Wednesday, August 29, 2018

"A Little Touch of Stonewall in the Night"?

   One of the most powerful scenes in the plays of Shakespeare occurs in Henry V, in which Good King Harry ditches his kingly garments, throws on an old cloak, and walks among his soldiers on the eve of battle.  In disguise, he asks them their thoughts on victory and mere survival in the upcoming fight.  

   Did Stonewall Jackson ever do the same? Maybe....
Stonewall Jackson - Mort Kunstler 

   First, it is important to understand that generals were not all that accessible to their men. A soldier could just not wander up to Jackson, or Longstreet, or Hill, and sit down for a chat. Staff officers usually tried to shield their commanders from those around them. So, seeing Jackson or one of the others was a treat, something soldiers usually remembered. They also cheered their generals lustily when they did see them. Hence, during Jackson's march around Hooker's flank at Chancellorsville, Jackson's men were told not to cheer, lest the surprise be given away. But did Jackson ever steal into camp unawares?

   Recently, while working in the Library of Virginia, I came across a story. A Confederate soldier was sitting in the rain, at night, with compatriots, gazing longingly up at a house with light streaming through the windows. The soldier said something to the effect of, "I wish I was a general and out of the rain." Out of the darkness came another voice, "Boys, Jackson is right here with you." (Sorry, I did not copy the source.)

   I found another reference, this time from a Union soldier. While not complimentary, and written by a Union soldier, there might be some truth in the article. It appeared in the New York Times September 8, 1862: "Returning to the first field, mentioned above, the visitors were surrounded by a motley group of human beings, gaunt in their appearance, ill armed and clad, who eagerly questioned all who would listen to them about the affairs of the Government. Among the number was the guerrilla chief, Jackson, disguised in the habiliment of a private soldier. This was not the first disguise Jackson has donned to the nonce; for while returning towards Richmond from the pursuit of Gen. Banks, and at a time when he expected to be cut off by Gen. Shields, he disguised himself in citizen's attire, and actually performed the duties of a wagon-master for several days, to avoid being recognized if taken prisoner. This fact I have from one of our officers who was a prisoner, and with him at the time. Nearly all of the rebel officers present wore the uniform of private soldiers, and wore no mark whatever to show their rank."

   This passage has some interesting items to unpack. Many of the Confederate high command left their dress uniforms back in the wagons. A. P. Hill had his famous red battle shirt, R. E. Lee was often spotted wearing a colonel's uniform. Bryan Grimes's coat had no rank on it at all. Flipping through Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy on can see several short depot-style jackets worn by company and field grade officers. It is not so much of a disguise that these officers were wearing, but simple, fabric-saving jackets that preserved their dress uniforms for special occasions, much as modern military fatigues are worn. Furthermore, I do not believe Jackson donned civilian garb and attempted to pass off as a teamster. Jackson was not Grant when it came to horsemanship. Many have written that he always rode looking like he was getting ready to fall out of the saddle at any moment. Some even thought he was under the influence of strong drink because he was such a poor rider.

   There are other accounts (fanticiful?) of Jackson donning other clothes and stealing into the Federal lines. Another story came from a hospital matron near Frederick, Maryland. She reported being visited by a civilian with a "keen eye seeming to take in everything." She checked, and reported he was "Dr. George," a veteran of the Crimean War. However, she believed Dr. George was really Stonewall Jackson "In disguise," who often went into Federal camps "and so acquaints himself with what is going on." (Greene, Whatever you Resolve to Be, xv)

   There are probably other accounts out there of Jackson moving among the troops or even the enemy wearing some sort of disguise. Many probably mistook his simple, shabby dress (at least until he was presented a new uniform by J. E. B. Stuart) as an attempt to blend in. He probably could have cared less.  As his legend took on a life of its own, whatever the true accounts were, they became embellished until perhaps, like Prince Hal, Stonewall, and the truth of his actions, were blurred with fiction.

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