Some 150 years after Confederate troops mistakenly shot Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as he returned from a night scouting mission during the Battle of Chancellorsville, a pair of Texas researchers believe they have determined why the famed general and his group were confused with enemy troops.
Jackson’s wounding on May 2, 1863, would lead to the amputation of his left arm and complications that would result in pneumonia and ultimately his death eight days later.
But historians have struggled with the fact that on the evening Jackson was accidentally shot by men of the 18th North Carolina Infantry regiment, the battlefield and area around it was brightened by a full moon, to the point that opposing forces were able to see well enough to fight through the night, according to eyewitness accounts.
Don Olson of Texas State University and Laurie E. Jasinski, a Texas State graduate and editor of The Handbook of Texas Music, Second Edition, decided to use astronomy to try to resolve the mystery, according to RedOrbit.
Using detailed battle maps and astronomical calculations, Olson and Jasinski determined that the 18th North Carolina was looking to the southeast, directly toward the rising moon, which silhouetted Jackson and his officers, according to the website.
“When you tell people it was a bright moonlit night, they think it makes it easier to see. What we are finding is that the 18th North Carolina was looking directly toward the direction of the moon as Stonewall Jackson and his party came riding back,” Olson said. “They would see the riders only as dark silhouettes.”
It would be not unlike looking at an individual approaching from the direction of the sun during the day. One would be able to make out a figure, but details would be hard to determine.
“Now, 150 years later, we can explain why they didn’t recognize this famous Confederate general,” Olson added. “Our astronomical analysis partially absolves the 18th North Carolina from blame for the wounding of Jackson.”
The report by Olson and Jasinski first appeared in Sky and Telescope magazine.
Chancellorsville is regarded by many as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory. Despite facing a Union force more than twice his size, Lee split his army and sent Jackson’s corps on a 12-mile flanking maneuver.
Jackson arrived in the late afternoon of May 2 and routed Union General Oliver O. Howard’s troops, sending them fleeing.
That evening, Jackson wanted to press his advantage and rode out to assess the feasibility of a night attack given the brightness of the full moon.
As Jackson and his staff were returning to camp, they were mistaken for a Union cavalry force by the 18th North Carolina, who greeted the returning group with, “Halt, who goes there?” But the Tar Heel troops fired before a satisfactory reply could be made.
Jackson’s staff attempted to identify the group but an officer of the 18th North Carolina replied, “It’s a damned Yankee trick! Fire!” according to noted Civil War historian Shelby Foote.
A second volley was then launched. Altogether, Jackson was struck by three bullets, two in the left arm and one in the right hand. Several other members of his staff were killed.
Ultimately, the men of the 18th North Carolina failed to recognize Jackson’s reconnaissance because they were looking directly toward the rising moon, according to Olson and Jasinski.
“It stood at “25 degrees above the horizon” at the time, just at the wrong angle,” they added.
Jackson was one of more than 30,000 Confederate and Union casualties in the battle, which stretched from April 30 to May 6.
(Top: Battle of Chancellorsville, May 2, 1863, depicting wounding of Stonewall Jackson, by Kurz and Allison.)