The Loh Down On Science

How friendly fire killed Civil War General Stonewall Jackson

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Red arrow: Stonewall Jackson's position. Black arrow: direction of rising moon.

Finally—the answer to a long-standing Civil War mystery!

This is Sandra Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

In 1863, Southern general Stonewall Jackson was shot in the arm during the Battle of Chancellorsville.  His arm was amputated, but he died of complications a week later.  How he could have been shot by his own men has been a mystery ever since.

Enter astronomer and history buff Don Olson of Texas State University.  He says the fatal shooting can be blamed on the moon.  

Since Jackson was shot at 9 p.m., Olson used astronomical software to calculate the moon’s exact position and lunar phase at the time.  Then he and historian Laurie Jasinsky looked at detailed battle maps from Chancellorsville.  They pinpointed the positions of all the soldiers at the time of the shooting.  

Turns out, as Jackson returned from a reconnaissance mission, he would have been brightly backlit by the rising moon. Unable to see him clearly, his soldiers shot him as he approached. 

Call it a case of bad moonlighting. And that’s not just whistling Dixie.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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