Dr. Hunter McGuire, Stonewall Jackson’s 27-year-old medical director, chronicled the general’s last days.
By Joe D. Haines, Jr.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson are well known. Following perhaps his greatest performance, leading a brilliant flanking maneuver against Union Major General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he was mistakenly shot by his own troops while scouting ahead of their lines after dark. Jackson sustained severe wounds to the left arm and minor wounds to the right hand. The most reliable medical information concerning Jackson’s final days can be found in the detailed accounts of Dr. Hunter McGuire, Jackson’s medical director.
McGuire was 27 years old at Chancellorsville. He had graduated from Winchester Medical Academy at the age of 20. When McGuire first presented himself to Jackson in 1861, Jackson merely stared back at him and dismissed him from his quarters. Several days passed before McGuire received orders appointing him a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Later, when McGuire and Jackson were better acquainted, the physician asked the general why his appointment had been delayed. Jackson answered, “You looked so young, I sent to Richmond to see if there was some mistake.”
After Jackson was wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, he was supported by two aides for a short distance before being placed on a litter and carried away. One of the litter-bearers was shot and went down, causing the general to be thrown to the ground. Jackson was placed back on the litter and carried a few hundred yards farther, to an ambulance McGuire had located. The doctor knelt down to examine Jackson and said, “I hope you are not badly hurt, General.”
“I am badly injured,” Jackson told McGuire. “I fear I am dying. I am glad you have come. I think the wound in my shoulder is still bleeding.”
McGuire observed that Jackson’s clothes were saturated with blood and saw that the wound in his left arm was indeed still bleeding. The doctor applied compression on an artery and readjusted the bandage, which had slipped off the wound. McGuire noted that Jackson’s hands were cold, his skin clammy and his face and lips pale–all classic signs of hemorrhagic shock. Jackson for his part refused to admit any discomfort; nevertheless, he was given morphine and whiskey before being transported to a nearby field hospital.
Once at the hospital, McGuire determined that amputation of the left arm was necessary. When he informed Jackson, the general replied, “Yes, certainly, Dr. McGuire, do for me whatever you think best.” McGuire then administered chloroform, and Jackson murmured, “What an infinite blessing,” as he slipped into unconsciousness.
McGuire first extracted a round ball that had lodged under the skin at the back of Jackson’s right hand after entering through the palm and fracturing two bones. “The left arm was then amputated, about two inches below the shoulder, very rapidly, and with slight loss of blood, the ordinary circular operation having been made,” McGuire reported.
“There were two wounds in his arm,” the surgeon continued. “The first and most serious was about three inches below the shoulder-joint, the ball dividing the main artery and fracturing the bone. The second was several inches in length; a ball having entered the outside of the forearm, an inch below the elbow, came out upon the opposite side just about the wrist. Throughout the whole of the operation, and until all the dressings were applied, he continued insensible.”
Jackson tolerated the surgery well despite the hemorrhagic shock, and at about 3:30 a.m., Major Sandy Pendleton arrived to obtain orders for Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, who had succeeded Jackson in command. Jackson greeted Major Pendle-ton warmly, saying: “Well, major, I am glad to see you. I thought you were killed.” Pendleton briefly explained the situation and asked for instructions, but Jackson could only respond, “I don’t know, I can’t tell; say to General Stuart he must do what he thinks best.” Then he slept for several hours.
The next morning, an aide read a note from General Robert E. Lee. “I have just received your note, informing me that you were wounded,” Lee wrote. “Could I have directed events, I should have chosen, for the good of the country, to have been disabled in your stead. I congratulate you upon the victory, which is due to your skill and energy.” The pious Jackson responded modestly, “General Lee should give the praise to God.”
The following day, Lee ordered McGuire to move Jackson to Guiney’s Station, fearing that nearby Federal troops might capture him. Jackson was not worried, however. “If the enemy does come,” he told McGuire, “I am not afraid of them; I have always been kind to their wounded, and I am sure they will be kind to me.” The patient tolerated the transfer well. Later in the day, however, he became nauseated and asked that a wet towel be placed on his abdomen. Upon arriving at the house where he would convalesce, he felt well enough to take bread and tea.
