The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson

The subject of my talk tonight is the military genius of Stonewall Jackson.  With your indulgence, I’d like to begin shortly after Jackson’s death by focusing on Gettysburg.  That monumental campaign shows in a most riveting manner what Stonewall Jackson tried, but failed, to accomplish.  I then would like to go back and look at the war from the spring of 1862 forward to Gettysburg.

There is an ancient rule of war that admonishes generals to “strike into vacuities,” that is, to advance along lines that are not defended by the enemy.  There was just this opportunity open to Robert E. Lee in the Gettysburg campaign.  If Jackson had been alive, it is almost certain that he would have urged Lee to strike into that vacuity.

By the time Lee discovered that the Union army was far to the south at and around Frederick, Maryland, he had achieved a splendid strategic position at Carlisle, just west of Harrisburg, and at Wrightsville, on the Susquehanna River southeast of Harrisburg.  Lee now had an undefended road to Philadelphia, a target the Union army could not surrender.  If Lee could seize Philadelphia, he would sever the north-south rail corridor and destroy the ability of the North to wage war.

Union General George G. Meade would have been compelled to chase after him. If Lee had stopped at any readily defensible position on the road to Philadelphia, and stood on the defensive, the Union army would have been forced to attack, and would have been defeated.  By 1863 it was evident that all frontal attacks were almost bound to fail because of the Minié-ball rifle, field fortifications, and canister-firing 12-pounder Napoleon guns.

But Lee did not follow this (his best) course.  Nor did he stand on the defensive at Carlisle, which would have been the second-best course.  Failing this, Lee could have concentrated the Rebel army on the highly defensible position of South Mountain, just west of Cashtown (and this just west of Gettysburg).  This would have obligated the Union army to come up against an impregnable defense.  It would have either had to attack and be defeated, or not attack and allow Lee to move toward Philadelphia, Washington, or Baltimore, all of which could not be covered by Meade; in other words, an impossible decision for Meade.  Again Lee failed to follow this his third-best plan.

Instead, he called for the Confederate army to assemble at Cashtown, but then he advanced on Gettysburg, which Union forces already occupied.  So another fundamental rule of war was violated: do not rush long distances to attack an enemy already in position.  At the end of the first day Union forces pulled up on the highly defensible position of Cemetery Hill and Ridge.

So now a third rule of war was about to be violated.  Great generals down the centuries—but also a general as recent and as highly regarded as Napoleon Bonaparte—had operated on the principle, if at all possible, of never attacking into strength, but of attacking into weakness.  The obvious weakness or “vacuity” available to the Confederates was to move the Rebel army to the south between Gettysburg and Washington.  Abraham Lincoln had always had a nightmare of finding the Confederate army between the capital and the Union army.  He would be certain to remove any Union commander who allowed this to persist.  Therefore, if the Confederate army had moved to the south, General Meade would have been compelled to abandon his superb defensive position on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills and on Cemetery Ridge, and would have been forced to charge after the Rebels and attack them under conditions favorable to the Confederates, not favorable to the Union army.  That this would happen was plain to General James Longstreet, and he implored Lee to do just that.  This was now Lee’s fourth-best plan.

But again Lee refused, and did precisely what great generals down through the ages have said never to do: he attacked the enemy headlong directly into his strength. This was the culminating event of the Civil War.  But it was only the last in a series of failures on the part of Lee (and Jefferson Davis).

We can see this when we go back to the second year of the war, 1862.  At that time George B. McClellan transported a huge Union army to Hampton Roads and moved up the Peninsula toward Richmond.  Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley saw the peril and, in a series of brilliant moves, placed a Confederate force on the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry.  Jackson now proposed that he be given a total of 40,000 men and to strike into a vacuity—in this case, the absence of any Union field forces in Maryland.

This would permit him to sever the railroad line running from Baltimore to Washington, thereby cutting off the food supply of the capital.  This would force McClellan to abandon his campaign on the Peninsula without the loss of a single additional Confederate soldier in that arena, and rush back to attack Jackson in Maryland.  There McClellan would have had to maneuver brilliantly in order to defeat Jackson; and history had proved that campaigns of maneuver were beyond McClellan’s talents.  But Jefferson Davis, with Lee’s approval, refused Jackson’s proposal.  Instead, Lee insisted on concentrating the Confederate army to defend Richmond.

