 600 aficionados from around the world gathered for a night tour of the Chancellorsville battlefield, just because the moon was exactly as it was on the fateful night when Jackson was shot.
There's still debate over whether it was Lee's or Jackson's idea, but either way, the flank march at Chancellorsville was a brilliantly simple plan. To mount a surprise attack on the enemy's lightly defended right flank, Jackson was to take his men and sneak across the front of the Union position and through dense woods that the Union generals would assume were impenetrable. Jackson's 30,000 men marched all day along little-known back roads, their column extending 10 miles end to end.
None of the soldiers knew where they were going or what would happen when they got there, which always suited Jackson just fine. When Union commanders heard about the troops' movement, they decided the Confederate army was in retreat, just as Jackson had hoped.
The plan worked spectacularly well, and by early evening Jackson's troops had routed the right flank of the Union lines. As night fell, the Confederates lined up along a road near the site of the current visitor's center. The general himself, always eager to pursue a fleeing enemy, rode ahead with a small party to scout out the situation, then turned back toward his own lines.
What happened next, according to a carefully researched essay published last year by Robert Krick, a Jackson expert and historian with the National Park Service, was a bit of freakish bad luck. In the darkness, North Carolina troops mistook the approaching riders for Federal cavalry and opened fire. Five bullets traveled nearly 100 yards through thick woods to strike the nine-member group. Three of them hit Jackson, one in his right hand and two in his left arm.
"For three of the five bullets to hit one man," Krick writes, "defied the odds by a staggering ratio." Stonewall once dismissed a subordinate's question about how he kept so cool in battle by saying, "God has fixed the time for my death.
Guides at the Chancellorsville visitor's center generally finish their tour by pointing out roughly where Jackson was shot. A large monument erected in 1888 marks the spot nearby where several officers tended his wounds. The trouble is, both locations are off by 20 yards or more, according to Krick's analysis. Part of the reason for placing the 1888 monument where it now stands was so it could be seen from the road--today's Route 3, which runs east to Fredericks-burg and west to Culpeper.
It was down this road that anxious soldiers carried their stricken commander, shoulder-height, on a litter. The battle still raged around them, and artillery fire occasionally strafed the roadway. The stretcher-bearers dropped Jackson not once, but twice. The second time, he fell directly on the left side where his arm had been broken, and the normally stoic general "groaned piteously."
At that instant, Jackson thought he would die on the field. Later he told his chaplain, Beverly Lacy, that this moment of self-revelation was "a precious experience to me, that I was brought face to face with death, and found all was well."
An ambulance cart finally delivered Jackson to a tent hospital three or four miles west of where he'd been shot. There, at about two o'clock Sunday morning, surgeon Hunter McGuire gave him chloroform and amputated his left arm. Today a white highway sign marks the location, in a field just off Route 3 near its juncture with Route 20.
The next day, Monday, the doctors moved Jackson at Lee's suggestion to Guinea Station, 27 miles away, where he could recuperate away from the battlefield. You can still follow the route the ambulance took, through the small crossroads at Spotsylvania Courthouse and past the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields where Confederate and Union forces would fight again a year later. A team of soldiers traveled just ahead of Stonewall's horse-drawn ambulance wagon, clearing the road to make the ride smoother. Well-wishers along the way brought him food, and men doffed their caps and prayed.
Just after turning onto Guinea Station Road from the modern Route 1, you pass another antebellum plantation called La Vista, which today is a bed and breakfast. Stonewall's deathbed was stored here for years before the Park Service moved it to the Jackson Shrine, and stories have arisen about his ghost haunting the place.
The last leg of the drive, a narrow road with overhanging trees, seems not much changed from Civil War times. The area around Guinea Station is still peacefully rural. The Jackson Shrine itself is small and unassuming, a simple white frame building with two rooms upstairs and three down. The Chandler family, who had come to know Jackson the previous winter when he and his men had camped nearby, cleared out the small office building next to the main house so the patient could rest undisturbed. Only this smaller building remains today.
Touring the Jackson Shrine takes all of ten minutes, but the final act of Stonewall's life unfolded slowly, over seven long days. When he arrived on Monday, his doctors were optimistic for his recovery, and he chatted amiably with Chaplain Lacy and others about theology and military matters. By Thursday, his condition had deteriorated, and McGuire administered laudanum, a mixture of opium and whiskey. When his wife, Anna, and baby--whom Jackson had met for the first time only two weeks earlier--arrived from Richmond that morning, she was horrified to find him weak, tired and drugged. By Friday, Samuel Morrison, a physician and a kinsman of Anna's, told Jackson he was going to die.
