Members of the 18th North Carolina Infantry had barely fashioned a line amid the darkened underbrush and trees. Suddenly, from the right, they heard a single shot, followed by volleys of musketry that spread toward them. A major ordered the North Carolinians to fire, and they responded with a burst of shots into the darkness. Some men continued firing at the sounds of horsemen to their front. An officer wrote later that within minutes “our regiment was fully aware of the terrible mistake.”
A smashing Confederate victory had brought the North Carolinians into the woods west of Chancellorsville, Va., on the night of May 2, 1863. Hours before, their comrades in the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, had rolled up the right flank of the Union Army of the Potomac, routing its XI Corps. Disruptions in the attacking formations, confusion and nightfall had stalled the Rebel onslaught. But the Confederate corps commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, was determined to exploit the advantage with a night assault.
Jackson brought forward his reserve division, under Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill. Meeting Hill on Orange Plank Road, Jackson urged him to “press” the Federals and “cut them off from the United States Ford.” Brigadier General James Lane’s Brigade, including the 18th North Carolina, led Hill’s command. Lane’s regiments were deployed on both sides of Plank Road, with skirmishers to the front. The 18th North Carolina lay north of, and next to, the road.
Accompanied by aides and couriers, Jackson proceeded east on the road toward Lane’s troops. As they rode, Private David Kyle of the 9th Virginia Cavalry overtook the party and handed a dispatch to Jackson. When the general learned that Kyle had lived nearby before the war, Jackson assigned him to the group as a guide. The horsemen then turned north off the main roadbed and onto Mountain Road, a narrow corridor through the woods parallel to Plank Road.
Hill and another group of staff officers and couriers, meanwhile, continued east on Plank Road. Both Jackson’s and Hill’s parties passed beyond Lane’s main line, riding toward his skirmishers and the Federal line farther east.
Driven by a desire to personally reconnoiter the situation in his front, Jackson ignored the dangers of riding in the dark beyond his lines. With Kyle by his side, he continued east until within about 200 yards of the Rebel skirmish line. Jackson halted for a few minutes and listened for sounds of enemy activity before turning Little Sorrel around and heading west on Mountain Road. The party had not gone far when a single shot rang out to the south, and then the volleys. Immediately to their front, probably less than 100 yards away, the men of the 18th North Carolina triggered a volley into the night.
Jackson reeled in the saddle, struck by three musket balls. Little Sorrel carried the wounded general through the woods until aides halted the horse. They lowered Jackson to the ground and examined the wounds. One ball had hit him in the palm of his right hand while the other two tore into his left arm near the shoulder and on the forearm. Within minutes, Hill came to Jackson’s side, assisting with the ministrations.
The volley that had ripped into Jackson’s party also raked Hill’s group, who were even closer to the infantrymen. In all, the North Carolinians killed or mortally wounded four of the aides and couriers. Among the dead was Captain James Keith Boswell, Jackson’s topographic engineer, who had accompanied Hill. Boswell had died instantly with a bullet through the heart.
Jackson’s wounds evidently resulted in little loss of blood. As bearers carried him to the rear on a litter, however, he fell twice to the ground, causing severe arterial bleeding. The initial fall occurred when one of the bearers was wounded in both arms by Federal fire; the second, when a bearer tripped and fell. By the time Jackson reached his medical director, Dr. Hunter McGuire, the general had nearly bled to death. The surgeon applied a tourniquet, stanching the flow. Later that night, McGuire amputated Jackson’s left arm.
The wounded corps commander rallied for several days, but never recovered. Pneumonia developed, and Stonewall Jackson died on the afternoon of May 10, in a farm cottage near Guinea Station. When General Robert E. Lee heard of his death, he admitted to his son, “I do not know how to replace him.” Lee never would.
Stonewall Jackson had been a relentless foe, and that characteristic of his generalship had led him beyond his own infantry lines during the dying of a day. It was a haunting place in the darkness that night, and a single gunshot precipitated a “terrible mistake,” a turning point in the fortunes of the Army of Northern Virginia and of the Confederacy.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.