When A.P. Hill impulsively launched a frontal attack against Beaver Dam Creek next to Mechanicsville on the first of the Seven Days, Lee approved his action, and set off a series of extremely bloody frontal assaults.  This was exactly contrary to the practice of Napoleon.  He never made a frontal attack if he could do otherwise.  Napoleon counted on the menace of a move on the enemy’s rear, even if it failed, to shake enemy morale and force him into a mistake, which might give him an opportunity to strike.  Although Napoleon’s practices had been studied meticulously by military professionals for the past half century, Lee ignored them in most instances, and always in the Peninsula campaign.  Lee’s headlong attacks destroyed a quarter of his whole army and did not drive McClellan away from Richmond.  Now Lincoln organized a new army under John Pope to attack Richmond from the west.

This forced Lee to divide his army and send Jackson to Gordonsville, west of Richmond.  Ideally, McClellan and Pope should have closed on Richmond from two directions, but Lincoln realized that McClellan was incapable of offensive action, and he voluntarily removed McClellan and his army from the Peninsula.  This was a great strategic blunder.  What Lincoln should have done was to replace McClellan with another general.  By evacuating the Union army, Lincoln eliminated the threat to Richmond, and gave Lee a tremendous opportunity to defeat Pope.

Jackson at once proposed just such a plan: to sweep around Pope’s undefended eastern flank on the Rapidan River, drive the Union army against the Rapidan or the Blue Ridge just to the west, and force its surrender.  Jackson was proposing the precise use of the ancient tactical doctrine of the convergent assault.  It is mentioned in the Bible (2 Samuel 5:22-25).  The idea is for one segment of an army to attack the enemy from one direction, while another segment “fixes” the enemy in place by a holding attack.  Alexander the Great and Hannibal, among other great generals, used the tactic.  It has been the canonical solution for a long time.  If properly carried out, the convergent assault destroys the integrity of the enemy army, and forces it to flee in disorder or to surrender.  The convergent assault usually causes very few casualties on the attacking side.  This is because the principal attack is a surprise blow at an unexpected spot and thus strikes into weakness.  In contrast, a frontal attack into a defended position causes horrendous casualties to the attacking side.  Lee accepted Jackson’s plan in principle, but refused to carry it out in practice.  So Pope got away.

Lee at last allowed Jackson to move around Pope, with the task now of cutting his supply line, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.  But Jackson resolved in addition to threaten a target the enemy must defend—in this case Washington.  He therefore descended, not on the closest place where he could cut the railway, but on Manassas Junction, only twenty or so miles from the capital.  This forced Pope to abandon his solid defensive position along the Rappahannock River.

Jackson now moved west to Groveton on the Bull Run Mountains, knowing Lee was approaching just to his south at Gainesville.  By appearing weak and vulnerable, Jackson induced Pope to attack him headlong.  This was a spectacular implementation of the convergent assault, but in reverse.  For, instead of attacking Pope himself and fixing him in place, Jackson induced Pope to “fix” his own army in place by attacking Jackson.  This left him totally exposed to Lee, coming up on his left or southern flank at Gainesville.  Pope could do little to oppose a strike by Lee.  This was the battle of Second Manassas.

Jackson expected Lee to take advantage of his magnificent position on the Union army’s flank, and to sweep around it and destroy it.  But Lee totally failed to see the opportunity, and waited until late on the second day to attack.  The result was a partial but not a total victory.  Lee now decided to advance into Maryland.

This was what became the Antietam campaign.  Jackson tried to get Lee to station the Confederate army north and east of Frederick, where it would threaten Washington in one direction, Baltimore in another, and Philadelphia in a third.  Lincoln was certain to insist on keeping the Union army between the Rebels and Washington, so both Baltimore and Philadelphia would be vulnerable.  But Lee refused.  He insisted on moving west where there was no chance of achieving a decision, and fell into a hopeless defensive battle at Antietam.  There he was hemmed into a tight cul-de-sac by the Potomac River, where he had no possibility of maneuver.  Lee now fell back to Virginia.

This led to the Fredericksburg campaign. Ambrose E. Burnside, who replaced McClellan, planned to attack the Confederate army lined up on the heights south of the town.  The South was certain to win this battle, but Union guns on Stafford Heights dominated the battlefield and would make it impossible for the Rebels to exploit a victory.  Jackson saw this, and implored Lee to move twenty-five miles south to the North Anna River.

