"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Moon blamed in Civil War general’s death

April 30, 2013
Courtesy of Tex­as State Uni­vers­ity
and World Science staff

The moon seems to have had a hand in a grow­ing list of ma­jor his­tor­i­cal events, at least judg­ing by the work of some ce­les­tial sleuths.

The fall of an­cient Ath­ens has been blamed partly on an un­for­tu­nately timed lu­nar eclipse, and su­per­sti­ti­ons about it. And a study a year ago pro­posed that a close lu­nar ap­proach to Earth put ex­tra ice­bergs in the path of the ill-fat­ed Ti­tan­ic.

Stone­wall Jack­son as pho­to­graphed in April 1863, weeks before his death. (Col­lect­ion of Don­ald Ol­son)

Now, new re­search points to the moon’s po­si­ti­on as a fac­tor in the ac­ci­den­tal shoot­ing death of a cen­tral fig­ure of the U.S. Civ­il War, the Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­al Thom­as J. “Stonewall” Jack­son. A he­ro to South­ern­ers, Jack­son was seen as a bril­liant and in­spir­ing mil­i­tary lead­er whose loss dealt a major blow to the ill-fat­ed Con­fed­er­a­cy.

As­tron­o­mer Don Ol­son of Tex­as State Uni­vers­ity and a col­la­bo­ra­tor now pro­pose that the friendly fire that struck Jack­son one eve­ning oc­curred be­cause the moon il­lu­mi­nated him from be­hind, mak­ing him vis­i­ble only as a sil­hou­ette.

One of war’s turn­ing points, the incident took place dur­ing the Bat­tle of Chan­cel­lors­ville on May 2, 1863. Lt. Ge­n. Jack­son lat­er died of com­plic­ati­ons from his wounds, de­priv­ing Con­fed­er­ate com­mand­er Rob­ert E. Lee of his most dar­ing and trusted gen­er­al two months be­fore the fate­ful Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg. Up­on hear­ing of Jack­son’s wounds, which in­i­tially forced the am­put­ati­on of his arm, Lee la­ment­ed, “he has lost his left arm; but I have lost my right ar­m.”

Al­most from the day of the in­ci­dent, his­to­ri­ans have de­bat­ed: how could the sol­diers of the 18th North Car­o­li­na reg­i­ment not rec­og­nize their fa­mous gen­er­al? Ol­son and col­league Lau­rie E. Jas­in­ski pub­lish their the­o­ry in the May 2013 is­sue of Sky & Tel­e­scope mag­a­zine, to mark the even­t’s 150th an­ni­ver­sa­ry.

The Bat­tle of Chan­cel­lors­ville is un­usu­al among Civ­il War clashes in that the fight­ing con­tin­ued well af­ter sun­set. The Un­ion ar­my was in dis­ar­ray af­ter be­ing rout­ed by a fa­mous, late-af­ternoon “flank at­tack” by Jack­son. Jack­son hoped to cut off their re­treat, as a bright full moon al­lowed the rar­ity of night com­bat to con­tin­ue.

Many schol­ars say the night was very dark, but Ol­son and Ja­sin­ski count­er that wit­ness ac­counts at­test oth­er­wise. “The moon was shin­ing very bright­ly, ren­der­ing all ob­jects in our im­me­di­ate vicin­ity dis­tinc­t….” wrote Con­fed­er­ate Capt. Wil­liam Fitz­hugh Ran­dolph in the Dec. 1903 is­sue of The Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­an. “The moon poured a flood of light up­on the wide, open turn­pike.”

A map il­lus­trat­ing the cal­cu­la­tions used in the new stu­dy. The red ar­row shows the di­rec­tion of the gun­shots, Jack­son's po­si­tion is marked “Jack­son” and the gray orb at low­er right il­lus­trates the po­si­tion of the moon schemat­i­cally. Ac­cord­ing to Con­fed­er­ate Co­l. Ed­ward P. Al­ex­an­der, “Jack­son, fol­lowed by sev­er­al staff-officers and couri­ers, rode slow­ly for­ward up­on an old road, called the Moun­tain road... Jack­son, at the head of his par­ty, was slow­ly re­trac­ing his way back to his line of bat­tle, when this vol­ley fir­ing be­gan. Maj. Bar­ry, on the left of the 18th N.C., see­ing through the trees by the moon­light a group of horse­men mov­ing to­ward his line, or­dered his left wing to fire.” The dispo­si­tions of the Con­fed­er­ate and Un­ion reg­i­ments at the mo­ment of the fa­tal vol­ley fol­low the his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis by Rob­ert K. Krick in The Smooth­bore Vol­ley That Doomed the Con­fed­er­a­cy (LSU Press, 2002). (Map cour­te­sy of Sky & Tel­e­scope mag­a­zine)

