May 1, 2013
Blame The Full Moon For Stonewall Jackson’s Death
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Astronomers are looking to the moon to try and understand why Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was gunned down by his own troops during the Civil War.
On May 2, 1863, Jackson was mistakenly shot and killed by his own troops two months before the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians have debated for 150 years how the soldiers of the 18th North Carolina regiment could not recognize their general. Don Olson of Texas State University and Laurie E. Jasinski, Texas State graduate and editor of The Handbook of Texas Music, Second Edition, decided to use astronomy to get down to the bottom of it.
A full moon allowed the soldiers to fight through the night, according to eyewitness accounts such as the one from Confederate Captain William Fitzhugh Randolph.
"The moon was shining very brightly, rendering all objects in our immediate vicinity distinct," Randolph wrote in The Confederate Veteran in December 1903. "The moon poured a flood of light upon the wide, open turnpike,"
During the battle, Jackson rode ahead to scout out possible routes that could be used between the Union army and the fords and pontoon bridges. After they returned from their reconnaissance at about 9:00 p.m., a Confederate officer regiment spotted them through the trees by the moonlight and ordered his men to open fire. Jackson was then wounded by three bullets - two in his left arm and one in his right wrist.
Olson and Jasinski used detailed battle maps and astronomical calculations to determine how Jackson's own troops mistook him for someone else. They determined that the 18th North Carolina was looking to the southeast, directly toward the rising moon, which silhouetted Jackson and his officers.
"When you tell people it was a bright moonlit night, they think it makes it easier to see. What we are finding is that the 18th North Carolina was looking directly toward the direction of the moon as Stonewall Jackson and his party came riding back," Olson said. "They would see the riders only as dark silhouettes. Now, 150 years later, we can explain why they didn't recognize this famous Confederate general. Our astronomical analysis partially absolves the 18th North Carolina from blame for the wounding of Jackson."