One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 16, Number 5
May 2008

Stonewall Jackson, aside from his eccentric personality traits, was a complicated and enigmatic man. Brilliantly successful as a leader in some battles and campaigns, he demonstrated decidedly sub-par performances in others.

I guess, like all of us, “Old Jack” had his good days and his bad days. Kernstown, Port Republic, the Peninsula campaign, Cedar Mountain, and Fredericksburg were not his finest hours. But, omitting the brilliant 1862 Valley campaign, the two battles that deservedly got him the most fame were Second Manassas in August of 1862, and the epic maneuver at Chancellorsville that unfortunately led to his death in May of 1863.

Both Second Manassas and Chancellorsville saw Jackson at his best as the aggressive executor for the masterful strategy of Robert E. Lee. There was great synergism between the two men. They had perfect rapport and confidence in each other. Each made greater by the other. Both battles involved bold and risky flank marches and attacks, and both achieved notable successes that have been studied by military historians ever since. But some analysts have suggested that the outcome of both battles had little to do with the talent and skill of Lee and Jackson and was more the consequence of simply good luck and/or the incompetence of the opponents.

In late August of 1862 Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia occupied the southwest bank of the Rappahannock River from about Waterloo Bridge in the north to near Kelly’s Ford in the south. The two corps of Lee were commanded respectively by Jackson on the left and Longstreet on the right. Facing them on the opposite side of the Rappahannock was the bombastic General John Pope and his Army of Virginia that Lee desperately wanted to “suppress” before it was reinforced by McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The latter massive force was in transit from Fort Monroe and was expected to join Pope in a matter of days. If Lee wanted to clear the Federals out of central Virginia, he would have to act fast before Pope and McClellan’s armies combined into an overwhelming force.

A few days before Pope had thwarted Lee’s plan to isolate and destroy the Federal army in the triangle between the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers by adroitly withdrawing northward across the Rappahannock before Lee could close the trap. But Lee devised another scheme. He would use maneuver to leverage Pope away from his strong defensive position along the Rappahannock. To accomplish that objective, he proposed splitting the army and sending “Old Jack” and his 24,000 men on an arching flank march to the left around Pope’s right and cut the Yankee’s supply line at Manassas along the Orange and Alexandria railroad. Meanwhile, Longstreet would continue to hold the Rappahannock line, and hopefully Pope’s attention. Once Jackson had achieved his objective, Longstreet would join the attack.

It was a bold and risky maneuver for a number of reasons. Not only was Lee dividing his army in front of a numerically superior force, but, he was uncertain as to when and where McClellan’s army would arrive. The two wings of the Confederate army would be separated by almost 50 miles and either of the two isolated corps might be annihilated before help could arrive. Nevertheless it was a calculated risk that Lee decided to take.

So, early on the morning of August 25 Jackson’s column of three divisions (Ewell, A. P. Hill, Taliaferro) left the small community of Jeffersonton in northern Culpeper County and headed northwest towards Amissville, then north across Hinson’s Ford on the Rappahannock into Fauquier County, through Orlean, and finally to Salem (now Marshall)—a distance of about 25 miles. The route was west of the Bull Run Mountains, a low range of hills extending from near Warrenton northward to the Potomac River and therefore shielded from Pope’s vision. The success of the maneuver depended upon speed and stealth, because if the Federals became aware of the Jackson’s move, disaster awaited the Army of Northern Virginia.

But the Federals were aware, or at least partially alert to what Jackson was doing! On the morning of August 25 one of Bank’s staff officers spotted Confederate infantry and artillery marching from Jeffersonton to Amissville. The observer reported to Banks that the column was visible at “five different points” and was clearly moving north or northwest and that the “column appears well closed up and colors flying.” If that were not enough, a few hours later Union General Nathanial Banks informed Pope that “that the enemy is threatening or moving upon the valley of the Shenandoah via Front Royal with designs upon the Potomac or possibly beyond.” The major news of Confederate movement to his right should have set off alarms in Pope’s mind, but essentially he did nothing until he finally realized by midnight the next day that the enemy was in his rear and not in the Shenandoah Valley.

