Having grown up in a rural West Virginian middle-and-high school educational curriculum, it’s safe to say that I spent a fair share of my historical studies on the great men and battles of the American Civil War. Not to mention comparatively, criminally little time on astronomical studies, because lololol.
So when an article crops up in my feed claiming that the astronomer who explained Paul Revere’s cloak of invisibility has solved another pre-industrial mystery – in particular, that of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s perplexing and unfathomably timely death – my eyebrows tend to perk up.
The short version of the lead-up to Jackson’s death is thus: Stonewall was one of the most infamous and revered strategists of the Confederate Army (second in fame and rank only to General Robert E. Lee), having garnered his now differently evocative nickname for bolstering his high-morale soldiers with the will to stand against advancing enemy combatants “like a stone wall.” That instilled fervor caught up with him in a big way on May 2, 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville (depicted in the image above, with minor restorative work applied). Jackson had just won a major victory, crushing a Union force over twice the Condeferate corps’ size, but he had the audacity to have his troops continue their signature flank attack well into the dark of the night.
This, as astronomer Don Olson of Texas State University and Texas State Historical Association writer Laurie E. Jasinski report in this month’s Sky & Telescope, would prove his undoing, and possibly the undoing of the entire Confederacy.
The story goes that Confederate Major John Barry ordered his troops to fire upon Jackson’s on-coming party, having mistaken them for advancing Union soldiers. According to Olson’s astronomical calculations utilizing modern equipement combined with Confederate almanacs, the moon is likely the culprit for this profound mishap. As you can see in the diagram on the left depicting the moon’s light-path in relation to the topographical differences in Jackson’s party and the 18th North Carolina regiment, “it quickly became obvious” to Olson “how Stonewall Jackson would have been seen as a dark silhouette.”
Jackson was shot in the right wrist and left arm, the later of which having to be amputated, but for not: He died of complications with pneumonia 8 days later, and with the death of a veritable walking-legend died much of the Confederacy’s resolve and tactical advantage.
While discovering that “uhhhhhh maybe Stonewall looked…dark?” might not initially seem like a landmark achievement of celestial detective work, it’s remarkable that we’re able to verify the reasons behind what would ultimately be one of the single most influential mistakes in American history one hundred and fifty years after the fact. If nothing else, this shows how the study of extraterrestrial history can benefit the study of human history.
And really, let’s consider what America might look like today had the moon not been shining in the way that it did on that night: Jackson’s absence was a wrenching wound in the South among both the civilian and military population, with General Lee famously comparing his death to “losing my right arm.” That would prove more literal than the general likely intended: If Jackson had lived just 2 months longer, he would have been a monstrously advantageous asset at the Battle of Gettysburg, the clash that would turn the war in the Union’s favor. The subject of Jackson’s stayed potential at Gettysburg is one of Civil War history’s most notoriously valid and storied postulations.
So uh, thanks Team Moon / Barry! We’re very much enjoying the slavery-free shin-dig we got goin’ on.