Did friendly fire rob the Confederacy of its best chance of victory?

Jackson
General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s so called ‘Chancellorsville’ portrait, taken less than two weeks before his mortal wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Some one hundred and fifty three years ago, on 2 May 1863, one of the most well known friendly fire incidents in history took place.  Its consequences have caused debate and discussion ever since and it is often argued that it had a profound impact on the outcome of the American Civil War.  The incident was the shooting of Confederate commander, Lieutenant General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson by Confederate troops during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

On 27 April 1863 Union troops under Joseph Hooker began crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers above the town of Fredericksburg, where General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had been encamped since the latter part of 1862. Hooker concentrated his forces in the area of Chancellorsville, and Lee decided he needed to act. Leaving a small force in Fredericksburg he marched the rest of his Army west to meet Hooker.  As Lee approached, Hooker entrenched his force around Chancellorsville.  On finding out about the Union defensive position, Lee and Jackson came up with a daring and aggressive plan.

At 0730hrs on 2 May 1863 Jackson set off on one of the boldest flanking actions in military history.  He would take with him two thirds of the Confederate Army, an Army that only numbered some 43,000 compared to the Union Army of about 70,000, leaving Lee to pin the Union Army with the remaining third.  He would then lead this force on a twelve mile march that would, at 1530hrs that day, place the head of the column in battle positions on the right flank of the Union lines.

It would take almost two more hours before enough of the force was in place and ready to launch its attack.  The fighting was ferocious and confused with the two armies fighting in very close wooded terrain with thick undergrowth that slowed down the attack.  Whilst the assault was successful, the terrain and the added friction of dealing with increasing numbers of Union prisoners, who had to be chaperoned to the rear, began slowing things down.  By about 2030hrs darkness was falling over the battlefield and the attack was petering out.  Jackson ordered a halt to reorganise and await AP Hill’s division, which was still marching.  But assessing the situation, Jackson decided he needed to keep the momentum and that this would only be a pause because if he stopped the attack at this point he would be ceding the advantage to the Union forces. In order to understand what was in front of his position Jackson took a small group of his staff forward to conduct a reconnaissance.

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Jackson’s Flank March at the Battle of Chancellorsville, 2 May 1863, and showing where Jackson was wounded.  Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com

Riding out from the main Confederate position through the lines of the 18th North Carolina Infantry, the small party proceeded two hundred yards further stopping just behind a picket line that had been deployed ahead of the main Confederate line.  Here they listened for the Union forces, themselves barely a quarter of a mile away. In the distance Jackson could hear the sound of axes felling trees and shovels scraping the earth. The Union troops were putting up defensive positions, so he realised he would have to act quickly, and turned the party around to return to the Confederate lines.

At much the same time, a little further south, some Union troops had blundered into the Confederate line and been captured.  This had the effect of making the Confederates worried that other Union troops were approaching their lines.  As a result the men in the frontline began to get jumpy.  One Confederate soldier fired at a shadow and this in turn caused another to do likewise, and in seconds a wave of fire erupted from the Confederate position rolling northwards up the line just as Jackson and his reconnaissance party approached.

A volley of shots ripped into Jackson’s party.  Jackson himself was hit three times, once in the right hand and twice in his left arm.  One of his staff, his brother-in-law Joseph Morrison, called out for the troops to stop firing as they were shooting at their own men.  However, the 18th North Carolina were a seasoned unit and had heard that Union troops used such ruses, so continued to fire!  When they eventually did stop firing one member of the party was dead, and Jackson and another were both seriously wounded.  Members of his staff helped him from his horse and carried him to the rear where he was placed on a litter and evacuated.  The rearward journey itself was traumatic as he was thrown from the litter at least once, causing further injury!

the-stonewall-jackson-memorial
The Stonewall Jackson Memorial at Chancellorsville.  Dedicated in 1888, it commemorates Jackson’s wounding ©Civil War Trust

He was eventually taken to his doctor and the following day his left arm was amputated. For a few days it looked as though he would recover but then caught pneumonia, and on 10 May 1863 he died.  His body was taken to his hometown of Lexington, Virginia where his funeral was conducted and he was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery, now known as the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.

