[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]
  This webpage reproduces an appendix to Volume II of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. II
Appendix II-3

The Reason for Jackson's Failure at White Oak Swamp,
June 30, 1862

D. H. Hill, son of the general of the same name, in his North Carolina in the War Between the States,​1 reviewed the various theories of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson's  p573  failure to cross White Oak Swamp. These and the explanations given by other witnesses who are not cited by Hill fall under these six heads:

1. Jackson failed because a crossing was impracticable. This was the explanation Jackson gave in his report. He said: ". . . the marshy character of the soil, the destruction of the bridge over the marsh and creek, and the strong position of the enemy for defending the passage prevented my advancing until the following morning."​2 This was the view, also, of Doctor Hunter McGuire, Jackson's surgeon. "The ford," said he, "was miry and deep and impracticable for either artillery or infantry."​3 General McCall wrote in his report, without any knowledge of the brewing controversy and therefore with no thought of being cited as a witness: "I did not apprehend [Jackson's] ability to effect a passage."​4

Such a view leaves out of account the possibility of crossing the swamp elsewhere than at White Oak Bridge, a possibility that will be considered presently. Colonel William Allan, Jackson's chief ordnance officer, and a soldier of experience and standing, is a credible witness in refutation of the view that the Federal position was impregnable. He asserted: "Jackson, ignorant of the country, had in the swamp and Franklin's veterans substantial causes of delay, but they were not such obstacles as usually held Jackson in check. Vigorous demonstrations at the fords above and below, as well as at White Oak Swamp Bridge, would probably have secured a crossing at one point or another, and the tremendous prize at stake was such as to justify any efforts."5

2. Jackson might have crossed at some other point than White Oak Bridge and doubtless would have done so but his orders allowed him no discretion. This was Henderson's conclusion. He wrote: [Jackson] "had been ordered by General Lee to move along the road to White Oak Swamp, to endeavor to force his way to the Long Bridge road, to guard Lee's left flank from any attack across the fords or bridges of the lower Chickahominy, and to keep on that road until he received further orders. Those further orders he never received; and it was certainly not his place to march to the Charles City road until Lee, who was with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet, sent him instructions to do so. . . . [Jackson] said 'If General Lee had wanted me he could have sent for me.' " Henderson quoted Doctor Hunter McGuire to this effect: "It looked the day after the battle, and it looks to me now, that if General Lee had sent a staff officer, who could have ridden the distance in forty minutes, to order Jackson with three divisions to the cross roads, while Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.D. H. Hill and the artillery  p574  watched Franklin, we should certainly have crushed McClellan's army. If Lee had wanted Jackson to give direct support to Longstreet, he could have had him there in three hours. The staff officer was not sent, and the evidence is that General Lee believed Longstreet strong enough to defeat the Federals without direct aid from Jackson." Henderson added: "Such reasoning appears incontrovertible."​6 But is it? Is it not invalidated by the evidence of Wade Hampton quoted in the text, evidence that had not been published when Doctor McGuire and Colonel Henderson wrote? Jackson's orders were simpler than Henderson makes them out to be. The dispatch of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell to guard the crossings of the Chickahominy, etc., was incidental to the main plan. Ewell's mission had been fulfilled and the last units were back with Jackson by 4 o'clock on the afternoon of the 30th.​7 Jackson must have known the part assigned him in the general plan, for he probably was in conference with Lee on the 29th and certainly on the morning of the 30th. Contrary to Henderson's and McGuire's statements, Jackson was notified that he was needed to reinforce Longstreet: Hampton saw Longstreet's aide on the north side of the swamp and was told why he had come.​8 In short, Henderson's whole argument rests on the assumption that Jackson received no orders while at White Oak Bridge; when that assumption is proved unfounded, Henderson's case collapses.

