Civil War History: How Stonewall Jackson Met His End

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December 27, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: United StatesConfederacyCivil WarStonewall JacksonMedicine

Civil War History: How Stonewall Jackson Met His End

Antiseptic techniques were not yet in practice, and contaminated instruments and non-sterile conditions resulted in many wound infections.

Here's What You Need To Remember: Friendly fire was the direct cause of Jackson's death; an erroneous medical diagnosis helped. However, given what we know now about medicine, most historians agree that it is unlikely that the doctors could have done much to help him.

Following his greatest victory, at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was scouting ahead of the lines with members of his staff when tragedy struck. In the pitch blackness of the early-spring evening, Jackson and his men were mistaken for Union cavalry and fired upon by their own side. Jackson sustained a severe wound to his upper left arm, necessitating amputation. Upon hearing the news, victorious General Robert E. Lee remarked, “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” Lee’s words proved prophetic. Eight days after the amputation, Jackson was dead.

It was a loss the Confederacy could ill afford. Before Chancellorsville, Jackson had enjoyed the fortuitous combination of personal skill as a commander, the ineptitude of his opponents, and the good luck that often follows such a combination. He had begun the Civil War as an unknown professor at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, after having distinguished himself during the Mexican War 15 years earlier. Fresh out of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he had graduated a hard-won 17th in a class of 59, Jackson had earned two brevets for gallantry as an artillery officer during the Mexican War. By the end of the war, he had become a brevet major at the age of 24. He resigned his commission in 1852 to take the position of professor of artillery tactics and natural philosophy at VMI.

Jackson Volunteers for War

Jackson was commissioned a colonel of volunteers in April 1861 and promoted to brigadier general two months later. He won fame at the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861, where his staunch defense of Henry Hill earned him the memorable nickname “Stonewall.” He was promoted to major general in October and appointed commander of all Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley the following month.

In the subsequent Shenandoah Valley campaign, Jackson fought a masterful series of battles against a greatly superior Union force. In doing so, his men prevented the reinforcement of Maj. Gen. George McClellan during McClellan’s drive on Richmond, probably saving the Confederate capital. After being repulsed at Kernstown, Jackson outmaneuvered and defeated enemy forces at Front Royal, Cross Keys, and Port Republic between May 23 and June 9, 1862. His campaign, long regarded by military historians as a tactical masterpiece, proved him to be a fearless and aggressive commander, a brilliant tactician, and a master of rapid maneuver. He summarized his approach to generalship as “always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy.” This strategy also applied to his own subordinates, who were rarely informed of Jackson’s plans beforehand. Jackson consulted only with Robert E. Lee.

Jackson rejoined Lee in driving McClellan from the peninsula during the Seven Days’ Battles between June 26 and July 2. Jackson next destroyed Maj. Gen. John Pope’s supply depot at Manassas Junction on August 27 and repulsed Pope’s counterattack at Groveton the next day. He contributed substantially to Lee’s crushing victory over Pope at Second Manassas on August 29-30. During the invasion of Maryland, Jackson won added distinction at the Battle of Antietam. Despite the Confederate defeat, he was promoted to lieutenant general the following month. At the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Jackson commanded the right flank in another devastating defeat of Union forces, this time led by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

A Grievous Wound

Jackson’s brilliant flanking move at Chancellorsville helped Lee reverse the tide of seeming Union victory and shatter the forces of the new enemy commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. It would be Jackson’s last hurrah. After sustaining a gunshot wound to his upper left arm and a minor wound to his right hand, Jackson left the battlefield supported by two aides. He was then placed on a litter. One of the litter-bearers was shot, causing the general to be thrown painfully to the ground. Jackson was lifted back onto the litter and carried a few hundred yards to the rear, where the 27-year-old medical director of the II Corps, Dr. Hunter McGuire, examined his wounds. “I hope you are not badly hurt, General,” he said. “I am badly injured,” Jackson responded forthrightly. “I fear I am dying. I am glad you have come. I think the wound in my shoulder is still bleeding.”

