An Interview with Calamity at Chancellorsville: The Wounding and Death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson author Mathew Lively
: Why did you decide to write this particular book?
ML: Stonewall Jackson’s death was appealing to me for multiple reasons. First, I am a West Virginia native, as was Jackson, although it was still a part of Virginia when he was born. Nonetheless, our state still considers him a native of our land. Second, I have had a long interest in Civil War history that dates back to my childhood. And last, as I became a physician, I became interested in medical history, particularly 19th century medical history. Researching Jackson’s death allowed me to concentrate all my interests into one subject.
: What specifically interested you initially about researching Stonewall Jackson’s history?
ML: Stonewall Jackson is a well-recognized name in the state of West Virginia. His boyhood home, Jackson’s Mill, is a popular state 4-H camp. There is a statue of him on the state capitol grounds, and a recreational lake and resort are named after him. Growing up in West Virginia, I became interested in Civil War history at a young age and it was a natural progression to become interested in Jackson since he is such a popular figure in my state. Then, while in medical school, I became interested in the medical aspects of the Civil War and as a natural extension, was intrigued by the medical facets of Jackson’s life and death.
: How did you conduct your research?
ML: Like most historical research, much of it was spent in various libraries and historical societies searching through primary sources. Fortunately, the bulk of the information was in the Virginia and Washington D.C. area, so I did not have to travel great distances. However, I have also been amazed at the amount of information that is now accessible over the Internet. More libraries are now digitalizing their holdings, so it has become much easier to obtain information electronically without ever having to leave home.
: How long did it take you to research and then write the book?
ML: My guess would be about ten years in total. It started out as a desire to find out more about Jackson’s death by collecting information. Soon, I discovered that no one had written a definitive account on the circumstances surrounding his death, which inspired me to try and accomplish the task. As I am not an author by trade, I worked on the project intermittently when I could find time in my otherwise busy schedule.
: What makes your book unique from other things that have been written on the same topic?
ML: My book is the first full-length examination of the details surrounding the event. Most books that discuss Jackson’s death do so as the last chapter in a biography of his entire life, or a short section in a Chancellorsville campaign or battle study. This book is the result of a careful analysis of the available primary source material as it relates only to the circumstances of his wounding and death. I hope that by narrowing the focus, readers will have a better understanding of what actually happened from May 2-10, 1863.
: What are some features of your book that you think readers will really enjoy?
ML: I think having the story written in a narrative style makes it more pleasing to read, particularly for those who are interested in learning the story more than reading a detailed analysis of the battle or the controversies surrounding the event. But for those who want a more scholarly examination of the facts, there is an appendix that goes into that level of depth.
: You mentioned there are some controversies surrounding the event. Can you elaborate on some of those?
ML: Sure. A controversy that has resurfaced recently is which road Stonewall Jackson and his staff reconnoitered down before his wounding. Many current interpretations maintain they rode down and back on the Mountain Road, as opposed to the main Plank Road. . . .
: What did you mean by resurfaced? This is a long-standing controversy?
ML: Yes. This version was first proposed in the 1890s, but was quickly discounted by most of the participants directly involved in the event. I cover this in some depth, and I think readers will find the discussion of interest.
: Can you share other controversies?
ML: Sure. A recent one is the medical condition that actually resulted in Jackson’s death. Although the physicians involved in his care all agreed he died of pneumonia, several modern physicians have offered alternate diagnoses. Yet another controversy that has swirled since the event was whether Jackson actually said his famous last words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” All of these questions and more are discussed in an appendix in the back of the book.
: Were you surprised by anything you found while writing the book?
ML: I was surprised to discover that Hunter Holmes McGuire, Jackson’s chief physician and friend, stepped out of the room before the general died. McGuire’s account of Jackson’s final moments are the most cited source for documentation of his last words, and yet McGuire admits in an early letter to Jed Hotchkiss that he wasn’t actually in the room at the time and never heard Jackson say the words.
: What do you think of the medical care Jackson received at the time?
ML: It was the standard of care for the time. It’s easy to look back and criticize what we realize today were misguided and even harmful treatments, but the 1860s were still at the end of the medical “Dark Ages” in the sense of scientific knowledge. The germ theory had yet to be advanced, so the physicians of the time did not have a grasp of how diseases were transmitted, and consequently did not have an appreciation of the need for sterile technique. Because the germ theory did not exist, neither did antibiotics exist to kill the disease-causing bacteria. Since the physicians had a basic misunderstanding of the science behind disease, they also had a misunderstanding of how to treat disease. There were, however, some success stories at the time. For example, morphine was used successfully to treat pain, quinine was used to treat malaria, and anesthetic was used to perform surgery. Some of Jackson’s care was no doubt detrimental to his condition, but the physicians did the best they could with what they knew at the time. I’m sure a hundred years from now future physicians will look back on what we do today and think some of it as being archaic.
: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?
ML: Sorting through the various first person accounts of the event and determining which ones appeared to be the most accurate representation of the facts. This was made more difficult because some of the details in the accounts were contradictory, even when written by the same person many years apart. Interpreting history is not an exact science and making decisions on which details to accept and which to reject is not an easy task when the event happened 150 years ago.
: Did you come away with any new perspectives or opinions of Stonewall Jackson?
ML: I always knew Jackson was a religious individual, but until writing the book, I did not have an appreciation for the depth of his religious convictions. His faith seemed to pervade every fiber of his being. Although he seemed to approach devotion to God as his personal duty, his duty as a soldier seemed to take precedence over his deeply religious convictions once the fighting began. He could turn from being a pious, merciful human being one second to being a brutal, merciless soldier the next. His personality was a remarkable litany of contrasts.
: Why do you think the events in your book are so misunderstood?
ML: I think, in part, because in the 150 years since the event, there have been some contradictory accounts published in various books and magazines. Jackson didn’t survive the ordeal, so we have had to rely on others to provide the details and some of those individuals may have embellished the facts and their involvement in the event for their own benefit. Also, many interpretations and retellings of the event have relied on only one or two accounts, which in turn, can lead to a misunderstanding of what actually occurred.
: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.
ML: You're welcome.