It is only fair to add Henderson neglected to say much that would have strengthened his case if he had been acquainted with it. There were three fords over the swamp above White Oak Bridge: First was Brackett's, one and one-half miles west of Jackson's road. Next was Fisher's, two and a half miles from Jackson. The third was Jordan's, distant three and three-quarter miles from the Confederate position.​9 Fisher's and Jordan's Fords had been uncovered by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Huger's advance. If Jackson had moved his army to either of them, or had gone two miles farther upstream to the head of the swamp, he would have been able to cross unopposed. But here is the point that has escaped most commentators: At some undetermined hour of the afternoon D. H. Hill sent his engineer officer across the swamp urging Huger to attack Franklin and thereby force him to release his grip on the ground above White Oak Bridge. Huger sent back word that the Charles City road was obstructed.​10 If, therefore, Jackson had crossed at Fisher's or at Jordan's, or had gone around the head of the swamp, he would have found his divisions jammed in the Charles City road, in rear of Huger, and more  p575  useless, for the time being, if such a thing were possible, than if they remained where they were. Brackett's Ford was opposite the Federal position. A crossing there would have to be forced. The only Confederate officer of high rank who visited Brackett's Ford that day and left any account of it was General A. R. Wright. He said: "I ascertained that the road debouched from the swamp into an open field (meadow), commanded by a line of high hills, all in cultivation and free of timber. Upon this range of hills the enemy had posted heavy batteries of field artillery, strongly supported by infantry, which swept across the meadow by a direct and cross fire, and which could be used with terrible effect upon my column while struggling through the fallen timber in the wood through the swamp."​11 The bridge at Brackett's had been destroyed that morning by order of General S. P. Heintzelman​12 and was protected by Slocum's division. The troops defending the crossing at Brackett's had only one 12‑pounder howitzer at hand,​13 but there was abundant Federal artillery nearby and unemployed. It is very doubtful whether Jackson could have forced this position if he had tried; but it is certain that he did not try and it is almost certain that he did not send any one to Brackett's to see whether, if he tried, he could succeed. Wright examined the ford after he left Jackson and made no mention of having forwarded any report to him. The movements of Wright indicate that he felt that Jackson had released him to return as best he could to Huger.

There remained for Jackson the ford that Hampton discovered below White Oak Bridge. This was so close to Jackson's assigned route that no man in full possession of his faculties could have regarded a crossing at that point as contrary to his orders. If Jackson had been reasoning on the 30th with his usual military acumen, he could only have hesitated to make the crossing on the ground that he could not employ his artillery in the attack, and therefore would lose heavily. He could not have been precise in this, however, because he did not personally examine Hampton's ford, nor is it known that he sent any one to verify or to disprove Hampton's statement that the enemy could easily be taken in flank from that quarter.

Summing up this contention, it must be said that the evidence does not justify the claim that Jackson failed to cross at some other point than White Oak Bridge because it would have been a violation of orders. He should not have crossed at Fisher's, at Jordan's, or above the head of White Oak Swamp. He might not have been able to cross at Brackett's, but he did not reconnoitre to see whether that route was practicable, and  p576  he did not attempt to cross nor did he even examine the ground at Hampton's ford, which was so close to his assigned route that, to repeat, the most meticulous regard for literal compliance with orders would not have been violated by a crossing there. This general contention, then, must be put aside.

3. Jackson did not exert himself to fulfill more than the letter of his orders because he did not wish to serve in a subordinate capacity — was unwilling, in short, to co-operate. This was camp gossip at the time, and is not formally advanced by any serious student of the campaign. In the Valley, there had been nothing to suggest that Jackson was disposed to play a spectacular lone hand and not to co-operate. On the contrary, he had exhibited quick perception of what Lee had intended to do, and had displayed eagerness to execute his part of the larger plan, even to the point of appealing to general headquarters from Johnston's ill-advised order to abandon the pursuit of Banks. Jackson was ambitious. He may have preferred independent command — what self-confident soldier would not? — but he had fitted himself perfectly into the general design.

4. Jackson felt that his troops were being called upon to do more than their part of the fighting and should be spared as much as possible. This contention was advanced by D. H. Hill who said: "I think that an important factor in this inaction was Jackson's pity for his own corps, worn out by long and exhausting marches, and reduced in number by its numerous sanguinary battles. He thought that the garrison of Richmond ought now to bear the brunt of the fighting. None of us knew that the veterans of Longstreet and A. P. Hill were unsupported; nor did we even know that the firing we heard was theirs."​14 Alexander​15 commented thus on Hill's statement: "This . . . is but another form of a rumor which, to my knowledge, had private circulation at the time among the staff-officers of some of the leading generals. It was reported that Jackson had said that 'he did not intend that his men should do all the fighting.' "