The impact of the loss of Jackson was immediate.  The day after he died, Lee issued the following General Order:

“Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia,

11 May 1863

General Order No 61

With deep grief the commanding general announces to the army the death of Lieutenant-General T. J. Jackson, who expired on the 10th instant, at quarter past three P. M. The daring, skill & energy of this great & good soldier, by the decree of an all-wise Providence, are now lost to us. But while we mourn his death, we feel that his spirit still lives, & will inspire the whole army with his indomitable courage & unshaken confidence in God, as our hope & strength. Let his name be a watchword to his Corps, who have followed him to victory on so many fields. Let officers & soldiers emulate his invincible determination to do everything in the defense of our beloved Country.

R. E.  Lee

General”

His loss was both personal and professional to Lee.  Over the ten months they had worked together they had developed a personal and professional relationship that was very close and very effective.  Each knew how the other thought and behaved, and each trusted the other to play their respective parts on the prosecution of Confederate strategy.  They were exemplary exponents of what today is known as Mission Command.  The current US Army Mission Command Doctrine (ADRP 6-0 Mission Command) states:

“Mission command is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”

What does this mean? Well in means trusting a subordinate to act under their own initiative to carry out an order and meet the intent the commander wants delivered.  This is exactly how Jackson and Lee operated.  In an age before radio, telephone and instantaneous communication this meant Lee giving some fairly broad brush orders, but with a clear outcome in mind.  This in turn allowed Jackson to be out of contact, sometimes for weeks at a time, but with Lee always confident that he would deliver, and by and large he did. The same US Army manual lists the principles that underpin Mission Command, the top two of which are:

– Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
– Create shared understanding.

Even from a quick examination of the Lee/Jackson relationship it is clear that these principles ran through their relationship, like letters through a stick of rock. They trusted each other implicitly and had a clear shared understanding, resulting in Jackson knowing exactly what was needed, even as the tactical circumstances changed, without seeking additional orders from Lee.

So with the death of Jackson, Lee had lost a key lieutenant right at the time when he needed one the most.  Less than two months later his Army was engaged in the biggest battle of the American Civil War, Gettysburg, where it became clear that other subordinates were less able to act within a Mission Command framework and deliver Lee’s intent. For example on the first day of the battle, Richard Ewell commanding one of Lee’s three corps, was sent a discretionary order by Lee to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.”  Many historians have postulated that had Jackson been the corps commander at that point he would undoubtedly have found it “practicable” and would have taken the initiative.  Its highly likely that such an action could have finished Gettysburg with a Confederate victory by the end of that first day of the battle.  In the same vein the following day Lee struggled with another Corps commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, whose somewhat sluggish deployment probably lost Lee the initiative he sought that day.  In short neither Ewell nor Longstreet, or for that matter Lee’s other subordinates of that period, were Jackson and they did not act with the intuition Lee had come to expect.

It is certainly possible that Jackson’s presence at Gettysburg, and later battles, could have brought about Confederate victories. The American military historian James I. Robertson, in his comprehensive biography of Jackson, sums up the impact of his loss very well:

“Jackson’s passing marked a line of demarcation in the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In the ten months that Lee and Jackson were together, delegation of authority had been so lenient – orders permitting a wide latitude in execution so regular – as to create one of history’s great military partnerships.  Thereafter, starting at Gettysburg, the system failed Lee.  He had no executive officer of first-rate ability.  He tried to do it all himself.  It did not work.” (Stonewall Jackson, James I. Robertson, Macmillan, 1997)

Jackson and Lee
‘Tactics and Strategy’, Jackson and Lee at Chancellorsville, by Mort Kunstler. ©www.mortkunstler.com

Perhaps the best comment on the impact of the loss of Jackson comes from Lee himself who, on hearing of the amputation of Jackson’s arm, is reported to have said:

“Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right.”

The implications of this statement are very clear.  Lee as the commander relied on Jackson.  As commander and subordinate they were ‘in each others minds’.  His loss deprived Lee of someone he could trust implicitly at a crucial time for the Confederacy, with the Confederate’s armies on the ascendancy. Had Jackson not been killed there is every indication that this duo could have led the Army of Northern Virginia to continued military success through Gettysburg and beyond, and perhaps even victory in the War.