The collaboration between Robert E Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson changed the course of the American Civil War. We look back at one of history’s great military partnerships.

It is no exaggeration to say that the American Civil War would probably have ended in the summer of 1862 but for the appointment of Robert E Lee to the command of what he promptly renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. It is hardly less of an exaggeration to say that he would probably have failed to turn the war around in the way that he did without the man he later dubbed ‘my right arm’.

The War was once described by Bruce Catton, perhaps its greatest historian, as essentially a conflict between two men who became the personifications of their respective causes: Abraham Lincoln and Robert E Lee. In so far as there is truth in that, each may be said to have achieved their greatest triumphs when in harness with a partner who shared their vision and brilliance.

In the case of Lincoln, it was the partnership with Ulysses Simpson Grant. In the case of Lee, it was the partnership with Thomas Jonathan Jackson. The collaboration between Lee and Jackson worked for a number of reasons.

Jackson is accidentally shot by his own men while on reconnaissance at Chancellorsville on the night of 2/3 May 1863.

At heart, both men regretted the secession of the Southern states and fought primarily for their home state, Virginia, rather than for the Confederacy. Indeed, when the war broke out, Lee was actually offered overall command of the Union forces, turning it down only because he could not bear to draw the sword on the people of his own state.

It was Jackson’s personal knowledge of western Virginia that led Lee to give him his first command, soon after the outbreak of war, defending the Confederacy’s most northerly outpost at Harper’s Ferry.

Robert E Lee (1807-1870)

There were other similarities between the two men. Both owned a small number of slaves, and fought to defend a society based on slavery, but were uneasy about the morality of the institution.

In addition, both believed that their lives were shaped by God’s will, even if Lee’s faith lacked the fanatical intensity of his colleague’s.

Above all, although reluctant to see their country divided by war, once the conflict had begun, both men put their trust in an offensive style of warfare, aimed at hitting the enemy as hard as possible.

Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson

It was their shared understanding of this aggressive approach that brought Lee and Jackson to trust and rely on each other. Each man recognised in the other a willingness to take risks, to catch the enemy off guard, and relentlessly to push home any advantage.

To have remained on the defensive would have allowed the Union to deploy its overwhelming power and slowly squeeze the South to death by blockade and steady advance.

Spectacular battlefield victories – ideally on enemy soil – might have broken the North’s will to carry on. The fact that, in the event, they did not, does not alter the accuracy of the strategic insight.

 

This is an extract from a 15-page special feature on Lee and Jackson’s great military partnership. Get the full story in issue 89 of Military History Monthly.

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