D. H. Hill's statement is a theory, unsupported by evidence; Alexander simply repeated a rumor. Both are discreditable to Jackson, if he were physically and mentally himself during the campaign, and both are entirely at variance with everything else in his splendid career. It is true that Jackson's and Ewell's veterans from the Valley sustained fewer casualties than any other divisions of the army during the Seven Days,​16 but this may have been the result of other causes than of a desire to keep them from bearing their part of the burden of battle. If Jackson had  p577  wished to spare his men, it is reasonable to suppose that he would have opposed the dispatch of his army to Richmond earlier in the month. Instead, he was willing, if not eager, to come, as the quotations from his letters​17 plainly show. Nor could any reasonable man argue that the Richmond garrison had been spared, at Jackson's expense, during the campaign. Jackson's and Ewell's divisions had marched farther but had fought less than A. P. Hill's men and no more than Longstreet's. Huger and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Magruder had not been fully engaged but that was the result of circumstance, not of favoritism. Jackson was brought to Richmond because the safety of the Confederacy demanded it, and he was placed at the point where he could be most useful under Lee's plan. He was not called on to do "all the fighting" or an undue part of the fighting. Besides, less than half the troops then under Jackson had been engaged in the Valley. Whiting's troops and those of D. H. Hill were on all fours with the other divisions that had been in front of Richmond before Jackson's arrival. Jackson had neither the right, the reason, nor — there is every reason to believe — the disposition to spare them. Ignorant as he was of the terrain and poor as was the map, he was aware of the proximity of the James River and knew that if McClellan escaped, a great opportunity would be lost. There was an echo of this feeling in his remark to his staff, after he roused himself when he had fallen asleep at mess with his supper between his teeth — "let us . . . rise with the dawn and see if we cannot do something."​18 In his report he stated that the sound of Longstreet's cannonade "made me eager to press forward."​19 On the morning of July 1, as is explained in Chapter XVII,º when Jackson met Magruder, and the latter proposed that his troops take the lead, Jackson insisted that his men form the van, as they were fresher: was that the act of one who wished to spare his own command? To say that a man of Jackson's military perception deliberately shielded his men, on the day of all days when the Army of the Potomac might have been destroyed, is to accuse him of a measure of skulking only one degree removed from treason.

5. Jackson failed at White Oak Swamp and during the rest of the campaign because he underestimated the difficulties of handling a large force in a strange country. This is the view of General Sir Frederick Maurice and is entitled to respect, coming from so distinguished a soldier. Undoubtedly this increased Jackson's difficulties, but it hardly accounts for all his shortcomings during the Seven Days, and it does not explain his behavior at White Oak Swamp.

 p578  6. Jackson was physically and mentally exhausted and therefore temporarily incapable of reasoning with his usual accuracy or of acting with his accustomed energy. This is the explanation given by Major R. L. Dabney, Jackson's chief of staff. He said: "Two columns, pushed with determination across the two fords at which the cavalry of Munford passed over and returned — the one in the centre [adjoining White Oak Bridge] and the other [probably Hampton's] at the left — and protected in their onset by the oblique fire of a power­ful artillery so well posted on the right, would not have failed to dislodge Franklin from a position already half lost. The list of casualties would indeed have been larger than that presented on the 30th of one cannoneer mortally wounded. But how much shorter would have been the bloody list filled up the next day at Malvern Hill? This temporary eclipse of Jackson's genius was probably to be explained by physical causes. The labor of the previous days, the sleeplessness, the wear of gigantic cares, the drenching of the comfortless night, had sunk the elasticity of his will and the quickness of his invention, for once, below their wonted tension."​20

This is first-hand evidence from the man of all others in the army who was closest to Jackson at the time and knew him best. It is early testimony, too, for Dabney wrote in 1863‑65.​21

This is first-hand evidence for the highly significant statement that Jackson fell asleep that night at mess, "with his supper between his teeth." Jackson's remark about an early start the next day, Dabney observed likewise, "showed that he was conscious of depression."​22 In 1896, when Henderson was preparing his Stonewall Jackson, a lively correspondence was exchanged among Doctor Dabney, Major Jed Hotchkiss, and Doctor Hunter McGuire, as to the reason Jackson did not cross the swamp. At the close of this correspondence Doctor Dabney offered to withdraw, in a proposed new edition of his biography, his claim that Jackson was exhausted. He said he would not assert his judgment on such a question in opposition to that of Doctor McGuire,​23 but before agreeing to this, he wrote a memorandum, presently to be quoted, that made his recantation pointless. Dabney, however, is not the only witness to Jackson's exhaustion. The General's courier, John Gill, observed it. Writing of the climax of the campaign of the Seven Days, he noted: "General Jackson had been in a bad humor for several days; the truth of the matter is that he and his men had been completely worn out by what they had gone through."​24

