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Subject: Civil War Mythbusters: Stonewall Jackson and the classic “What if?” on the first day at Gettysburg rss

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Pete Belli
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A common subject of discussion among Geeks interested in the American Civil War is the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, and more specifically Ewell’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill that evening.

One scenario involves the hypothetical behavior of Stonewall Jackson on the battlefield. A typical narrative describes a bold twilight assault by Jackson. According to this theory, he would correctly interpret Lee’s discretionary order to attack the Federal position “if practical” by taking Cemetery Hill while simultaneously capturing the anchor of the Union line on Culp’s Hill.

This classic “What if?” has become an element of ACW popular culture. Douglas S. Freeman, the chronicler of the Lost Cause, wrote that the battle of Gettysburg was lost because Jackson wasn’t there. One epic Gettysburg wargame even includes a special counter for a zombie Stonewall Jackson so players can test these assumptions during a session:



Jackson was an aggressive general with a flair for bold maneuvers. A decision to attack on the evening of July 1st would come naturally to Stonewall Jackson, right?

Maybe.

Jackson did not exhibit a consistent level of tactical genius on the battlefield. In fact, there were two different facets to Jackson’s obvious military talents. When he functioned as an independent commander Jackson showed a high level of initiative with flashes of brilliance. When he functioned as a subordinate commander under Lee a tendency to harness his natural aggressiveness and become a docile team player frequently appeared.

A description of Jackson’s performance at the end of the battle at Second Manassas caught my attention while I did a little research on the campaign for a Battle Cry scenario. There seemed to be a missed opportunity which authors like Shelby Foote or Freeman (who described Jackson’s actions at Second Manassas as a “flawless display of military judgment” in Lee’s Lieutenants) had loyally overlooked.

As the massive attack led by Longstreet crushed the Union left wing, Jackson received a typically vague order from Lee which included these instructions: “General Longstreet is advancing. Look out for and protect his left flank.”

The wording of this message was not an indication of any lack of firmness. Lee had developed his own command style after serving on the staff of Winfield Scott in the Mexican War. As an army commander Scott was a headquarters operator who relied on the discretion of his subordinates. With a few notable exceptions, Robert E. Lee allowed his corps and division commanders to fulfill the objectives described in his battle plan as they saw fit.

"I do everything in my power to make my plans as perfect as possible, and to bring the troops upon the field of battle; the rest must be done by my generals and their troops, trusting to Providence for the victory."

Robert E. Lee




Jackson did little to support Longstreet’s attack. While many of Jackson’s brigades were exhausted after repulsing the Union assault he had a substantial number of relatively fresh troops available. Any diversionary action taken by Jackson would have increased Pope’s confusion and distress.

This crude map depicts the action as Longstreet (red arrows) pushes ahead in an attempt to capture the crucial bridge. Jackson’s wing remained largely inactive, allowing the Union army to make frantic adjustments in response to the Confederate attack. Lee eventually sent Jackson specific orders to “advance and drive off the batteries” on the ridge protecting the Federal right flank. These Union guns were pouring enfilade fire on Longstreet's column. After a delay of more than an hour, Jackson moved forward about 6:00 o‘clock. By that time, Pope had begun to withdraw.

In his definitive history of the campaign John J. Hennessy describes Jackson’s performance as a “mystery” and a “puzzle” while concluding that the Rebel general’s lethargy was “one of the most significant Confederate failures on the fields of Manassas.” That analysis might seem a bit harsh, but there is no question that Jackson failed to display much initiative that evening.

If his performance at Second Manassas is any indication, the common perception that Jackson would have rushed forward to attack at dusk on July 1st at Gettysburg might be inaccurate. How did the general behave in similar situations on other battlefields as one of Lee’s trusted subordinates?




Jackson intended to conduct a diversionary attack against McClellan’s right flank at Antietam in spite of the heavy losses the Confederates had suffered earlier that morning. Jackson hoped to gather any troops Lee could spare and move forward but when additional reconnaissance determined the Federal line was firmly anchored on the river the plan was abandoned.

Jackson planned to strike the Union left flank at Fredericksburg after the Federal attack on his position near Hamilton’s Crossing was repulsed. After a reconnaissance of the Union line the assault was scheduled to begin at twilight. However, the first Confederate maneuvers rapidly demonstrated that Union artillery dominated the battlefield. Jackson cancelled the assault.

