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Stumbling and bleeding

September 14, 2002 1:02 am

Part 28 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Chancellorsville

AS DISTRAUGHT Confeder- ate officers converged on the wounded "Stonewall" Jackson in the woods west of Chancellorsville, they shouted instructions to find the nearest surgeon and be quick about it. Meanwhile, Gen. A. P. Hill knelt next to the injured man and began taking off, or cutting through, layers of clothing, blood-filled gauntlets, a rain slicker, the uniform jacket. Jackson had been starkly at odds with Hill (most of Stonewall's subordinates ran afoul of his inflexible world view), but somehow the two had achieved rapprochement just before the battle. In the chaotic darkness on May 2, arriving officers found Hill on the ground with Jackson's "head upon his breast."

A young Mississippian helped Hill tie handkerchiefs above and below the worst wound, on Jackson's upper left arm. The growing knot of officers hoped ardently that a surgeon would appear soon. Dr. Benjamin P. Wright, age 31 and from Virginia's Essex County, arrived first. As he hurried forward, Wright had ordered an assistant to find a tourniquet and bring it along.

Benjamin Wright pushed aside the amateurs and bent over Jackson to examine his wounds. He found with relief that the tightly knotted handkerchiefs had stopped the bleeding. The tourniquet soon arrived, but Wright saw no reason to use it. An hour or so later, however, when the general's stretcher arrived in safety well behind the lines, he had lost so much blood that, the surgeon there wrote, "for two hours, he was nearly pulseless." What had gone wrong?

An agonizing trip to the rear, fraught with misfortune and accidents, had savagely exacerbated Jackson's wounds, and probably led to his death eight days later.

The first attempt to start the general toward the rear, tottering along while supported on both sides, ended quickly. When he met a mounted officer, Stonewall's old fire flared momentarily as he barked orders. Soon, though, he collapsed.

Someone brought a stretcher and four men started to carry Jackson west along the Plank Road. A hurricane of bullets and shells forced them flat. The dazed general struggled to rise. Lt. James Power Smith, later the long-serving pastor of Fredericksburg's Presbyterian Church, threw himself over his general: "You must lie still; it will cost you your life if you rise!" Then Smith, Jackson's brother-in-law Joe Morrison, and another aide formed a human bulwark around the stretcher. On that terrifying night, at a spot on State Route 3 traversed today by scores of vehicles at high speed every minute, the young men watched grimly as bullets and artillery rounds struck sparks on the stones in the road.

Amazingly, none of the flying lead and iron hit either Jackson or his youthful protectors as they huddled in the roadway. When the fusillade eased slightly, they picked up the litter and carried it into the woods south of the road. There, they recruited men to carry the stretcher. One of them, John James Johnson, a private from Virginia's Fluvanna County, soon went down with dire wounds in both arms. The falling litter threw Stonewall Jackson onto his shattered shoulder from a height of several feet. (Johnson lost one arm, and the use of the other. He lived until 1899, "very poor," in a cabin built for him by his Fluvanna neighbors.)

Later, another bearer tripped and fell, unwounded, in the dark woods. Again, Jackson fell on his arm. The jagged bones fractured by his wound evidently tore veins, perhaps even an artery, during one or both of the falls. By the time he reached the chief surgeon of his corps, Jackson "had lost a large amount of blood." Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire (later president of the American Medical Association and a leading factor at the Medical College of Virginia) applied the tourniquet that Dr. Wright had not needed. McGuire's examination found Jackson's "skin clammy, his face pale, and his thin lips so tightly compressed that the impression of his teeth could be seen through them."

Efforts to save Jackson's life would founder on his weakened condition. Both the general and Dr. McGuire blamed the falls from the litter, and the resultant loss of blood, for giving infection a chance at Jackson's lungs.

An interesting, generally amusing, leit motif runs through the literature on Stonewall Jackson's wounding. "I shot Jackson," dozens of Yankees later claimed; dozens of Confederates later admittedly sorrowfully; and a couple of disgruntled Southerners claimed proudly. Most of the Federals rambling in that vein were simply feebly confused, but some dishonestly sought a corner of the limelight. Most of the guilt-ridden Confederates had fired blindly in the volley, and worried that their round might possibly have been deadly. A national magazine recently published family lore about how their Confederate ancestor, from a unit nowhere near the scene, disliked Jackson and did the deed on purpose. Inquiring minds may well sense UFOs somewhere in the plot, and perhaps Elvis or Princess Diana in an earlier incarnation.

The scene of Jackson's mortal wounding has narrowly escaped destruction at the hands of the National Park Service over the years. The battlefield visitor center and museum and its parking lot, all opened in 1963, destroyed much of the historic setting in the area. A sewer field installed in the 1970s obliterated more historic ground just east of the site. The Mountain Road verge where the smoothbore volley struck Stonewall Jackson is today surrounded on three sides by modern development. The tall stone obelisk adjacent to State Route 3, dedicated in 1888, remains a familiar landmark to many generations of Fredericksburg-area residents. It does not mark where the general was wounded, but instead the roadside spot where his staff carried him and officers gathered around him.

The loss of Jackson's incomparable leadership in midbattle, to say nothing of the longer term, posed an immediate and major problem. Who should replace him? Without question, it must be Gen. A. P. Hill, a long-time and successful division commander, and the ranking surviving officer. Soon after Jackson went down, though, Hill suffered a near-miss that took him out of action. A Federal shell, or at least a piece of one, tore directly between his calves. It bruised both legs and drew some blood. Hill had been a few fortunate inches away from being maimed or even killed. The injury would not incapacitate him long, but it kept him from riding, and thus from commanding at that crucial interval.

Gen. Robert E. Rodes ranked next after Hill, but he had never before this battle commanded even a division, not to say a corps. Feeling that the army might not know him well enough, Rodes collaborated with Hill in sending an aide to find cavalry chieftain J.E.B. Stuart and ask him to come take charge. A well-informed Confederate wrote regretfully later of Rodes's selfless gesture, "modesty was a mistake in that crisis."

Neither of the colonels who served as chiefs of staff to Hill and Jackson liked Stuart, whose flamboyance and eclat did not wear well with everyone. Both colonels loyally supported the gaudy cavalier, however, in his temporary role as Jackson's replacement. Through the night's preparations, and the next day's bitter fighting, Jeb Stuart would command a large body of infantry for the only time during the war.

Next week: Blue on blue, and a pivotal discovery

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.

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