Finally, Jackson himself may be called to the bar of history. On July 8, 1862, he wrote his wife: "During the past week, I have not been well, have suffered from fever and debility."​25 In confirmation of this evidence, it is pertinent to add that Jackson was a man singularly dependent upon sleep. In May, 1861, he had twice complained of physical distress on account of the loss of sleep. "I feel better this morning than I have for some time," he wrote on May 3, "having got more sleep than usual last night." And again, on May 8, "I am in good health, considering the great amount of labor which devolves upon me, and the loss of sleep to which I am subjected. . . ."​26 In July, 1861, before the battle of First Manassas, he had complained again: "One of the most trying things here is the loss of sleep."​27

Now, if Jackson was particularly dependent upon sleep, had his experiences during the days preceding June 30 been of a sort to deprive him of it and thereby to produce mental exhaustion? The following record of his daily movement speaks for itself.

Night of June 22‑23:

No sleep subsequent to midnight, if any; riding after 1 A.M. to Richmond.

Day of June 23:

En route to Lee's headquarters, at conference there and riding back.

Night of June 23‑24:

In the saddle. Total distance covered after 1 A.M., June 23, approximately 100 miles.

Day of June 24:

A slow, difficult march.

Night of June 24‑25:

No record; probably sleeping; up very early for continuance of his march.

Day of June 25:

Marching to Ashland.

Night of June 25‑26:

No sleep; in prayer and giving orders.​28

Day of June 26:

Marching from Ashland to Hundley's Corner;º skirmishing.

Night of June 26‑27:

Bivouacking on the battlefield; up at earliest dawn.

June 27:

Marching from Hundley's Corner to Old Cold Harbor; battle of Gaines's Mill.

Night of June 27‑28:

On a battlefield covered with wounded; in conference with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart after midnight.

June 28:

On the battlefield: dispatching Ewell to Dispatch Station; a day of tension.

Night of June 28‑29:

No record; probably a good night's sleep.

June 29:

Rebuilding Grapevine bridge; preparing to pursue retreating enemy.

Night of June 29‑30:

Aroused by rain at about 1 A.M.; moving thereafter; saw Magruder at 3:30 A.M.

In summary, during the eight days from noon, June 22, to noon, June 30, Jackson rode approximately 100 miles with no rest intervening except while in conference at Lee's headquarters; he lost all of four nights' sleep or else had no sleep after midnight; he was probably up at dawn on the four mornings following a night of sleep; two of these four nights were spent on or close to fields where battles had been fought the preceding day; finally, on six of the eight days, he was either making his hurried ride to Richmond or else was on the march with his troops, under the most exacting conditions. If it be asked why Jackson showed more of the physical effects of the campaign than did any other of the division commanders, it may be answered that his strain began on the night of June 22‑23, whereas the others lost no sleep until the night of June 25‑26. Put in a form perhaps more dramatic than historically correct, it may be concluded that Jackson paved the way for failure at White Oak Swamp by riding all night of June 22‑23 and of June 23‑24 and by praying all night of June 25‑26. Magruder almost broke down with less loss of sleep,​29 and though Lee required little repose and took pains to get rest every night, he was close to exhaustion on the morning of July 1.​30

Jackson was full of vigor on June 27, and Doctor McGuire said he never saw Jackson "more active and energetic than during the engagement" at White Oak Swamp; but it is a well-known fact that a man who gets even a little sleep at night can perform his duties the next morning and will not begin to feel exhaustion until the afternoon. That precisely accords with what is known of Jackson's behavior on the 30th. Sending Wright away without dispatching a staff officer to see how he fared, returning no answer to Longstreet by Captain Fairfax, sitting on a log listening to Hampton's report and then walking off without a word — this may be the picture of a man benumbed into irresolution and paralyzed for action by utter exhaustion.