The initial success of his legendary flank attack at Chancellorsville encouraged Jackson to retain the initiative by pushing forward to seize the vital river crossings. As darkness fell Jackson conducted a personal reconnaissance while his soldiers probed the newly established Union positions. Although he did not immediately launch his brigades against the Union lines at twilight Jackson was planning to send A.P. Hill into action once the tactical situation was clarified. As every schoolboy (and schoolgirl) knows, Stonewall Jackson never completed that reconnaissance mission.

We see a consistent pattern of aggressive leadership governed by a professional military officer’s appreciation for the importance of adequate reconnaissance. If he had fought at Gettysburg in 1863 there is no doubt that Jackson would have instantly grasped the tactical importance of the Cemetery Hill/Culp’s Hill terrain. Claiming he would have impetuously dashed forward that evening is a problematical assumption.

However, there is one example from Jackson’s career that might shed a little more light on the subject of a hypothetical Gettysburg scenario. During the bitter struggle at Cedar Mountain the general fought one of his last battles as an independent commander. Following an early setback the Confederates drove the outnumbered Union troops from the field at sunset. Jackson attempted to pursue the retreating Federals in the moonlight and he advanced more than a mile. Night operations were rare during the American Civil War. After running into some resistance Jackson received word that another Union corps was nearby. He regretfully halted the night maneuver.

It should be remembered that Jackson the independent commander conducting a wide sweeping march around the Union flank in the summer of 1862 would be operating in a different frame of mind than Jackson the corps commander fighting under Lee’s direct supervision at Gettysburg in 1863. I do think Jackson’s bold gambit after his victory at Cedar Mountain might provide a glimpse of what a scenario designer could expect from Stonewall with a perfect roll of the initiative dice in a game depicting the fighting at Gettysburg on July 1st.
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Dan Taylor
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pete belli wrote:

Jackson did not exhibit a consistent level of tactical genius on the battlefield.


Jackson's battlefield performance (tactical) was often sub-par. The battle of McDowell featured Jackson's host of 14,000 against a Union 8,000. Despite the fact that Jackson's men held the top of a huge ridge, the Union attack managed to flank his troops and almost drive him away.

I do like your thinking, though. Would we get Jackson of Chancellorsville ("Drive them into the river! Night attack!") or the Jackson of the 7 Days/2cnd Bull Run ("....").
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Michael Lavoie
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A good analysis, as usual, Pete. One has to look no further than the Seven Days to see examples of Jackson's failures as a battlefied commander under Lee. As Second Manassas proved, things had not completely changed several months later. Of course, Chancellorsville showed what Stonewall was capable of; had he survived, could he have made the difference at Gettysburg? We will never know, but that doesn't stop people from speculating.

One thing that many writers seem to overlook in their excoriating of Ewell for his failure to attack Cemetery Hill on the evening of July 1 is the condition of his corps. The troops had endured a long day of hard marching and harder fighting, and were rather disorganized after their afternoon success. It would have taken time to rally them and get them ready for any kind of co-ordinated assault. Also, to attack in the gathering darkness without any kind of reconnaisance would have been difficult at best, if not foolhardy. Given the discretion offered by Lee's order, it's not really surprising that Ewell did not find such an attack "practicable." Would Jackson have found it so under those conditions?
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Patrick Williams
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Yes, very well written. Well done.
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Mitch Willis
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Good write-up, Pete. While I tend to think that he would've made some effort at either Cemetery Hill or Culp's Hill on that first day, it's definitely not a given that he would've made an all-out attack there...

