The Civil War took a new step in the spring of 1863 as the full moon played a rule in the death of friendly fire after Confederate infantrymen mistook General Stonewall Jackson for the enemy and opened fire.
For the most part, it’s an intriguing concept put forth by astronomer Don Olson and researcher Laurie E. Jasinski from Texas State University in a study appearing in this month’s issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.
They say that when the men of the 18th North Carolina Infantry Regiment fired upon Jackson, the whitish lunar light likely obscured the target.
They didn’t know it was him.
In other words, they say, a moon phase is partly responsible for the molding of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as President Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address.
The two reconstructed the scene of the shooting using moon phases and maps, and published the results 150 years after the incident.
Moonlight or no?
History seems divided on whether or not the moon shone bright that night, the researchers say, but they back up their hypothesis with recorded anecdotal accounts.
“The Moon was shining very brightly, rendering all objects in our immediate vicinity distinct…,” one confederate captain wrote years later. “The Moon poured a flood of light upon the wide, open turnpike.”
Jackson rode out with a party of officers on a scouting mission to see if the Confederate Army could find a way to cut off Union Army troops, according to the National Park Service, which cares for the nation’s Civil War battlegrounds.
They were shot as they returned.
Olson and Jasinski say that a Confederate officer spotted them in the moonlight and ordered his men to open fire.
Jackson was wounded in his left arm, which had to be amputated, according to the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught.
He died from complications on May 10, 1863.
His arm was buried separate from the rest of his body.
The South went on to win the Battle of Chancellorsville, but without Jackson, took a decisive blow in July 1863 at the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, often thought of as the turning point of the war.