Thoughts on History
It’s sometimes surprising how much death can help a reputation–and a long life can hurt one.
Take the cases of James Longstreet and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who served as Robert E. Lee’s trusted adjuncts during the Civil War. Lee referred to Jackson as his “right arm”; Longstreet was his “old war-horse.” Longstreet was, in fact, Lee’s senior subordinate officer, outranking Jackson by one day.
Jackson and Longstreet were both accidentally shot and seriously wounded by their own troops. Jackson was cut down during the Battle of Chancellorsville at the very peak of his military career, immediately after directing a brilliant flank attack on the Union right. He never recovered from his wounds and died eight days later after uttering his famous last words–“Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Although a great commander, Jackson was not perfect. (He performed poorly during the Seven Days campaign in 1862, perhaps due to exhaustion.) Nevertheless, his early death insured his status as a demigod of war.
People still visit the site where Jackson was shot, the field where a surgeon removed his wounded arm, and the small farm outbuilding where he died (today it’s called the Stonewall Jackson Shrine). The most macabre reminder of Jackson’s last days is in a small family plot near the Chancellorsville battlefield, where visitors can find a small stone bearing the words: “Arm of Stonewall Jackson, May 3, 1863.” It’s a sign of the reverence in which Jackson was held that his chaplain was moved to lay the amputated limb to rest. As Civil War pilgrimages go, a visit to Jackson’s arm is perhaps the eeriest experience there is.
Longstreet was shot during the Battle of the Wilderness, a conflict fought over some of the same ground as Chancellorsville. Longstreet survived, although he suffered from his wounds for the rest of his long life. He also lived to become the scapegoat for the Confederate loss at Gettysburg.
Would Longstreet be remembered differently if he had been killed at the Wilderness? Like Jackson, he would have died a martyr to the cause, and a tragic death can do a lot to brighten a tarnished record. While we can only speculate about what Jackson would have done after the war had he lived, we know what Longstreet did. He became a Republican, accepted a political post under President Grant, and dared to criticize Robert E. Lee. His actions did not endear him to believers in the Lost Cause.
Tom Huntington, Acting Editor, American History