The house already held other wounded Confederates, including several soldiers who were suffering from erysipelas, a highly contagious skin disease. McGuire would not allow Jackson to be exposed to the infected men and instead moved his patient to a small separate building on the grounds that had been used as an office. The general slept well the night of his arrival and, awakening early the next morning, “ate heartily and was cheerful.”
McGuire dressed Jackson’s wounds and found them to be healing well, without any signs of infection. Jackson seemed satisfied with his progress and inquired about how long it would be before he could return to the field. Around 1 o’clock the next morning, Jackson again became nauseated and asked a servant to apply a wet compress. He refused to allow the exhausted McGuire (who had not slept for nearly three days) to be disturbed.
When the doctor did awaken, he discovered to his dismay that Jackson was suffering from pleuropneumonia on the right side. McGuire attributed it to the fall Jackson had taken from the litter while he was being carried from the battlefield. “Contusion of the lung, with extravasation of blood in his chest, was probably produced by the fall referred to, and shock and loss of blood prevented any ill effects until reaction had been established, and then inflammation ensued,” McGuire reported.
That night Jackson rallied somewhat. His wife had arrived earlier in the day. “She was a devoted wife and earnest Christian, and endeared us all to her by her great kindness and gentleness,” wrote McGuire. “The General’s joy at the presence of his wife and child was very great, and for him unusually demonstrative. Noticing the sadness of his wife, he said to her tenderly: ‘I know you would gladly give your life for me, but I am perfectly resigned. Do not be sad. I hope I may yet recover. Pray for me, but always remember in your prayers to use the petition, Thy will be done.'”
The next day, McGuire dressed Jackson’s wounds again, noting that they were continuing to heal. The pain in Jackson’s side had diminished, but he was now breathing with difficulty and complaining of exhaustion. McGuire consulted with several other doctors, “and all that human skill could devise was done to stay the hand of death.” However, Jackson was growing weaker by the hour.
“When his child was brought to him [the next day] he played with it for some time, frequently caressing it and calling it his ‘little comforter,'” McGuire observed. “At one time he raised his wounded hand above his head and closing his eyes, was for some moments silently engaged in prayer. He said to me: ‘I see from the number of physicians that you think my condition dangerous, but I thank God, if it is His will, that I am ready to go.'”
At about daybreak on Sunday, May 10, Mrs. Jackson told her husband that his recovery was very doubtful and that he should prepare for the worst. Jackson was silent for a moment, then said, “It will be infinite gain to be translated to Heaven.” He advised his wife to return to her father’s home, adding, “You have a kind and good father, but there is no one so kind and good as your Heavenly Father.” He requested to be buried at Lexington, Va.
Jackson became increasingly exhausted, and at 11 a.m. his wife knelt beside his bed and told him that before the sun went down he would be with his savior. Jackson replied, “Oh, no; you are frightened, my child; death is not so near; I may yet get well.” Mrs. Jackson collapsed weeping on the bed, telling him that the doctors had said there was no hope. After a moment’s pause, he asked to see McGuire.
“Doctor, Anna informs me that you have told her that I am to die today; is it so?” he asked. McGuire admitted the hopelessness of the situation. Jackson turned his eyes toward the ceiling and gazed for a moment or two in deep thought, then replied, “Very good, very good, it is all right.”
When Pendleton came into the sickroom at 1 o’clock that afternoon, Jackson asked who had preached at headquarters that day. Pendleton told him the entire army was praying for his recovery. Jackson replied, “Thank God, they are very kind.” He added: “It is the Lord’s Day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.”
Jackson’s mind began to wander, McGuire observed, and he frequently gave orders as though still on the battlefield. “Then the scene shifted and he was at the mess-table, in conversation with members of his staff; now with his wife and child; now at prayers with his military family.” McGuire offered him some brandy and water, but Jackson declined, saying, “It will only delay my departure, and do no good; I want to preserve my mind, if possible, to the last.” Told that he had at most two hours to live, he answered, feebly but firmly, “Very good, it is all right.”
A few moments before he died, Jackson cried out in delirium: “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks–” The sentence was left unfinished. “Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face,” McGuire noted, “and he cried quietly and with an expression as if of relief, ‘Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees'; and then, without pain or the least struggle, his spirit passed from earth to the God who gave it.”
Editor’s note: The author, himself a physician, believes that Jackson died of a pulmonary embolism, or blood clot to the lung, not pneumonia as McGuire had diagnosed.
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