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'Stonewall' theory: He could have lived

May 6, 2002 12:57 am


Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson may have been at the pinnacle of his military career when he was wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but he was at a physical low point that eventually contributed to his death.

That's the theory of National Park Service historian Frank O'Reilly, who said he's been obsessed with the taciturn general's death for 15 years.

O'Reilly is convinced Jackson was suffering from a pre-existing respiratory infection that went untreated prior to the battle. Had it not been for that, Jackson most likely would not have died seven days after being shot three times by friendly fire.

"If Jackson had only been wounded, he most assuredly would have survived," said O'Reilly, who works for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

This is just one of many stories that park service historians will share with the public Friday during three free candlelight tours marking the 139th anniversary of Jackson's death.

The hourlong tours, which will be held at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine in Caroline County, will explore Jackson's last days, the history of Guinea Station--the railroad stop where Jackson was brought after he was wounded--and the Chandler family plantation, where Jackson was treated and later died.

This elaborate tour is new for park visitors.

"Before, we focused exclusively on the man," said O'Reilly, who will be the evening's host historian. "Now, we're putting him in the context of what was going on around him and the ramifications of what happened, as well."

Those who take part in the tour will surely find O'Reilly's spin on Jackson's death compelling.

After slogging through hundreds of official documents, memoirs and letters, O'Reilly, who is stationed at the shrine, arrived at his conclusion.

The evidence reveals the following: The waning days of April 1863 had been cool and rainy. But by May 1, when the fighting started in Chancellorsville, the skies began to clear. By May 2, the temperature was steadily on the rise.

"The moisture became trapped in the trees, creating a sauna effect," O'Reilly said.

As a result, men began stripping off heavy coats and shirts. There are even eyewitness accounts of soldiers collapsing from heatstroke and having full canteens poured over their heads to revive them.

But the same wasn't true for Jackson. In fact, he was freezing cold.

"Jackson had on two shirts, a uniform coat and a heavy canvas raincoat, on a day when there was no rain," O'Reilly said.

Diary entries describe Jackson shivering over a campfire and even dipping his fingers into the flames for warmth.

But Jackson set forth on May 2, leading his troops around to the right of the Union army and launching his hugely successful flank attack against unsuspecting federal troops.

About 9 p.m., however, as Jackson was returning to his line, a volley of gunfire erupted from the woods and the general was shot three times by soldiers with the 18th North Carolina Infantry. Two bullets hit his left arm and a third lodged in his right hand.

Jackson's left arm was shattered. Further damage was done when he was dropped on the ground while being removed from the battlefield by stretcher.

"When he was dropped, he landed on his wounded arm and it starts to bleed heavily," O'Reilly said.

Doctors said Jackson was "pulseless" for almost two hours and had lost nearly half his blood.

Although he was near death, all of the symptoms associated with Jackson's respiratory ailment abated.

"Once his body went into shock from the wounding, his system shut down," O'Reilly said. "As a result, the doctors didn't see a man who was sick, they just saw one who was wounded."

After surgeons removed his arm, Jackson was actually feeling better.

"He was alert, responsive, showing strength and, for Jackson, very talkative," O'Reilly said. "He was even badgering the doctors on when he could get back to duty."

On May 7, that all changed.

Jackson, who was taken to Thomas Chandler's office at Guinea Station, awoke that morning with severe nausea, pain in his side and problems breathing. His fever also began to build.

It was then that a bevy of doctors began treating him for pneumonia, believing he contracted it after he was wounded.

Their methods, which included purging the body and bloodletting, failed, and at about 3:15 p.m. on May 10 Jackson died.

The one unanswered question that nagged O'Reilly, however, was why none of the doctors around Jackson picked up on his pre-existing illness.

To find the answer, O'Reilly pored over records left behind by Jackson's staff physician, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire.

But even those proved useless.

"It bothered me when I read accounts of Jackson's death that the doctors weren't telling me more," he said. "That's when I started to look at his symptoms, taking them step by step."

But it was only when O'Reilly re-examined some battle maps that he found the smoking gun.

"I started looking at the march, looking at people who were with him," O'Reilly said. "I kept looking for McGuire, but I couldn't find him."

That's when O'Reilly discovered that the doctor was actually in a different column than Jackson's ambulance train, and ended up taking another road than Jackson did.

"Since he's not with his column, he has no way of observing the general."

As a result, O'Reilly believes, historians, Civil War buffs and legions of Old Jack's followers have missed an important fact about his death.

"History's take on it is that Jackson was shot and then got sick," he said. "But actually, it was the reverse that happened. They're coming in on the story at the middle, not the beginning."

Want to go?

Friday's candlelight tours at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine--off State Route 606 in Caroline County--will last for an hour and begin at 7:30, 8 and 8:30 p.m.

The event is free and open to the public. Visitors are asked to bring flashlights to find their way back to their cars following the tour.

For more information, call the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center at 540/373-6122.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.