This would induce the Federals to advance far from their base of supply into what the ancient sages called “dangerous ground.”  The Confederates were certain to defeat any headlong attack by Burnside.  The Confederates then could have employed the convergent assault, holding the line of the North Anna River with part of the army, while the remainder swung around on the rear of the Federal army.  This would force them against the North Anna, and cut them off from their supplies.  The likely result would have been the surrender of the Union army.  Again Lee refused.  The subsequent Confederate victory at Fredericksburg was accordingly hollow and had no strategic advantages.

This led to the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.  The new Union commander Joe Hooker placed a powerful Union army on the Confederate western flank, while directing a strong Union force under John Sedgwick to attack Lee directly at Fredericksburg.  This was a most dangerous situation.  It was a move by Hooker to carry out a convergent assault.  And, since there were few Confederate forces to the west, it was also an example of avoiding enemy strength and attacking weakness.  But Hooker committed a fatal error.  He did not insist on Sedgwick attacking and holding Lee in place.  Sedgwick did not attack, and Lee was able to turn his back on Sedgwick and send most of his army to challenge Hooker.

When Jackson arrived on the west, he at once realized that—if he could keep the Union forces in the heavily wooded Wilderness around Chancellorsville—they would lose the advantage of their greatly superior artillery.  This would deprive the enemy of their principal strength.  Accordingly, he ordered the Confederates to advance, causing Hooker to withdraw to a defensive position around Chancellorsville.

When cavalry chief Jeb Stuart reported the Union army was “floating in the air” with no defensive positions facing west, Jackson proposed one of the most brilliant moves in the history of the convergent assault—to send his whole corps around the Union army and to roll it up from the west.  His aim was to close off Hooker’s only path of retreat, United States Ford over the Rappahannock River.

Jackson’s attack was superbly successful, but he was mortally wounded by his own troops as he was organizing a move on U.S. Ford.  Thus it was never carried out, and the Union army escaped.  Lee now resolved to invade Pennsylvania and reach a decision in the war. This was the Gettysburg campaign, where Lee indeed did achieve a decision—and that was to lose the war for the South.

At the risk of a bit of repetition, let me conclude my remarks by summarizing the immense intellectual concepts that Stonewall Jackson possessed, for they were the only means available to the South to win. In other words, there was precisely one brain in the Confederacy that had figured out a successful strategy and successful tactics, and this brain occupied a subordinate place in the hierarchy of power.

At the summit were two persons of quite inadequate imagination, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.  Davis was obsessed with the idea of a passive, defensive posture that had no possibility of success if Abraham Lincoln insisted on pursuing the war.  Davis could have figured out easily enough that he would do so.  Lee was an extremely aggressive, pugnacious leader with only one concept of how to win—headlong assault against a defended line.

This fixation of Lee is quite astonishing, for he was in fact one of the great defensive commanders in history.  This was proved by his masterly handling of the battle at Antietam, where he completely stymied a Union army more than twice the size of his own.  It was also proved in the Overland Campaign of 1864, in which he destroyed half of Ulysses S. Grant’s enormous army between the Wilderness and Petersburg.  But whenever Lee sought to achieve a decision, his instinctive choice was a frontal assault, irrespective of the odds and irrespective of the losses.  He did this in the Seven Days, at Gettysburg, and on the Brock Road in the battle of the Wilderness.  Only days before Appomattox, on March 25, 1865, he lost a tenth of his tiny remaining army in a hopeless frontal assault against Fort Stedman at Petersburg.  On only two occasions did Lee seek a decision by a flanking maneuver, and in both of these cases he was influenced by Stonewall Jackson.  These two occasions were the assault on John Pope’s flank at the end of the second day of Second Manassas, and at Chancellorsville, where he accepted Jackson’s proposal to go around Hooker’s army.

There is no evidence that Lee ever understood the consequences of the Minié-ball rifle (with a range up to four times that of the Mexican War smoothbore musket).  This weapon alone made it extremely difficult to achieve a decision by frontal assaults against a well-defended line.  This fact became even clearer with the experience of the stone wall along the sunken road at Fredericksburg in December 1862.  On the sunken road, the Confederates—with rifle and cannon fire—stopped fourteen Union assaults with dreadful casualties.  This should have been decisive in proving the overwhelming advantage that field fortifications gave to a defending force.  But the lesson was lost on Lee, for he returned to frontal assaults at his first opportunity at Gettysburg.  The Confederates experienced the same devastating defeat there that Burnside had experienced at Fredericksburg.  And for the same reasons.