I think you're dead on when talking 'bout a lack of consistency with Stonewall. While you used 2nd Manassas as a very good example of that, I tend to think more of his performance during the 7 Days. He was late on 2 different occasions (Mechanicsville & Gaines Mill), derailing Lee's plans for a decisive flank attack at both locations. I think this factored into Lee's recommended promotion orders for Longstreet & Jackson afterwards. From what I can surmise, Lee recommended both Longstreet & Stonewall for promotion to Lieutenant General at the same time, but dated Longstreet's order 1 day before Jackson's, making Longstreet 2nd in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. While Jackson could be flashy & bold (and a better independent commander than Longstreet), I think Longstreet was steadier, more consistent, and better as a corps commander...and looking at Lee's promotion order, I'm guessing he felt the same way...
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Brian Morris
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A large part of Jackson's legend comes from the Valley Campaign which was overblown by the southern press at the time. In the Valley Campaign you had Jackson on one side who was a trained military man who was very familiar with the Shenandoah Valley. On the other hand you had Nathaniel Banks who was not a military man but a politician who was not familiar with the Shenandoah Valley who before the war had never commanded even a boy scout troop and today is considered one of the worst generals of the war. Is it any surprise then that Jackson was able to run rings around him? The truth is it would have been a pretty sorry military man who under those circumstances had done anything less than what Jackson did.

In terms of Fredericksburg Jackson got mauled by George Meade on the Confederate right being pushed seriously in. Had Meade's attack been properly supported by Franklin as Franklin had been ordered the Battle of Fredericksburg might have been much different but Meade's success was never supported and instead the Union made suicidal runs at the Marye's Heights.

Jackson was a good Corp Commander but he was not the magician the press made him out to be. The south at that time needed a hero so they gravitated towards Jackson. At that moment in time Richmond was in sight of McClellan, Lee had yet to take command in the field and things were looking pretty grim. It's only natural that the press and the people of the day would latch onto Jackson.

Had he been at Gettysburg things may have transpired differently but his presence was far from any guarantee and on July 1st would not have changed the fact that the Union on the eve of that battle was sitting on a very strong position on a hill behind stone walls with plenty of artillery.
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Many good points have been made on Jackson's battlefield performance - of course a battlefield is a chaotic place. I wonder if Jackson's Corps would have been any better positioned and more responsive in the days leading up to the meeting engagement at Gettysburg?
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Mitch Willis
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mrbeankc wrote:
Jackson was a good Corp Commander but he was not the magician the press made him out to be. Had he been at Gettysburg things may have transpired differently but his presence was far from any guarantee and on July 1st would not have changed the fact that the Union on the eve of that battle was sitting on a very strong position on a hill behind stone walls with plenty of artillery.


I agree...and while I think Jackson could have possibly secured Cemetery or Culp's Hill (if so, more likely Culp's), it would have by no means destroyed the Army of the Potomac. The most likely result would've been the Union performing an orderly retreat to Meade's preferred defensive position at Pipe Creek...

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Charles Lewis
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Regardless of past performance, keep in mind that had Jackson survived to be at Gettysburg, the experience of losing an arm and subsequent illness that did, in reality, kill him, may very well have had a dramatic impact on his battlefield performance.
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Now, if Joe Hooker had stayed in command of the AoP and Jackson had survived and commanded a corps, maybe Gettysburg could have turned out like Chancellorsville.
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John New
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Perhaps, but color me skeptical. The fight started almost accidentally. Meade arrived late to the field at Gettysburg and the AoP, generally on the defensive, largely fought without any strong central command. By the time he arrived, the defensive line had already been largely determined and established by Buford, Reynolds and Hancock. Indeed, the only influential decison that I can think of that Meade made was his decision not to actively pursue the ANV after the fight had been won. I'm not sure that even Fighting Joe could have messed up the scenario in which Meade found himself.
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how often and how many Gettysburg games have has the south been able to take Culp's hill thru aggressive play after the union has made an orderly retreat to Culp's and Cemetery hills? looking for experiences and thoughts from players that have played 1 to several Gettysburg battle games.
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blueshark wrote:
Perhaps, but color me skeptical. The fight started almost accidentally. Meade arrived late to the field at Gettysburg and the AoP, generally on the defensive, largely fought without any strong central command. By the time he arrived, the defensive line had already been largely determined and established by Buford, Reynolds and Hancock. Indeed, the only influential decison that I can think of that Meade made was his decision not to actively pursue the ANV after the fight had been won. I'm not sure that even Fighting Joe could have messed up the scenario in which Meade found himself.

Well, Meade tried to pull Sickles back into line; it was just too late. Then he predicted Pickett's Charge the night before it happened. Hooker, especially on the heels of Chancellorsville, might have been paranoid about his flanks and left his center weak. And then the third-day attack in the center might have come off! Imagine that.

