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Naked, Knife-Wielding Rebels at Fredericksburg

By Robert K. Krick
11/21/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

Did ‘Stonewall’ intend to order men into battle in the buff with bowie knives? That implausible theory was put forth by a Southern journalist after the war.

Spurious legends inevitably gather around the memory of genuinely legendary figures. No Confederate leader attained a status more powerful in public perception than that which shrouds the image of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

The ample achievements that led to Jackson’s well-earned fame—his legendary stand at First Manassas,the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign and his crushing attack at Chancellorsville— often fell prey to exaggerations and embellishments within an amazingly short time.His exciting dash across the North River near Port Republic on June 8, 1862,for example,included plenty of genuine drama.Within a few days,Richmond newspapers were reporting the event with an overlay of fictional trappings. Sometimes entirely apocryphal episodes reached print,in the best tradition of American journalism.

The worst excesses customarily appeared in articles published in newspapers and news periodicals, such organizations often being dedicated—then as now— to sensation,and not much concerned with the truth. In the memorable words of George Bernard Shaw, Nobel Prize– winning playwright, journalists “are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.”

Fiery Richmond journalist Edward A. Pollard foisted an especially egregious fairy tale on the public in an early postwar article. Pollard’s “Stonewall Jackson:An Historical Study” appeared in Putnam’s Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and National Interests in December 1868.The lengthy sketch about Stonewall covered a wide spectrum. To illustrate Jackson’s unflinching determination, Pollard fabricated a lurid story about the night of December 13, 1862, at the Battle of Fredericksburg: “Jackson had only the idea of the soldier—to fight,and to fight in the most terrible manner. It is a curious circumstance that he once recommended a night-attack to be made, by assailants stripped naked and armed with bowieknives,suggesting that the novelty and terror of such an apparition would paralyze the enemy.”

Pollard had the good grace to admit that the tale sounded fantastical,but he assured his readers that he had the facts.Furthermore,the mythical episode fit in with Pollard’s notions of the general,as he considered the order to be “characteristic of Jackson’s gloom and fierceness….not a natural cruelty, a constitutional harshness,but a stern conception of war and its dread realities—the soldier’s disposition for quick,decisive, destructive work.”

Edward Alfred Pollard had been,as associate editor of the Richmond Examiner during the war, a virulent critic of Jefferson Davis.Otherwise,Pollard’s positions had been strongly pro-Confederate and vitriolic in anti-Yankee sentiments. “We can never go back to the embraces of the North,” he had written. “There is blood and leprosy in the touch of our former associates.” Pollard proved eminently adaptable, though, reinventing himself in the postwar world as vehemently anti-Southern and even taking a legal oath that he had never supported the Confederacy. Jeff Davis probably would have agreed.

At the time he wrote the fatuous nonsense about Jackson ordering naked Confederates to attack at Fredericksburg, Pollard had not yet completed his transmogrification into a card-carrying Yankee.He cast his Putnam’s article as groundbreaking and revisionist,declaring that he had “disturbed some popular notions about the favorite hero of the South.”

Most of what Pollard said, however, resonates as unmistakably, even militantly, pro-Jackson. Stonewall actually was,in Pollard’s judgment, “undoubtedly superior to” Lee. The tenor of the article is anything but hostile to the general. Its apocryphal aspects aim to add color,not at all to distract from a laudatory examination of Stonewall and his reputation.

Captain James Power Smith, who had served capably on Jackson’s staff,responded to Pollard’s fiction with a firm letter debunking the bizarre tale about knifewielding nudists. Smith’s letter remained in the files of a descendant until recently.It bears no date,although it obviously must have been written in December 1868 or immediately thereafter. In addition to squelching the nonsense that Pollard was retailing, Smith’s letter affords an interesting look at Jackson’s activities on the evening and night of December 13, written only a half-decade after the event:

My attention has been called to the statements of Mr. E.A. Pollard in Putnam’s Monthly concerning an alleged proposition made by Lt.Gen.T.J.Jackson at a Council of War on the night of the battle of Fredericksburg.

The letter of Gen. Early has just reached me in a Lynchburg paper. It is in my power to confirm the statements of this letter.

Gen. Jackson was not present at any Council of War on the evening or night of the Battle of Fredericksburg.He was in his tent about a mile and a half in rear of his lines until about 3 A.M. of the 14th.

About midnight he received a communication from Gen.R.E.Lee which is now in my possession, containing no allusion to a Council of War or to any proposition of Gen. Jackson’s whatever; but a suggestion that all the ordnance trains should be replenished at the Depot and ‘everything ready by daylight to-morrow.’

The General directed me to have this order complied with,and to give certain directions to his Division Commanders, concerning a change in the disposition of troops about moon-rise which would be about 2 A.M.

The Division Commanders were to supply their troops with ammunition and rations before that hour that ‘everything might be ready by daylight.’These preparations were defensive and not offensive. Ab. 3 A.M. I was called to attend the Gen on a visit to Gen Maxcy Gregg.[The mortally wounded Gregg lay dying at the Yerby House, not far south of the battlefield. Jackson paid a late-night visit to his stricken brigadier, and an affecting deathbed scene ensued.]

Late in the afternoon of the 13th I observed Gen Jackson on the open knoll in front of [Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Lindsay] Walker’s batteries [on Prospect Hill]. He stood alone for some time studying intently the dispositions of the enemies [sic] lines before him–now looking to the fast declining sun and then at his watch.