Jack­son, along with Ran­dolph and sev­er­al oth­er of­fi­cers, rode ahead to scout routes pos­sibly use­a­ble to get be­tween the Un­ion ar­my and fords and pon­toon bridg­es along the Rap­pa­han­nock Riv­er. As the par­ty re­turned from their re­con­nais­sance expediti­on at about 9 p.m., a Con­fed­er­ate of­fic­er on the left wing of the 18th North Car­o­li­na reg­i­ment spot­ted them through the trees. Mis­tak­ing them for Un­ion cav­al­ry, he or­dered his men to open fire. Three bul­lets struck Jack­son—two in his left arm, one in his right wrist. 

If the full moon shone so bright­ly, how did his own troops mis­i­den­ti­fy him? Us­ing de­tailed bat­tle maps and as­tro­nom­i­cal cal­cul­ati­ons, Ol­son and Jasin­ski con­clude that the reg­i­ment was look­ing to the south­east, di­rectly to­ward the ris­ing moon. Reach­ing 25 de­grees above the ho­ri­zon at 9 p.m., the bright orb would have sil­hou­etted Jack­son and his of­fi­cers.

“When you tell peo­ple it was a bright moon­lit night, they think it makes it eas­i­er to see. What we are find­ing is that the 18th North Car­o­li­na was look­ing di­rectly to­ward the di­recti­on of the moon as Stone­wall Jack­son and his par­ty came rid­ing back,” Ol­son said. “They would see the rid­ers only as dark sil­hou­ettes.”

* * *

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The moon seems to have had some hand in a growing list of major historical events, at least judging by the work of some celestial sleuths. The fall of ancient Athens has been blamed partly on an unfortunately timed lunar eclipse, and superstitions surrounding it. And a study a year ago proposed that a close lunar approach to Earth put extra icebergs in the path of the ill-fated Titanic. Now, new research points to the moon’s position as a factor in the accidental shooting death of a central figure of the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. A hero to Southerners, Jackson was seen as a brilliant and inspiring military leader whose loss severely undermined the ill-fated Confederacy. Astronomer Don Olson of Texas State University and a collaborator now propose that the friendly fire that struck Jackson during nighttime fighting occurred because the moon illuminated him from behind, making him visible only as a silhouette. One of war’s turning points occurred during the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, when Lt. Gen. Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own troops. He later died of complications from his wounds, depriving Confederate commander Robert E. Lee of his most daring and trusted general two months before the fateful Battle of Gettysburg. Upon hearing of Jackson’s wounds, which initially forced the amputation of his arm, Lee lamented, “he has lost his left arm; but I have lost my right arm.” Almost from the day of the incident, historians have debated: how could the soldiers of the 18th North Carolina regiment not recognize their famous general? Olson and colleague Laurie E. Jasinski publish their theory in the May 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, in honor of the event’s 150th anniversary. The Battle of Chancellorsville is unusual among Civil War clashes in that the fighting continued well after sunset. The Union army was in disarray after being routed by a famous, late-afternoon “flank attack” by Jackson. Jackson hoped to cut off their retreat, as a bright full moon allowed the rarity of night combat to continue. Many scholars say the night was very dark, but Olson and Jasinski say that witness accounts attest otherwise. “The moon was shining very brightly, rendering all objects in our immediate vicinity distinct….” wrote Confederate Capt. William Fitzhugh Randolph in the Dec. 1903 issue of The Confederate Veteran. “The moon poured a flood of light upon the wide, open turnpike.” Jackson, along with Randolph and several other officers, rode ahead to scout routes possibly useable to get between the Union army and fords and pontoon bridges along the Rappahannock River. As the party returned from their reconnaissance expedition at about 9 p.m., a Confederate officer on the left wing of the 18th North Carolina regiment spotted them through the trees. Mistaking them for Union cavalry, he ordered his men to open fire. Three bullets struck Jackson—two in his left arm, one in his right wrist. If the full moon shone so brightly, how did his own troops misidentify him? Using detailed battle maps and astronomical calculations, Olson and Jasinski conclude that the regiment was looking to the southeast, directly toward the rising moon. Reaching 25 degrees above the horizon at 9 p.m., the bright orb would have silhouetted Jackson and his officers, obscuring their identities. “When you tell people it was a bright moonlit night, they think it makes it easier to see. What we are finding is that the 18th North Carolina was looking directly toward the direction of the moon as Stonewall Jackson and his party came riding back,” Olson said. “They would see the riders only as dark silhouettes.”