Hooker might have gone down in history as the only general ever to leave his center exposed. (Well, except Hannibal--but he did it on purpose at Cannae.)
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Meade chose to fight a defensive battle not because it had already been determined but because he chose to do so. He felt he had the better ground and that Lee would be forced to attack him. He was extremely active around the field moving units as the events unfolded. I am afraid you are confusing fighting a defensive battle with not doing anything at all.

I have been studying the battle for 15+ years now and have read over 100 books from works that cover the entire battle to ones that cover just one regiment and individuals. To say the Army of the Potomac fought without any strong central command is not an accurate statement by any means.

Quote:
By the time he arrived, the defensive line had already been largely determined and established by Buford, Reynolds and Hancock.


Buford was a cavalry brigade commander and gave no orders to any infantry units. He withdrew from the main battle to assume a support role shortly after the infantry arrived. Reynolds died in less than an hour after arriving at the battle and had no effect on the line taken on Cemetery Hill. Handock did take an active roll but upon his arrival Meade took command and placed units as they arrived through the following day. In many ways the terrain determined the line that the AoP took this is true but that can be said of any battle. By your logic we must conclude that the ANV fought without a strong central command at Antietam because Lee pursued the same general strategy there that Meade did at Gettysburg.
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As usual, another fine post.

I grew up with the Stonewall myth. While my respect for Lee has declined a bit but held strong, my opinion of Jackson has really declined. Not that he was a bad general, but I find less discussed men, such as Longstreet and Thomas, were superior tacticians. Longstreet said it best: Jackson seemed unsure of himself with superiors. He was far better if given some latitude.

I love the zombie Jackson counter you posted.
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Pete Belli
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Thanks to everybody for the comments, thumbs, and GeekGold!

Quote:
I have to disagree with you concerning Jackson's reaction to Lee's order at Second Manassas. If you look at the correspondence between Lee and Jackson, he practically begged Lee for reinforcements and said that he was going to have to retreat if he didn't get those reinforcements soon.


This is an interesting point.

You're correct about the messages. Jackson's right was under heavy pressure. He did request reinforcements, but Longstreet shattered the Union assault column with artillery fire from S.D. Lee's massed guns.

The brigades on Jackson's left (near the banks of Bull Run) were able to advance, and did launch an attack quite late in the evening. The infantry was supported by the cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee.
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Jeb
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Awesome post ... as always Pete!
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gittes wrote:
I grew up with the Stonewall myth. While my respect for Lee has declined a bit but held strong, my opinion of Jackson has really declined. Not that he was a bad general, but I find less discussed men, such as Longstreet and Thomas, were superior tacticians. Longstreet said it best: Jackson seemed unsure of himself with superiors. He was far better if given some latitude.


Bolded for excellent points.

And, if Longstreet couldn't talk Lee out of the debacle of the 3rd day--and Lee's greatest failing was once he had his "blood up", there was no talking him out of it--then Jackson most certainly wouldn't have been able.

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otha62 wrote:
I agree...and while I think Jackson could have possibly secured Cemetery or Culp's Hill (if so, more likely Culp's), it would have by no means destroyed the Army of the Potomac. The most likely result would've been the Union performing an orderly retreat to Meade's preferred defensive position at Pipe Creek...


Pondering further, and assuming that Jackson recovered from his Chancellorsville injuries sufficiently to be his old self, he would likely have either been with Heth at the beginning of the fight, or arrived as soon as he heard about it.

That would have meant senior level leadership involved on the spot and not just at Lee's usual detached distance. This *could* have resulted in greater pressure on Buford's cavalry and/or sufficient disruption to Reynold's men that the initial Union forces would have to give way.

Now given how strung out on the road the AoP was, this would not have been a decisive result, and further fighting would likely have taken place closer to the river wherever Meade ended up consolidating the rest of the army.

Given the pressure on Lee to beat the Union army north of Washington, he likely would have gotten stuck in a slugging match around Pipe Creek that would probably have resembled a repeat of Antietam.

Alternatively, Lee might have taken the opportunity to disengage and run for Harrisburg for the political points of trashing a northern capital, but I find it very unlikely that he would have left a Union army sitting on his supply lines.
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Meisterchow wrote:
Regardless of past performance, keep in mind that had Jackson survived to be at Gettysburg, the experience of losing an arm and subsequent illness that did, in reality, kill him, may very well have had a dramatic impact on his battlefield performance.


