First Wednesdays – Deathbed Confessional: “I Shot Stonewall Jackson”

“I at once said who goes there?”  Or at least that’s how “Little Bill” Kirk’s version of Stonewall Jackson’s fatal wounding began.  The legend of Stonewall Jackson is one of the most enduring hallmarks of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, so much so that in post-war years there were actually several veterans claiming to be the ones to fire the “fatal shot” – perhaps looking for their own place in Confederate lore, good or bad.

The background and telling of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding has been told many times but a cursory description of the incident deserves mention here.  In May of 1863, Union Major General Joseph Hooker had devised a bold turning movement to force Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia out of its powerful works in front of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  With the majority of his Army of the Potomac, he would cross the Rappahannock River upstream and fall upon Lee’s rear, hopefully destroying Lee’s army and advancing on to Richmond.  Lee became aware of the turning movement and in turn split his forces to face the dual threats to his front and rear.  Brisk fighting in the wilderness around Chancellorsville, Virginia (actually a large mansion located at a clearing crossroads in the woods) slowed Hooker’s advance and forced his men to entrench.

Meanwhile, Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry had informed General Lee that Hooker’s right flank was exposed and vulnerable to attack.  Lee, upon conferring with Jackson, at once took it upon himself to divide his army yet again, sending Jackson’s corps on a long circuitous flank march to hit Hooker’s army in the flank.  After hours of marching, Jackson’s men furiously sprang onto Hooker’s surprised men, routing them from their position and rolling up Hooker’s line for more than a mile.  With little daylight remaining, Jackson and his staff decided to scout the enemy position to determine the feasibility of continuing the attack into the night – a rarity among Civil War battles.

Upon returning from their scout down the Plank Road (a major thoroughfare which Jackson had used as his axis of advance), Jackson’s men were hit with two successive volleys from a picket line of the 18th North Carolina.  Jackson was hit three times – twice in the left arm and once in the right hand – while several others in the party were also killed or wounded.  Jackson would be carried to the rear where his left arm would be amputated.  He developed pneumonia after his surgery and never recovered, dying on May 10.

“Little Bill” Kirk’s version of events was recounted by A.C. Atkins, the son of a Confederate veteran.  In 1890, when Atkins was ten years old, Kirk (whose given name was not listed by Atkins) recounted to Atkins on his death bed his story of the fateful shooting.  According to Kirk, he saw a mounted man approaching in the darkness.  He inquired as to the man’s identity and twice ordered him to halt.  After the man ignored his requests, Kirk fired his rifle and felled the man.  A commotion then ensued and upon learning the identity of the wounded man Kirk “layed down and cried like a baby.”

Although Kirk’s account is fanciful and makes for entertaining reading it has been almost unanimously disregarded by historians of the battle.  A quick browsing of the Confederate rosters indicate that there were several “William” Kirks or “W” Kirks that served in North Carolina regiments, with a few even serving in the 28th North Carolina, which belonged to the brigade involved in Jackson’s shooting.  However, it was the 18th North Carolina which provided the guilty picket detail.  Additionally, Stonewall was hit three times in the second volley by a fusillade of bullets fired by en entire picket line at night – making it almost impossible to determine the individual(s) who fired the shots that hit the general.  Kirk’s deathbed “confessional” was almost certainly concocted in the delirium of death and the passing of many years, not to mention it relies on the word of a ten-year old child recounting his own anecdote decades after the fact.

Although it can be looked at as no more than a curiosity or an oddity and has little to no value as far as students of the battle are concerned, stories such as Kirk’s still provide insight into postwar legends and the desire for individuals to insert themselves into historical events and situations.  Men of much higher stature than Kirk (and with much sounder and healthier minds) concocted tales of almost equal fantasy in their postwar recollections and writings.  Perhaps the enduring purpose of Kirk’s confession was to some way attach himself to the immortal southern legend of Stonewall Jackson and, discredited or not, he accomplished that goal.

A link to a scan and transcription of Atkins’s reminiscence can be found at the following link:
http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll8/id/11973

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One Response to First Wednesdays – Deathbed Confessional: “I Shot Stonewall Jackson”

  1. Jonny Reb says:

    “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”
    Tomas “stonewall” Jackson may 1863

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