MYTHS OF THE CONFEDERACY - Part II
It cannot have escaped your notice that we of the Underground Railroad have been remarkably quiet over recent months. This is not because we have been disbanded, or forced into a tight corner. Rather, we have been busy fighting the forces of Rebeldom with renewed vigour, and have not had the time to spend in writing. In this edition of "Myths of the Confederacy" we are turning our attention towards another of the "great" generals of the Confederate Army, none other than Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.
When the Southern States in Rebellion embarked upon their course of aggression towards the Federal Government in Washington, Thomas Jackson was a schoolteacher at the Virginia Military Institute, training southern "gentlemen" in the art of making war. One has to ask; Why did so many southern states feel the need for these institutions in the Antebellum period? Were they planning war against the Federal Union even then?
Jackson had many strange, quirky attributes in his character, which in any other man would have been regarded as unacceptable. In modern society, he would almost certainly have been sent to a mental institution for therapy. But of such are myths made, and he was allowed to continue in positions of high command that far outstretched his real capabilities.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jackson was commissioned Colonel, and led a brigade of Virginia troops at Bull Run. Here he dug in behind the crest of Henry House Hill, and took up a stance of total defensive idleness. When Bee made his exhortation to his troops, "There's Jackson, standing like a stonewall. Rally behind the Virginians", it was not in any way complimentary. The word "stonewall" did not mean that Jackson was fighting stubbornly, but was an observation that Jackson was inactive and not engaging the enemy.
It must be said that his Valley Campaign was a work of some note, but he was not up against the brightest of men at that period of Federal Command. It should also be noted that an army carrying out Jackson's kind of campaign will always have the advantage, because the army in opposition cannot concentrate against an army that is dodging about, hither and thither. So it cannot be said to really be a masterstroke, except that it tied up a few divisions of troops that would have been better employed on the Peninsula. And the cost to the Confederacy in terms of men lost and/or worn out was a price the Confederacy could ill-afford. It was during this campaign that Jackson's lack of consideration towards the fighting men was demonstrated to the extent that his men actually began to hate him.
And it was on the Peninsula that Jackson made what were possibly his greatest blunders. The General who was supposed to be able to move his troops like "foot cavalry" suddenly became extremely sluggish. Ordered by Lee to attack Porter's Corps on the north bank of the Chickahominy at daybreak, in conjunction with A. P. Hill, Jackson was slow in arriving. Hill, being the impatient man that he was, attacked anyway without waiting for Jackson's divisions, and promptly got chewed up by the Federals. This was the start of the Seven Days Campaign.
Porter realigned his front line, and was prepared for the assaults the following day. Jackson's performance was again sluggish and these were also repulsed with huge losses for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Unfortunately for the Federal cause, the Army of the Potomac was commanded by McClellan, who had no stomach for carrying the war to his enemy as he should. McClellan ordered the start of the retreat back down the Peninsula to Harrison's Landing.
During all of the subsequent engagements of the Seven Days, Jackson was invariably late in carrying out his attack orders, to the extent that the Army of the Potomac was able to fight off every single one of the Confederate assaults with heavy loss to the attackers, due in the main to the assaults being made piece-meal. That is to say, the Confederates never brought all of their assaulting forces into action at the same time. And the fault invariably lay with Jackson's command. Of course it is a matter of opinion, but it may be considered that, in a tactical sense, every single engagement of the Seven Days was in fact a Federal victory. Far more casualties were inflicted upon the Confederate army than upon the Federals. It was McClellan's lack of fibre that led to these becoming defeats due to his retreating after each battle. The strategic loss to the Confederacy was great, and was never truly regained.
Now we move on to the Second Bull Run Campaign. We will concede that Jackson's part in this was played coolly and well, but his was really only a holding action while Longstreet got into position to assail the Federal flank. Could it be that Lee had actually lost confidence in his principal lieutenant, if such he ever had, by giving him what was, in essence, a none-too difficult assignment? Once in position, he had only to stay largely out of sight until it was time to spring the trap on Pope (who, again, was not the brightest of generals). It is noted here that a single division of troops, and in particular what came to be called the Iron Brigade, held the entire Army of Northern Virginia at bay while the rest of the Army of the Potomac retired to the Washington lines. And the Confederates were not particularly bright in their pursuit, getting well shot up at Chantilly.
The action moves a little to the northwest and the Antietam Campaign. Jackson's assignment was to assail and take Harpers Ferry, to protect the flank of the Army of Northern Virginia as it moved into Federal territory, and then to rejoin the main army. This was not a particularly difficult task, as Harpers Ferry itself was totally indefensible. Even so, Jackson did not hurry his work, and actually had not carried it out when he received orders from Lee to get up to Sharpsburg as soon as possible, as McClellan had for once got the jump on him. Jackson then proceeded to ignore the orders until he had taken Harpers Ferry. Then he marched his men to Sharpsburg, where he arrived barely in time. It is a moot point but, once again, if McClellan had committed all of his troops at once instead of the mish-mash of operations that occurred, he would have carried the day before Jackson was in position.
After Antietam, the Army of the Potomac was given over to one of its most incompetent leaders, Ambrose Burnside. An affable man, he was completely out of his depth, and knew it. But an order is an order, and so he took the command. During his Fredericksburg Campaign, he was let down badly by the Federal supply organisation, with the non-supply of the pontoon bridges he required. Probably, he should have cancelled the movement, but he was not that clever. However, during the Battle of Fredericksburg there was one bright spark in the engagement. General George Meade actually managed to punch a hole in the Confederate line, but Burnside was so mesmerised by Marye's Heights he could not see it. And where was the breakthrough? Of course, in Jackson's front. Because Burnside did not exploit it, in spite of the pleas from Meade, the hole was eventually plugged and the opportunity lost.
Now here is raised an interesting question. Again, it was Longstreet's Corps that was sent west to Bragg for the Chickamauga/Chattanooga campaign. Why was it not Jackson's? Again, we have to ask: Did Lee not have sufficient confidence in Jackson to be able to carry out this assignment? Would Jackson have been able to exploit the gap that developed in the Federal line at Chickamauga in the same way that Longstreet did? We will never know, but Jackson was never given the opportunity.
Back in the east, the Army of the Potomac was relieved to have Fighting Joe Hooker as its new commander. This relief would not last very long, since Hooker talked a good battle, and could plan it. But the execution fell apart after first contact. Jackson's part in the Battle of Chancellorsville was again somewhat tardy. Given the task of getting around the Army of the Potomac's right flank, he accomplished this. But he was not in position to attack until 5:30 p.m., by which time it was getting dark. How much more spectacular would the move against XI Corps have been if it had been carried out with more hours of daylight remaining? We will never know, of course.
It is during this final battle of Jackson's that we see another, fatal, flaw in the man's character. He did not trust any of his subordinates enough to carry out the fairly innocuous task of reconnoitering the Federal position to his front. So he carried out the mission himself. Reconnaissance is not the task of a Corps commander, who must have more faith in his lieutenants to be able to carry out this kind of task. In this instance, it proved his undoing. The troops in his front line mistook his party for Federal cavalry on a similar scouting mission, opened fire, and mortally wounded him. Jackson died of his wounds a few days later.
It is often stated that the South got the best generals when the Civil War broke out. Of course, this is a matter of opinion. A number of myths arose from the "Lost Cause", and we of the Underground Railroad consider that the "Legend of Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson" is one of them.
The Underground Railroad.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, February 2002