May 21013 marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant events of the Civil War, the accidental wounding and subsequent death of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Jackson was accidently shot in the arm on the evening of May 2, 1863 by members of a North Carolina regiment. The effort to return him to safety was difficult due to darkness and incoming federal artillery fire, resulting in him being dropped from the stretcher that was carrying him.
Eventually Jackson stretcher bearers made it to a plantation where his left arm was amputated. Contrary to still popular myth, Jackson did not die from his injuries. In fact, his arm was healing as well as could be expected and at first he seemed to get stronger. But soon he was complaining of chest pains. He was then diagnosed with pneumonia which was untreatable in 1863 and was one of the war’s biggest causes of death. On May 10, 1863, Jackson died.
Since 1863 pneumonia has been the accepted cause of death of Jackson. However there are many reasons to question this. For one thing, Jackson was a hypochondriac whose diet consisted mainly of fruit and vegetables, which would have strengthen his body’s immune system. Also there is no record of him showing any outward signs of pneumonia prior the shooting. The room Jackson rested in was warm and dry, which normally does not promote the disease. Furthermore, there is the unanswered question of how he got pneumonia, though some have speculated that it may have come from sleeping on cold, wet ground.
Adding to the mystery is that no autopsy was performed and that the original case notes were lost shortly after Jackson’s death. Consequently, all we have to go today is recollections from the doctor and others who were with Jackson.
In 1975 when a colleague Dr. Beverly C. Smith told him that Jackson’s death “was the result of an embolus (a clot) from the vein at the amputation site lodging in his lung.” Smith “tried to collect everything that Jackson said and those in his attendance have recorded in an attempt to make a clinical study from a historical recitation.” He then sent an essay to “ten friends of mine–surgeons in charge of departments in Medical Schools. It elicited a surprising amount of interest and discussion.”
Dr. Smith shared his response in the summer 1975 issue of the VMI Alumni Review. Most of those he asked felt that “Jackson had some intra-abdominal pathology–i.e. below his diaphragm which either precipitated or was concomitant with his pulmonary pathology which might have been terminal and not primary. “ However, “the opinions were not unanimous and concerned his gall bladder, duodenum, pancreas and physiology of renal dysfunction associated with trauma (acute kidney pathology).” Dr. Smith did rule out medical negligence saying that everything that could have been done for the general at the time was done.
However the debate goes on. In a recent Associated Press story, University of Maryland surgeon and professor Joseph DuBose opined that Jackson most likely died of pneumonia. The doctor was quoted saying “If [Jackson] had been dropped and had a pulmonary contusion, or bruise of the lung, it creates an area of the lung that doesn’t clear secretions real well, and it can be a focus that pneumonia can start in.” According to Dr. DuBose, pneumonia still occurs in 6% of all modern combat causalities with a higher percentage for amputees.
Regardless of the cause of death, the loss of Jackson was one that the South never recovered from.