General “Stonewall” Jackson’s Chancellorsville portrait, taken a week before he was wounded.
On May 2, 1863 — 150 years ago on Thursday — Confederate troops mistakenly shot their esteemed Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. The general lost his left arm as a result. He survived that, but died eight days later due to complications due to pnemonia.
Some historians believe the Confederacy’s fortunes in the Civil War turned at that moment, which occured two months before the fateful Battle of Gettysburg. The effect on morale was unmistakable.
“He has lost his left arm,” Confederate commander Robert E. Lee said. “But I have lost my right arm.”
Since then, historians have wondered how the 18th North Carolina regiment could have mistaken their leader and shot him. To that question, Texas State forensic astronomer Don Olson and Texas State graduate Laurie E. Jasinski have offered an answer, which they have published in the May issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.
The shooting of Jackson occured during one of the general’s greatest battlefield moments, the Battle of Chancellorsville, which lasted for roughly a week in eastern rural Virginia. The greys held up despite facing more numerous and better rested Union soldiers. On May 2, Lee divided his army and sent Jackson with 22,000 men on a 12-mile flanking mission, which caught the Union’s XI Corps unprepared. Wishing to press the advantage after that rout, Jackson went on a reconnaissance expedition by the light of a full moon to scout out possible routes that could be used to get between the Union army and the fords and pontoon bridges along the Rappahannock River.
As Jackson returned to the regiment at about 9 p.m., the 18th North Carolina picket spotted the general and his party through the trees, mistook them for Union troops and opened fire. Jackson took three bullets — two in his left arm and one in his right wrist.
How did Jackson’s own troops make that mistake under a full moon?
“When you tell people it was a bright moonlit night, they think it makes it easier to see,” Olson said. “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. They would see the riders only as dark silhouettes. Now, 150 years later, we can explain why they didn’t recognize this famous Confederate general. Our astronomical analysis partially absolves the 18th North Carolina from blame for the wounding of Jackson.”
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. Reaching 25 degrees above the horizon at 9 p.m., the bright moon would’ve silhouetted Jackson and his officers, completely obscuring their identities.
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