Good point. If Jackson had survived, there's also probably a decent chance that he might not have even been sufficiently recovered enough to take part in the campaign any way...

Most times when I envision Jackson being at Gettysburg, I do so with him not being shot at all...since he was shot by his own troops, it seems that it could've been avoided. However, the same thing happened to Longstreet almost exactly one year later, a couple of miles or so from the same spot that Stonewall was hit and in similar circumstances; Longstreet had just led a successful flanking attack in the Wilderness and was reconnoitering for another attack when he (along with Micah Jenkins & others) was accidentally shot. While Longstreet survived (Jenkins did not), he was out of commission for around 6 months, I think...
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Charles Lewis
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otha62 wrote:
Most times when I envision Jackson being at Gettysburg, I do so with him not being shot at all...since he was shot by his own troops, it seems that it could've been avoided.


Historians that accept the value of a counterfactual exercise (which this is) insist that you have to minimize the variables and at some point the pre-existing history has to reassert itself. I had automatically assumed a variant course as close as possible to the point of departure: Jackson doesn't die as a result of getting shot. So basically we can consider two different scenarios that get Jackson to Gettysburg: one where he survives getting shot, and one where he is not shot at Chancellorsville.

If we go with Jackson not getting shot in the first place, the easiest resolution to the exercise is that his presence adds an additional verve to the Confederate troops fighting at Gettysburg and Union troops fall back and leave the town to the Rebels. He could then get shot while scouting out the new Federal position in anticipation of following up the next day. Thus, instead of getting shot by his own troops at Chancellorsville, he gets shot just outside Gettysburg, and history reasserts itself. That said, what would be the impact on the ANV losing Jackson in Pennsylvania instead of in Virginia?
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Meisterchow wrote:
...That said, what would be the impact on the ANV losing Jackson in Pennsylvania instead of in Virginia?


Probably even a worse impact, depending upon which day...at Chancellorsville, Lee had Stuart to take command of Jackson's corps and he did a pretty good job considering the circumstances. At Gettysburg Stuart was pretty much MIA until the 3rd day, so Lee would have probably been in a pinch to assign some one competent enough to control a corps of that size (I'm assuming Lee would've left the ANV with a 2 corps structure had Jackson not been shot, though I've read some sources that state Lee was considering going to 3 corps even before Stonewall's fall). Would've still probably been either Ewell or Hill (maybe Pender, if he hadn't went down of the 1st day) but they'd have even been more of a handicap taking over in circumstances like that...
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Meisterchow wrote:
What would be the impact on the ANV losing Jackson in Pennsylvania instead of in Virginia?

For one thing, a much less interesting discussion--unless he can come back as a zombie and fight in the Overland Campaign too.

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Mind you you could also flip the tables. What would have happened had Reynolds not been killed in the first hour or had Jesse Reno survived to fight at Gettysburg. Can we assume had Reynolds or Reno been on the field that the Union would have won an even greater victory? This is why I find this whole had Jackson lived thing to be a bit silly. The assumption by some is that had Jackson lived Gettysburg was a guaranteed victory but the Union forces also lost important commanders and still won the battle.

It's the need for an excuse for the die hard Lee fans that drives a lot of this. It's the same reason we get a lot of this goofy Lee had a heart attack at Gettysburg stuff. The reality is that Lee with the largest army he ever commanded during the war got his behind kicked. That's the bottom line reality but people in their minds can't accept that Lee was beaten by Meade who they view as inferior. A lot of people can't accept that Lee lost in a straight up fight. So they need an excuse for Lee. If only Jackson had been there. Lee had a heart attack. It was Longstreet's fault. The Union won because of it's corp commanders. I'm waiting next for an article about how Lee lost and Meade won because of their biorhythms.
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I tend to agree with much of Brian's thoughts on this matter. I normally look upon such questions as harmless, goofy entertainment, but they can be used to further one's agenda I suppose such as Lee is the "Marble Man".

On the silly speculation front .... I suppose Jackson would probably have pushed July 1st, making the entire Union position untenable and so, perhaps, we would be talking about the Battle of Pipe Creek instead? Gettysburg would go down as a large skirmish as a result. Who knows?
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