Therefore, the ideas of Stonewall Jackson were the only means available to the South to achieve victory.  He saw at least as early as the Shenandoah Valley campaign that he could easily outmaneuver the Union forces, and could defeat in detail isolated portions of these forces.  Jackson sought to exploit this advantage by striking into the North.  He was confident he could sever the railroad line supplying Washington with food, and therefore force Lincoln’s government to evacuate the city.  He also was certain he could force the Northerners to give up the war by stopping their commerce, and threatening their factories and farms.  But he could not induce Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee to authorize such a strike.

Jackson realized the only hope for the South now remaining was to defeat the Union army decisively in battle.  He saw a number of opportunities in this regard.  He saw that some Union commanders were ignorant of or at least indifferent to threats to their flanks and rear.  John Pope, of course, was notoriously so.

Jackson saw ways to victory were sweeps around the flanks (as he proposed along the Rapidan river to drive Pope against the river or the Blue Ridge to the west) or deep strategic moves on the rear to sever the Union supply line and to threaten a target vital to the enemy (as he did at Manassas).  Lee was not as willing as Jackson to rely on strikes on the flanks and rear.  He waited too long to carry out a flank move against Pope on the Rapidan, he was too slow for it to be decisive at Second Manassas, and he didn’t reconnoiter his battlefield at Antietam in advance, so he didn’t realize he had insufficient space to launch it there.  He was never willing to undertake such a startling move as Jackson made in the Valley campaign, when he disregarded Nathaniel Banks’s fortifications at Strasburg, swept around to Front Royal, cut Banks’s rail supply line, and placed his army as close to Banks’s rear base at Winchester as Banks was himself.  Only at Chancellorsville did Lee risk everything on the single throw of the dice in committing the Confederate army to Jackson’s swing around the Union army.  In the Gettysburg campaign, Lee advanced far and fast into Pennsylvania, but he did not maneuver to dislocate the Union army.  Indeed, he reacted most hesitantly in ordering the Confederate army to concentrate at Cashtown, thereby sacrificing the enormous amount of maneuver room he possessed between Carlisle and Wrightsville to the north and the Union army at Frederick far to the south.

Jackson realized during the Second Manassas campaign that Lee was not going to undertake the sort of wide-ranging maneuver warfare Jackson had conducted so successfully in the Valley campaign.  Jackson, therefore, worked out another way to win.  This method was more consistent with Lee’s ability as a defensive commander, and might be more acceptable to him.  Jackson realized—well before the evidence of the bullet-deflecting stone wall on the sunken road at Fredericksburg—that any force solidly emplaced on the defensive could stop almost any frontal attack.  He surely drew this conclusion from the disastrous effects of the Seven Days, when only one of four Southern assaults succeeded.  The one that did succeed was at Gaines Mill, and it came only after frightful casualties.  Jackson had already become aware of the problem, however, because of the severe difficulty he had winning the battle of Port Republic in the Shenandoah Valley campaign.

Therefore, Jackson conceived a new method of battle.  He saw that the Confederates should not attack themselves, but should induce the enemy to attack.  Any attack would be almost bound to fail.  Then the Confederates could move around the flank of the demoralized enemy army and force it to retreat or to surrender.  This was precisely the situation he set up at Groveton at the battle of Second Manassas.  He induced Pope to attack, knowing he would be defeated.  He assumed that Lee would quickly swing on Pope’s left or southern flank and throw the Union army into chaos.

But Lee did not see this opportunity.  The Confederate attack should have been made as soon as possible after Lee arrived at Gainesville around noon on the first day of the battle, not at the end of the second day.

Lee continued his fatal insistence on frontal assaults almost to the last.  He did not accept the “defend, then attack” tactical method that Jackson had devised to avoid attacks himself and let the enemy attack and be defeated.  Lee’s inability to see the opportunities that Jackson presented to him is the real story of the Civil War.

<< More Commentary by Bevin Alexander

<< Back to top