Meanwhile, Jackson turned eastward from Salem on August 26 through Thoroughfare Gap to Gainesville by 4 P.M. (paralleling today’s I-66), and reached Manassas Junction on the Orange and Alexandria railroad later that day. Meanwhile Longstreet kept up his demonstrations along the Rappahannock until late on the afternoon of August 26 when he, too, followed Jackson’s route north.

The reunited Confederate army went on to achieve a significant victory at Second Manassas a few days later, but one can easily imagine””what if?” No doubt it was a tactical masterpiece that was well-executed by Jackson, but what if Pope had taken action when he first learned of the flanking maneuver? Among other things, he could have crashed into the strung-out and very vulnerable Confederate column, or failing that, could easily have blocked it at Thoroughfare Gap. Lady Luck was clearly with “Old Jack” on those two days.

The Confederate success at Second Manassas was in many ways duplicated at Chancellorsville the next year. Again Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia confronted a much larger adversary across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Only this time, the Federals under Joe Hooker took the initiative and in a bold move proceeded to outflank Lee and maneuver him away from his strong defensive position.

Undaunted, Lee responded to Hooker’s move by once more violating military dogma and splitting his army in the face of a superior enemy. He sent Jackson and most of his army west to block the enemy at Chancellorsville, leaving only Early’s Division and Barksdale’s Brigade behind to defend against General Sedgwick’s 45,000-man force at Fredericksburg.

The two armies deployed near Chancellorsville on the margin of the Wilderness on May 1st with some minor skirmishing. That night Lee and Jackson met in their famous conference at the Plank Road—Furnace Road junction to discuss strategy. It was obviously foolish to consider a direct assault against the larger Federal force in front of Chancellorsville. But Hooker had handed them the initiative and Lee, looking at Jackson said: “How can we get at those people?” Lee apparently answered his own question by pointing his finger to the left on the map where Jeb Stuart’s cavalry had said that Hooker’s right flank was wide open. Opportunity beckoned.

Lee developed the plan and left the details and implementation to Jackson. Leaving Lee with only 14,000 men to keep Hooker’s 65,000-man force occupied at Chancellorsville, Jackson marched the next morning with the remaining 26,000 Confederates on a 10-mile flank march on hidden back roads through The Wilderness to reach the Turnpike west of the dangling and unprotected Federal line.

The broad sweep at Second Manassas had been a dangerous, but this maneuver would be even more dangerous because Lee was dividing his army, not once, but twice. At Chancellorsville “Old Jack” would outflank the enemy flanker!

The strategy worked to perfection, the enemy lines along the Orange Turnpike were rolled up, and Hooker forced to retire ingloriously back across the Rappahannock. But again, did luck and/or weakness on the part of the enemy play a significant role in the outcome of the battle?

The success of Jackson’s daring flank attack required stealth and surprise. But, what if Hooker had known what was happening on his front? He did know!

As early as 9 o’clock that morning Hooker received word that a Confederate column had been spotted moving west and south across his front. The reports continued throughout the day, and in fact Dan Sickle’s 3rd Corps moved south from his position at Hazel Grove and made a half-hearted attack on the tail end of Jackson’s long column near Catharine Furnace in the afternoon. And if that wasn’t enough warning, late in the day the commander of the Union regiment facing west on the turnpike on the extreme right of the Federal line sent a dispatch to Oliver Howard’s 11th Corps headquarters that “A large body of enemy is massing in my front. For God’s sake make dispositions to receive him.”

Except for Sickle’s aborted foray attacking the end of Jackson’s column, Hooker ignored the warnings and took no action. He insisted that Lee was retreating south and perhaps west, and remained passive. If he had attacked either of the isolated Confederate forces facing him, he could have overpowered them in detail.

Lee and Jackson’s strategy and tactics were magnificent at both 2nd Manassas and Chancellorsville, but one must also consider that in both cases that they were blessed by both good luck and the failures of the enemy commanders. However in analyzing a leader’s performance, we should not neglect the fact that the good fortune of many great leaders was simply the product of their own decisions and actions. After all, you have to put yourself in a position to be the recipient of good luck. In both battles, Lee and Jackson, by their actions, put themselves in situations so as to take advantage of both luck and the enemy’s negligence.