McGuire observed that Jackson’s clothes were saturated with blood and saw that the wound to the left arm indeed was still bleeding. He applied compression to an artery and called for a light to examine the wound more closely. He found that the bandage had slipped and adjusted it to stop the hemorrhage. McGuire also found that Jackson’s hands were cold, his skin was clammy, and his face and lips were pale—all classic signs of hemorrhagic shock. Jackson, however, admitted no discomfort. He was given morphine and whiskey nonetheless—despite being a lifelong teetotaler—and was removed to a nearby field hospital.

Immediate Surgery

At the hospital, McGuire determined that immediate surgery was necessary. When he informed Jackson, the general replied, “Yes, certainly, Dr. McGuire, do for me whatever you think best.” Chloroform was administered and Jackson murmured, “What an infinite blessing,” as he slipped into unconsciousness. McGuire first extracted a round ball that had lodged under the skin at the back of Jackson’s right hand. It had entered the palm and fractured two bones. Next, McGuire wrote, “The left arm was then amputated, about two inches below the shoulder, very rapidly, and with slight loss of blood, the ordinary circular operation having been made.”

Amputations accounted for approximately 75 percent of all operations during the Civil War. Antiseptic techniques were not yet in practice, and contaminated instruments and non-sterile conditions resulted in many wound infections. Nevertheless, prompt amputations undoubtedly saved many lives by converting traumatic wounds into surgical procedures to improve patient survivability. During the war, surgeons found that amputations performed within 48 hours of an injury were twice as likely to be successful as those performed later. Union records reveal a total of 5,540 upper-arm amputations, from which 1,273 amputees died from complications—a fatality rate of 23 percent.

Jackson tolerated the surgery well despite his earlier significant blood loss. At 3:30 the following morning, Major Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton arrived at the hospital to obtain orders for Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Jackson’s replacement as corps commander. Jackson attempted unsuccessfully to respond. “He tried to think,” reported Pendleton. “He contracted his brow, set his mouth, and for some moments appeared to exert every effort to concentrate his thoughts. For a moment we thought he had succeeded, for his nostril dilated, his eye flashed its own fire, and his thin lip quivered again, but it was just for a moment. Presently he relaxed again, and very feebly, and oh so sadly, he answered, ‘I don’t know. I can’t tell. Say to General Stuart that he must do what he thinks best.”

An Uneven Recovery

Jackson then slept for several hours and appeared to be free of pain when he awoke. At 10 am, however, he experienced a severe and sudden episode of pain in his right side and called for McGuire. Jackson assumed that he had injured his side when he struck a stone or stump during his fall from the litter the night before. McGuire made a careful examination and concluded, “No evidence of injury could be discovered by examination; the skin was not broken or bruised, and the lung performed, as far as I could tell, its proper function.” The pain soon abated.

By 8 pm, the pain had disappeared and Jackson seemed to be doing well. The following day, fearing Jackson’s capture by nearby Federals, Lee ordered McGuire to remove his patient to Guiney Station, 27 miles away. Early the next morning the ambulance set out, and Jackson seemed to tolerate the transfer well. Later in the day he became nauseated and asked that a wet towel be placed on his abdomen. Upon arrival, he felt well enough to take bread and tea.

The house where Jackson was to convalesce already contained several other wounded soldiers, including several with cases of highly contagious erysipelas, a skin infection caused by the bacteria streptococcus. McGuire would not allow Jackson to be exposed to the infection and found him a small building on the grounds that had been used as an office. The general slept well that night and awoke to eat a hearty breakfast.

McGuire dressed Jackson’s wounds and found them to be healing well without signs of infection. Jackson seemed satisfied with his progress and inquired how long it would be before he could return to the field. At 1 am, however, he suffered another bout of nausea and asked a servant to reapply a wet towel to his abdomen.