The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson

When Hunter Holmes McGuire, MD, reported for duty as a Confederate
surgeon, a famous Rebel general protested that the “sawbones” was too
young to practice military medicine. The physician was 26 years old.

Less than a year later, the general was confident enough in McGuire to
permit him to surgically remove his bullet-shattered arm.

“I told him that amputation would probably be required, and asked
if it was found necessary whether it should be done at once,” McGuire
wrote after the Civil War. “He replied promptly, “Yes, certainly. Dr.
McGuire, do for me whatever you think best.”

  Jackson underwent his amputation and died of pneumonia 8 days later.
  Jackson underwent his amputation
and died of pneumonia 8 days later.
  © 2010

The general was Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, a
Virginian like McGuire.

Jackson lost his limb to friendly fire at the Battle of
Chancellorsville, Va. on May 2, 1863. He died of pneumonia 8 days later.

McGuire survived America’s bloodiest war. Returning to his native
state, he became an educator and founder of schools that ultimately became
parts of the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, the state capital. A
bronze likeness of McGuire, seated in a chair, is on the capitol grounds. The
nearby Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center is named
for him.

Firsthand account

McGuire’s account of Jackson’s amputation was published in the
Southern Historical Society Papers in 1886. McGuire, from Winchester, joined
the Confederate army shortly after the Civil War began in 1861.

He enlisted as an infantry private. But McGuire was soon transferred to
the medical branch and he ended up medical director of Jackson’s storied

Jackson’s troops, part of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of
Northern Virginia, played a key role in the Confederate victory at
Chancellorsville, a bloody, protracted fight that began on May 1 and did not
end until May 6.

After dark on May 2, Jackson and a small entourage, all on horseback,
scouted ahead of the general’s Rebel troops. That afternoon,
Jackson’s corps had driven a Union corps back and seemed poised to wipe
out the blue clad soldiers.

Multiple injuries

As the Jackson party returned, some Confederate infantrymen mistook them
for Union cavalry and opened fire. Jackson was shot twice in the left arm and
once in his right hand.

The general was placed on a litter and hurried away. Union fire hit one
of the stretcher bearers; he fell and Jackson tumbled to the ground.

Another soldier took the man’s place. After they carried Jackson a
short distance, McGuire arrived in a horse-drawn ambulance.

“I knelt down by him and said, ‘I hope you are not badly hurt,
General,’” the surgeon recalled. “He replied very calmly but
feebly, ‘I am badly injured, doctor; I fear I am dying.’ After a
pause he continued, ‘I am glad you have come. I think the wound in my
shoulder is still bleeding.’ His clothes were saturated with blood, and
hemorrhage was still going on from the wound. Compression of the artery with
the finger arrested it until, lights being procured from the ambulance, the
handkerchief [covering the shoulder wound], which had slipped a little, was

A blessing

Jackson shared the ambulance with his chief of artillery, a colonel who
had suffered a leg wound. At a field hospital, Jackson “was placed in bed,
covered with blankets, and another drink of whiskey and water given him,”
McGuire wrote. “Two hours and a half elapsed before sufficient reaction
took place to warrant an examination. At two o’clock, Sunday morning [May
3], Surgeons Black, Walls and Coleman being present, I informed him that
chloroform would be given him, and his wounds examined.”

“…As he began to feel [the chloroform’s] … effects, and
its relief to the pain he was suffering, he exclaimed: ‘What an infinite
blessing,’ and continued to repeat the word ‘blessing,’ until he
became insensible. The round ball (such as is used for the smooth-bore
Springfield musket), which had lodged under the skin upon the back of his right
hand, was extracted first. It had entered the palm about the middle of the
hand, and had fractured two of the bones.”

He added, “The left arm was then amputated about two inches below
the shoulder, very rapidly and with slight loss of blood, the ordinary circular
operation having been made. There were two wounds in his arm. The first and
most serious was about three inches below the shoulder-joint, the ball dividing
the main artery and fracturing the bone. The second was several inches in
length; a ball having entered the outside of the forearm, an inch below the
elbow, came out upon the opposite side just above the wrist.

“Throughout the whole of the operation, and until all the dressings
were applied, he continued insensible. Two or three slight wounds of the skin
of his face, received from the branches of trees when his horse dashed through
the woods, were dressed simply with isinglass plaster.”

A note from Lee

Jackson “slept for several hours,” awoke pain-free “and
expressed himself sanguine of recovery,” according to McGuire. The general
sent for his wife; a captain read him a note from Lee.

“I cannot express my regret at the occurrence,” McGuire quoted
from the message. “Could I have directed events, I should have chosen, for
the good of the country, to have been disabled in your stead. I congratulate
you upon the victory, which is due to your skill and energy.” Jackson
replied, “General Lee should give the praise to God.”

On the mend

Meanwhile, the fighting continued. “…The battle was raging
fearfully, and the sound of the cannon and musketry could be distinctly heard
at the hospital,” McGuire wrote. Jackson “directed all of his
attendants, except [his aide] Captain [James] Smith, to return to the
battlefield and attend to their different duties.”

  Jackson, a religious man, said he always desired to die on Sunday, McGuire recalled.
  Jackson, a religious man, said he
always desired to die on Sunday, McGuire recalled.
  © 2010
P Walker

Lee, fearing Union troops might capture Jackson, ordered McGuire to move
the general to nearby Guinea Station, Va. as soon as he was able to travel.
They left on May 5.

Comfortably lodged in a small wood frame house, Jackson seemed to be on
the mend.

“Union by the first intention had taken place to some extent in the
stump, and the rest of the surface of the wound exposed was covered with
healthy granulations,” McGuire wrote.

“The wound in his hand gave him little pain, and the discharge was
healthy. Simple lint and water dressings were used, both for the stump and
hand, and upon the palm of the latter a light, short splint was applied to
assist in keeping at rest the fragments of the second and third metacarpal
bones. He expressed great satisfaction when told that his wounds were healing,
and asked if I could tell from their appearance how long he would probably be
kept from the field. Conversing with Captain Smith a few moments afterwards, he
alluded to his injuries, and said, ‘Many would regard them as a great
misfortune; I regard them as one of the blessings of my life.’

“Captain Smith replied: ‘All things work together for good to
those that love God.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘that’s it,
that’s it.’”

Worsened condition

Gradually Jackson’s condition worsened. “An examination
disclosed pleuro-pneumonia of the right side,” McGuire wrote.

Jackson, a devout Southern Presbyterian, died on May 10, a Sunday, after
enjoying what turned out to be his last visit with his wife and child.

“It is the Lord’s Day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always
desired to die on Sunday,” McGuire quoted the general.

Jackson was buried in Lexington, Va. where he had been a professor at
the Virginia Military Institute before the Civil War. His arm was interred in a
family cemetery near where the limb was amputated. The cemetery and tiny
tombstone inscribed “Arm of Stonewall Jackson May 3, 1863,” are part
of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

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