Major Dabney's comments in 1896 may now be quoted as final evidence in behalf of the view that Jackson was exhausted on June 30, 1864. He said:

". . . But, consider the scene at [Jackson's] supper the night of the 30th when he actually went to sleep with a biscuit between his teeth and nodded; and then waking with a start, said the words, which I print. Don't they imply a consciousness of an ineffectual day? Nobody could blame Jackson for being done out that day. Remember he had had a  p581  hard time since leaving Beaver Dam; not a wink of sleep the night at Ashland; not a regular meal after leaving Hundley's Corner Friday morning. Our headquarters wagon and servants all in the rear; no mess chest, no cook; no regular rations drawn; no mess tables set, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, nor Tuesday. Very little sleep Sunday night, which from 1 o'clock on was spent on horseback. I suppose he had neither breakfast nor dinner Monday. I know I had none, and I suppose he was no better off, and next to no meals for three days before, such were the terrible exigencies of his previous services. He must have been a man of iron indeed, had not body, brain, and animal spirits, felt the depressing effects. All the day Monday he was faithfully busy, as on other days, with his duties. With all his usual unselfish disregard for his own comfort, and his usual exposure of himself to danger. But he appeared to me to have less of his usual push and quick decision. To be more specific, I have related how Colonel Munford's regiment of cavalry crossed the miry stream, mounted the upland, made his reconnaissance, found Franklin's left wing in position and threatening him with artillery and wheeling away from it found a sheltered vale leading down to the water course and at the foot of it a practicable ford, across which he brought his regiment back to our side in safety. My thought was that where this cavalry came back to us, a column of infantry might have crossed to the front, and thus established itself upon Franklin's right flank. I did not suggest it; I did not take such liberties.

"Jackson seemed to have made up his mind that he would not risk the serious onset with the infantry unaccompanied by his artillery. Probably the gun carriages could not have been taken across this lower ford in safety; but this fact remains true; the next day, at Malvern Hill, we had to fight McClellan's triple lines with our infantry alone. Now I am well aware Jackson may have known facts which would have shown this idea of mine to be erroneous. I did not advance it in my printed narrative, I only stated what appeared to me the true explanation of our unquestionable check upon that useless day."​31

To conclude, then, it was not ugly selfishness or sulky unwillingness to fight under Lee that led Jackson to leave the battle to others and to let the great opportunity pass. It was not altogether ignorance of the ground that held him back, nor, primarily, inexperience in handling large bodies of men. It was not the miscalculation of erring genius; it may have been the lack of calculation of an exhausted mind. It was not the absence of zeal when the great day came and passed; it may have  p582  been excess of zeal in overstraining himself to make that day possible. His state of mind may have led him to exaggerate the difficulties of the terrain. This seems the most probable explanation. A positive, incontrovertible one cannot be given.

The Author's Notes:

1 2, 147.

[decorative delimiter]

2 O. R., 11, part 2, p557.

[decorative delimiter]

3Henderson, 51n; McGuire Papers.

[decorative delimiter]

4 O. R., 11, part 2, p389.

[decorative delimiter]

5 The Army of Northern Virginia in 1862, p121.

[decorative delimiter]

6Henderson, 58.

[decorative delimiter]

7 O. R., 11, part 2, pp618.º

[decorative delimiter]

8 Marshall, 111.

[decorative delimiter]

9 The location of Jordan's Ford, which seems to have been in some doubt with map-makers and students of this campaign, is plainly established by O. R., 11, part 2, p162.

[decorative delimiter]

10 B. and L., 388.

[decorative delimiter]

11 O. R., 11, part 2, pp810‑11.

[decorative delimiter]

12 O. R., 11, part 2, p99.

[decorative delimiter]

13 O. R., 11, part 2, p435.

[decorative delimiter]

14 B. and L., 389.

[decorative delimiter]

15 Op. cit., 152.

[decorative delimiter]

16 See supra, p247, n128.

[decorative delimiter]

17 Supra, p103 ff.

[decorative delimiter]

18 See supra, p198.

[decorative delimiter]

19 O. R., 11, part 2, p557.

[decorative delimiter]

20 Dabney, 466‑67.

[decorative delimiter]

21 T. C. Johnson: The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 280.

[decorative delimiter]

22 Dabney, 467.

[decorative delimiter]

23 R. L.º Dabney to Jed Hotchkiss, May 7, 1896, MS.McGuire Papers.

[decorative delimiter]

24 John Gill: Reminiscences of Four Years as a Private Soldier, 67.

[decorative delimiter]

25 Mrs. Jackson, 302.

[decorative delimiter]

26 Mrs. Jackson, 151, 152.

[decorative delimiter]

27 Mrs. Jackson, 168.

[decorative delimiter]

28 Dabney, 440.

[decorative delimiter]

29 O. R., 11, part 2, p662.

[decorative delimiter]

30 See supra, p201.º

[decorative delimiter]

31 R. L. Dabney to Jed Hotchkiss, April 22, 1896, MS.McGuire Papers.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 22 Sep 21