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Friendly Fire That Changed a War?

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 1999 – The Civil War had raged two years and the outcome was far from certain. The Union had more men, weapons, supplies. Yet charismatic Confederate generals drubbed the Union regularly; they seemed bolder, smarter, luckier -- more masterful. But then a friendly-fire incident occurred that cut the Rebel string and may have changed the course of the war.

On April 30, 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia contested the Union Army of the Potomac's advance across the Rappahannock River near Chancellorsville, Va. Lee saw an opportunity and split his army. He left a small force to oppose Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and sent the rest with Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to attack the Union flank.

The attack worked beautifully, throwing two Union corps into confusion. The Confederates killed, wounded and captured thousands of Union troops. Jackson's march against the Union flank, generally noted by historians as a military masterstroke, had made the victory possible, but Stonewall was not satisfied.

With the sun going down, Jackson and his aides scouted ahead for new advantages. As they returned, a Confederate unit mistook them for Union cavalry and opened fire, wounding Jackson. He was evacuated from the battlefield and his left arm was amputated. Pneumonia set in and he died May 8, 1863.

By the battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson and Lee had forged a sympatico command team and were arguably the two most brilliant military masterminds in the war. "I know not how to replace him," Lee said.

In his next campaign, Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac on a gamble he could win the war with a deep, unabated northward thrust. Jackson's successor was no Stonewall, however, and Lee's luck ran out. Worn and still grieving from the loss of his friend and partner, Lee made mistakes and met a crushing defeat at Gettysburg, Pa. -- the South's "high-water mark."

Historians ever since have argued over what would have happened had Jackson lived and been at Lee's side. Had Gettysburg gone differently, so might have the war.

Read about DoD's ongoing efforts to eliminate friendly-fire casualties in DefenseLINK News "Fixes Touted to Combat Friendly Fire Casualties."

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