Suddenly he turned and called me in a tone that was husky with the excitement of the purpose that was already knitting his brow and firing his eye.He directed me to tell two of his Division Commanders that he proposed to attack the enemy on the plain about sunset–that he wished them to send all their available artillery to the front–the Division Chiefs to report at once to the Corps Chief for disposition, that the artillery would open upon the enemy at a signal given by one of [Captain William T.] Poague’s heavy guns on the right–that if the enemy’s lines were found to waver under this fire, the infantry would advance in three lines, two hundred paces apart, and charge the enemy with fixed bayonets and drive him to the river if possible.A similar order was sent to the other two Division Commanders by Lt. J. G. Morrison A.D.C.

These dispositions were made and the advance commenced,when Gen. Jackson countermanded the movement.There was no other proposition for an offensive movement made for reasons given by Gen Early and more fully in Dabney’s Life of Jackson.

If the history of the Confederate cause is left to Edward A. Pollard it is a Lost Cause in a worse sense than we had supposed.It will be lost to the vindication of History, our last appeal.

James P. Smith

Aide de Camp of the late

Lt. Gen.T. J. Jackson

Ohio-born Captain Smith contributed steadily to Confederate history for the rest of his long life.He married a girl from the historic Fredericksburg’s Lacy House, “Chatham,” and for years served as pastor of Fredericksburg’s Presbyterian Church.Jackson, the quintessential Presbyterian, would have been proud of his devout young protégé’s long clerical career.Late in his life,a family cook said of his endless good works, “when Dr. Smith got to Heaven he would need a basket because he could not carry all his stars in his crown.”

Smith’s interest in Confederate historical matters produced an array of worthwhile results. His extensive (105 pages) autobiographical narrative “With Stonewall Jackson,” which appeared in volume 43 of the Southern Historical Society Papers, remains an invaluable standard primary source on the general.In 1903 “Jimmie” Smith,as his descendants still call him,erected 10 granite markers in and around Fredericksburg.They remain in place today,at least for the moment,identifying Confederate landmarks in the midst of a sea of tanning studios,nail salons,video stores and other trappings of what passes for culture in the 21st century.

An accomplished Virginia historian who heard Smith speak about Jackson in 1913 wrote in his journal: “It was the best address I have ever heard on any character of the Civil War….His intense feeling and utterance made his address thrilling. He had something to say; his English was excellent; and his sincerity and feeling were always evident.”

Many other readers of Edward Pollard’s ludicrous tale shared Jimmie Smith’s amazement or amusement.The Reading, Pa., Eagle immediately suggested a less flagrant version as more likely than the full fable. On the front page of its December 5, 1868, issue the Eagle declared: “Pollard’s story about Stonewall Jackson’s recommendation of a night attack upon the Federal troops by Confederates stripped naked and armed with bowies, has some foundation in fact. After Fredericksburg he advised that a night attack should be made upon the troops crowded in that town,the assailants naked to the waist as a means of recognition,and using the bayonet alone.”

The uneasy Reading editor had the right idea, but of course still gave too much credit to an arrantly outrageous tale. He also launched a further misdirection by extending Jackson’s aims to include Federals “crowded in the town.” The city, in fact, lay fully five miles outside Stonewall’s aegis.

General Jubal A. Early, writing from exile in Drummondville, Ontario, on December 10, characteristically lampooned Pollard’s account in a style more pungent than Smith’s. In the midst of a long and sardonic rejoinder, Early observed: “A naked sword is more terrible than a sheathed one; but there is no reason why a naked man should be more terrible than a well-clad one.”

Environmental circumstances on the evening of December 13 would have made anyone actually engaged in Pollard’s naked fantasy decidedly uncomfortable:The mercury at a nearby weather station stood at 40 degrees at 9 p.m.The Army of Northern Virginia accomplished a number of remarkable things in its storied career,but prancing about naked in such temperatures seems too much to ask, even had it made an iota of military sense.

As often is the case with historical balderdash,a minuscule nugget of truth lay somewhere at the base of the tale. Jackson’s medical director, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, described his chief’s vain attempt to find a means to identify his men in an attack he hoped to launch in the gathering darkness: “He asked me how many yards of bandaging I had.‘I want a yard of bandaging to put on the arm of every soldier, so that the men may know each other from the enemy.’” The planned attack at dusk—not one of Jackson’s better ideas—never got fully started, but he had in fact sought a novel expedient to distinguish his soldiers.He also was prone to talk of charging “with the bayonet,” in the popular phrase of the era. The chasm between those fundamentals and naked men brandishing bowie knives yawned deep and wide,but Edward Pollard cheerfully made the leap.

The delightfully bizarre notion of naked soldiers waving bowie knives continues to crop up today.A newspaperman in West Virginia called me a few months ago to inquire about the facts. He occasionally writes about the Civil War for his readers and had been understandably attracted by the odd tale when he came across it. The West Virginian was responsible enough to use the irresistible story only with a pointed disclaimer,displaying it as an amusing anomaly rather than a certifiable fact.

It would be hard to improve upon Captain Smith’s conclusion: “If the history of the Confederate cause is left to Edward A.Pollard it is a Lost Cause in a worse sense than we had supposed.” By the end of 1868, Pollard stood on the verge of turning savagely anti-Confederate. He always had been, to an alarming degree, inimical to historical truth.

 

Robert K.Krick is well known for his expertise on the Army of Northern Virginia and frequently contributes to ACW.His Lee’s Colonels:A Biographical Register of the Field Officers of the Army of Northern Virginia is the definitive compendium on the subject.

Originally published in the January 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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