“Stonewall” Jackson proved to be irreplaceable.
“You will have heard of the death of General Jackson,” Robert E. Lee wrote to his son Custis shortly after the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. “It is a terrible loss. I do not know how to replace him.” The mortal wounding of “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee’s legendary lieutenant, is the most famous example of attrition among officers in the Army of Northern Virginia, and many historians have argued that Stonewall’s death shaped the war’s outcome. Robert K. Krick, an eminent chronicler of Lee’s army, held nothing back when he described the shots that felled Jackson as The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy. Untold admirers of “Old Jack” have implicitly seconded Krick’s opinion by endlessly raising the unanswerable question, “What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg?”
Although Jackson’s death was indeed a heavy blow to Confederate fortunes, his presence at Gettysburg might have made no difference. Similarly, his continued service in the Army of Northern Virginia might not have appreciably affected a conflict that dragged on for nearly two more bloody years. Still, it is beyond dispute that Lee never found an adequate replacement for Jackson, though Jubal A. Early, who assumed command of the Second Corps in late May 1864, showed considerable aptitude for semi-independent operations and conducted a campaign in the Shenandoah Valley that in many ways compared favorably with Jackson’s fabled operations there in 1862.
Whatever its full significance, Jackson’s death should be framed as symptomatic of the larger phenomenon of casualties among generals in the Army of Northern Virginia. Losses sometimes exceeded 25 to 30 percent in a single campaign, and the search to find replacements occupied much of Lee’s attention. More than two dozen brigadier generals were killed or mortally wounded during Lee’s tenure, and some of the army’s most accomplished or promising major generals—among them William Dorsey Pender, Robert E. Rodes and Stephen Dodson Ramseur—joined that ill-fated list.
The top echelon of subordinate leaders also suffered heavily. Indeed, stable and successful performances among Lee’s principal lieutenants occurred only between the reorganization of the army after the Seven Days’ and the Chancellorsville Campaign. For those 91⁄2 months, James Longstreet led the army’s Right Wing and then the First Corps, Jackson led the Left Wing and then the Second Corps, and J.E.B. Stuart commanded the cavalry. Lee used each of these soldiers well, making the most of their talents, granting wide latitude and reaping strategic and tactical benefits on a number of battlefields.
That fruitful period ended with the Gettysburg Campaign of June and July 1863. After Chancellorsville, Lee’s second major reorganization of his army’s high command required three rather than two corps commanders for the infantry and left Stuart in charge of the mounted arm.
Longstreet retained the First Corps, Richard S. Ewell took over a smaller Second Corps and Ambrose Powell Hill headed the new Third Corps. All four of these men, together with Lee, exhibited weaknesses during the Gettysburg Campaign, and neither Ewell nor Hill gave evidence of real aptitude for directing a corps. Although the months between Gettysburg and the opening of the Overland Campaign in May 1864 witnessed little action in Virginia, both Hill and Ewell suffered further lapses that deepened Lee’s concerns about their fitness for corps-level responsibility.
The Overland Campaign proved catastrophic for the army’s high command. More than a third of all general officers became casualties during six weeks of unrelenting combat, and the corps structure fractured. On May 6, just two days into the campaign, Longstreet suffered a wound that likely would have killed a less hardy man. While seeking to maintain offensive momentum along the Plank Road, he came under fire from some of his own troops in an incident eerily reminiscent of what had befallen Jackson almost exactly one year earlier. A staff officer noted “the sadness in [Lee’s] face, and the almost despairing movement of his hands when he was told that Longstreet had fallen.”
Six days later, Stuart succumbed to a wound from action at Yellow Tavern. Hill and Ewell each failed at critical moments, forcing Lee to intervene in the action on May 6 at the Widow Tapp Farm in the Wilderness and on May 12 in the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania—resulting in the two most famous “Lee to the Rear” episodes. Hill’s health also proved to be a serious problem.
The crisis of command in May and June 1864 far exceeded that following Jackson’s death. The structure instituted after the Seven Days’ lasted until Chancellorsville, and the structure created in May 1863 continued for more than a year. In contrast, the roster of top lieutenants present on May 5, 1864, the first day of the Wilderness, changed drastically within a single month. The effect of an unraveling high command stood out starkly at the North Anna River in late May. Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered his Union forces into awkward positions on both sides of the river. Lee recognized his opponent’s vulnerability but could do nothing about it. Confined to his cot by illness, he trusted none of his corps commanders to oversee attacks.
In 1863 Jackson or Longstreet could have handled the duty; a bit later, Lee might have assigned it to Early. But in late May, with Longstreet absent and both Ewell and Hill bitter disappointments, Lee watched helplessly as the opening passed.
By mid-June, when the armies settled into a siege at Petersburg, new officers led three of the four corps (counting the Cavalry Corps) and a third of the army’s divisions. Losses among brigadiers and field grade officers had been catastrophic. Ironically, the siege operations Lee feared above all represented the best hope to manage an army with dwindling command resources. Petersburg’s sheltering works would ameliorate errors in judgment that might have proved more disruptive in the open field.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.