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‘Peculiarly Our Own’

FullTextImage/img/@altFrank O'Reilly discusses the legacy of "Stonewall" Jackson Sunday in Jackson Memorial Hall. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.

National Park Historian Describes Death of Jackson, Still Relevant 150 Years Later

LEXINGTON, Va., May 20, 2013 – He was an orphan from the wilds of what is now West Virginia who lived less than four decades and died of pneumonia in an obscure Virginia crossroads town. But the shock waves created by his death would cross the mighty Atlantic Ocean and bring a lionizing eulogy in The Times of London, one of England’s most establishment newspapers.

Almost 130 years later, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led coalition forces to victory in the Persian Gulf War, led his troops to success in the sands of Kuwait with tactics borrowed from the VMI professor whom cadets once casually referred to as “Tom Fool.”

That was the life, death, and legacy of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, as presented Sunday, May 19, in VMI’s Jackson Hall by Frank O’Reilly. He is a National Park Service historian who works at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station in Caroline County, where Jackson died on May 10, 1863, eight days after being wounded by friendly fire at the battle of Chancellorsville. The occasion of O’Reilly’s talk was the 150th anniversary of Jackson’s death.

O’Reilly, a 1987 graduate of neighboring Washington and Lee University whose childhood interest in the Civil War brought him to attend college in Lexington, chose to begin his remarks at 3:15 p.m., as that was the hour at which Jackson died. O’Reilly’s talk, which was attended by about 100 people, was sponsored by the Stonewall Jackson House and the VMI museum system.

O’Reilly opened his remarks by telling his listeners what was happening on the war front in the spring of 1863, especially in light of the carnage at Chancellorsville, where thousands of Confederate soldiers were killed or maimed for life. “The Confederacy was dwindling and dying,” explained O’Reilly. Seen in this context, Jackson’s mortal wounding would make him “the hallmark of the American Iliad,” said O’Reilly.

O’Reilly then recounted the details of Jackson’s wounding – he was shot at about 9 p.m. under a full moon, while returning to camp on horseback – and the subsequent amputation of his left arm about two inches below the shoulder. At first, Jackson seemed to have weathered the operation well, said O’Reilly, becoming talkative and asking his physician, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, when he could return to the battlefield.

Just one day after his arm was removed, Jackson was moved 27 miles from the field hospital to Guinea Station, a journey that took 15 hours in those pre-automotive days. The goal was for Jackson to be put on a train bound for a hospital in Richmond. O’Reilly explained that Union forces had damaged the railroad tracks, though, so Jackson was placed in an outbuilding on a plantation to rest there while waiting for the tracks to be repaired.

McGuire, all too aware of the weight of responsibility upon him, stayed awake for four days straight to tend to the wounded hero of the Confederacy. At first, his efforts seemed to be rewarded.

“This was not a man who was dying,” said O’Reilly of Jackson in those first few days after the amputation. “This was a man who was getting stronger and whose stamina was improving.”

After receiving the welcome news on the evening of May 6 that the railroad line would be open again the next day, an exhausted McGuire finally went to bed.

History turned while McGuire slept. In the early morning hours of May 7, McGuire was awakened and told that Jackson was desperately ill, severely nauseated and complaining of pain in his sides. McGuire diagnosed an advanced stage of pneumonia.

At this point, O’Reilly introduced his own theory of Jackson’s death – one that he’s been sharing with audiences for over a decade.

“History has often portrayed Jackson as a wounded man who got sick and died,” said O’Reilly. “But the truth is the other way around. Jackson was a sick man who got wounded, and this led to his demise.”

The historian explained that there is much written evidence suggesting that the general was ill with a respiratory infection in the days before he was shot. Civil War historians have made much note of the intense heat on May 2, 1863, with temperatures soaring into the mid-80s, yet diarists recorded Jackson wrapped in layers of clothing that day, and staying near fires in a vain attempt to keep warm.

Jackson’s bullet-scarred raincoat, now on display in the VMI Museum, is a reminder of just how sick the general was, said O’Reilly. “Keep in mind that [Jackson’s wounding] was under a full moon and a clear sky,” O’Reilly noted. “It was not raining.”

Once pneumonia set in, Jackson’s course was set. Pneumonia had a 23 percent mortality rate in the 19th century, higher than for almost any other disease, O’Reilly noted. McGuire called in five specialists from Richmond, yet by the morning of Sunday, May 10, 1863, all agreed that there was nothing more that could be done.

When told that he was dying, Jackson told his chief of staff, Alexander "Sandie" Pendleton, “It is the Lord’s day. My wish is fulfilled. I have always wished to die on Sunday.”

Slipping into delirium, Jackson uttered his last words – “Let us cross over the river, and rest in the shade of the trees” – and died that afternoon. O’Reilly described Jackson as “a legend who died in a borrowed bed in a stranger’s office.”

The grief over Jackson’s death was extreme. In Richmond, where Jackson’s body was taken to lie in state, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 waited at the railroad station to see his remains arrive. An even larger crowd, estimated at 20,000, filed past his casket in the Confederate capitol.

Lexington was suffused with sorrow. “The world might mourn, but nowhere mourned more than Lexington,” said O’Reilly, who volunteered at the Stonewall Jackson House while he was a student at W&L. Gen. Francis Smith, first superintendent of VMI, said that the one-time eccentric professor “was peculiarly our own.”

Jackson’s reputation was such that even northern newspapers lamented his loss, O’Reilly noted, and the Times of London editorialized, “Stonewall Jackson will carry with him the regrets of all who admire genius and greatness.”

O’Reilly commented, “The war would go on without him. The world would go on without him. But the world would carry Stonewall Jackson in its heart and memory even into today.”

At the conclusion of his remarks, O’Reilly took questions and comments from his audience. Much of the focus was on Jackson’s legacy as a military strategist – and one audience member who was on active duty in the U.S. military during the Persian Gulf War recalled senior officers as saying that Schwarzkopf had employed Jackson’s “left hook” strategy in Kuwait. During World War II, O’Reilly commented, Gen. George S. Patton and Gen. Douglas MacArthur had their junior officers reading Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command.

“Jackson was relevant, and Jackson is still relevant,” said O’Reilly.

And, as one audience member noted, the Stonewall Brigade, a unit of the 116th Infantry, is still in existence today.

–Mary Price