Second-guessing Jackson's doctors--they attributed his death to pneumonia--has become a popular sport among physicians, and every few years someone weighs in with another opinion. The most recent is from a team of Duke University medical professors who, noting that none of the first-hand accounts mention Jackson coughing, dismissed the pneumonia diagnosis and chalked up his death to a massive strep infection. Robert Krick still goes with pneumonia but believes Jackson's falls from the stretcher, not the bullet wounds, did him in.
Stonewall himself remained convinced he would recover until Sunday morning, when Anna and McGuire informed him he would not live through the day. His last hours were full of dreams and delirium and half-finished sentences.
Modern writers, from humorist Ian Frazier to Civil War novelist Jeff Shaara, have been moved to tears by Stonewall's deathbed scene. Even hard-boiled Ernest Hemingway invoked it for his 1950 novel Across the River and Into the Trees. Shaara, indulging in a bit of pop psychohistory in his recent novel Gods and Generals, interprets the last words as the yearning of Jackson's inner child, reaching for the mother who left him an orphan at age seven (and whose own stoic deathbed scene Jackson had watched and probably carried with him as a model for how to behave in extremis).
Stonewall told Anna he wanted to be buried in Lexington, Virginia, where they had enjoyed four years of marriage before war took him away forever. Lexington is about a three-hour drive from Guinea Station, at the lower end of the Shenandoah Valley. The town retains much of its nineteenth-century charm and is something of a Confederate mecca, since both Lee and Jackson are buried there. You can hit all the Jackson-related sites in town in a single walking tour, from the campus of the Virginia Military Institute where he taught in the 1850s, to the only house he ever owned, to his grave (two graves, actually--his original resting place and the nearby monument where he was later moved).
Thousands gathered in Lexington on the 30th anniversary of First Manassas in 1891 for the unveiling of that monument. Many of them were Stonewall's old soldiers, who spent the night at the feet of their slain leader. Today fans toss lemons inside the fence surrounding the statue--a few lay scattered on the grass the day I visited. Myths die hard.
In Lexington you begin to get a fuller picture of Thomas Jackson, the socially awkward professor and Presbyterian deacon who surprised no one more than his own neighbors by becoming a war hero. Walking around the VMI campus today (where you can also view several Jackson artifacts, including his stuffed horse, Little Sorrel), you can imagine the cadets laughing at "Tom Fool" behind his back.
In Lexington you catch glimpses of a Gatsby-like figure bent on self-improvement, memorizing maxims, always striving to overcome what biographer James Robertson calls "a childhood so filled with loneliness that he would not discuss it in later years." Ruthless as Jackson was in battle, he was no warmonger.
His house is comfortable, inviting, warmer than you'd expect for a man whose wartime photos are so stiff and dour. In Lexington he puttered around the garden, bought some property, started to build a life for himself and Anna. As Jackson House Director Michael Lynn remarked during my visit, it's easy to imagine him raising a whole brood of kids there.
Stonewall, for all his brilliance in battle, is difficult to like, and his brand of merciless Christianity frankly a little hard for me to fathom. Thomas I can at least understand.
Jackson's third grave is near Chancellorsville, a mile or so from where the doctors amputated his arm on the night he was shot. I had to ask at the battlefield visitor's center for a special car pass to go there--it's not part of the regular tour. I told them I wanted to visit the Arm.
Pulling off the highway into a small gravel parking lot, I walked around the chain, past the sign marked "authorized access only." The dirt road skirted a cornfield, and for a couple hundred yards the only sounds I heard were my footsteps and the rustling of corn stalks in the breeze. Every once in a while a flock of crows startled into flight, stopping me dead in my tracks. It's more than a little creepy going to visit a severed arm.
At the end of the road was the old Lacy house, Ellwood, looking for all the world like it was still 1863. The Park Service owns the property but hasn't gotten around to restoring it. A little path wound through fragrant boxwoods, and up ahead another 50 yards or so I could see the little family cemetery, a plain rail fence around it.
Standing there in the silence, with not another soul around, I was touched by this private act of reverence for a brave friend and soon-to-be martyr. None of the other people lying there--not any member of the Lacy family, nor Captain J. Keith Boswell, one of Stonewall's officers killed by the same friendly fire at Chancellorsville--got a stone to mark their last resting place. Stonewall Jackson's arm did.