Astronomers Solve 'Stonewall' Jackson Mystery

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Thanks to astronomy, the 19th century mystery surrounding the death of Confederate general "Stonewall" Jackson during the Civil War may finally be solved.

Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was a major figure in the Civil War, second in command to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, when he was shot by friendly fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Shortly after that battle in northeastern Virginia, Jackson died of his wounds, leaving the Confederate army without one of its boldest military strategists just two months before the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.

But exactly how Jackson's own troops could have mistaken him for the enemy has been unexplained until now. [Astronomy Detectives Solve Civil War Mystery (Photos)]

Firsthand accounts of the Chancellorsville battle describe how Jackson kept his troops fighting into the night — a rarity at the time. That same day he had accomplished a major victory, squashing the Union's Twelfth Corps in a famous "flank attack." When the sun set that night and the sky darkened, Jackson pressed on, continuing the fighting by moonlight. It was then that a Confederate officer on the left wing of the 18th North Carolina regiment spotted Jackson and a group of riders coming toward him.

Mistaking his commander for advancing enemies, Major John Barry ordered his troops to fire. Jackson was hit with bullets in his right wrist and left arm, which had to be amputated, and died of complications from pneumonia eight days later.

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His death has been described as a blow of bad luck, and Barry reportedly "felt extreme guilt over giving the command to fire," according to historian James Gillispie's book "Cape Fear Confederates" (McFarland, 2012).

But now, astronomers say they know why Barry couldn't identify his commander — it's all because of the moon. Astronomer Don Olson of Texas State University and Laurie E. Jasinski, a researcher and editor at the Texas State Historical Association, report their findings in the May 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Space sleuths

"I remembered reading long ago that Stonewall Jackson was wounded by 'friendly fire' and that it happened at night," Olson told SPACE.com in an email. Olson decided to pursue the mystery on the occasion of the battle's 150th anniversary.