There were only a few hours of daylight left, and his men had been marching all day. But the officer had carefully maneuvered his regiments into position to launch one of the greatest assaults of the Civil War.
As the minutes ticked by, he asked a subordinate: “Are you ready?” Yes, came the reply.
“You can go forward, then.”
Here, two miles from a crossroads mansion called Chancellorsville, which would give this battle its name, Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and the Confederate States of America stood at the pinnacle of triumph.
Jackson’s forces would shortly sweep through woods, routing surprised Union soldiers at their dinner fires and culminating in a resounding victory that seemed to bring the South within reach of independence.
The battle would elevate the already-famous Jackson to mythical status and place him among the ranks of history’s best military leaders.
His death eight days later would cripple the Confederacy, and like Abraham Lincoln’s, would provide one of the most wrenching scenes of the Civil War.
And his funeral would become the largest public gathering in the South during the conflict. “With impious hearts we inveighed against the will of God in the destruction of our idol,” Richmond memoirist Sally Putnam wrote.
Orphaned as a child, Jackson had grown to become like a zealous Old Testament warrior, biographers have said, leading an army of Christian soldiers in defense not necessarily of slavery, but of piety.
He is the biblical Joshua slaying the Amalekites in the Book of Exodus.
But catastrophe awaited Jackson — and the Confederacy — in the dense woods up ahead that night. As the attack went forward, and the Union soldiers fled from the screaming rebels, the moon rose over the forest.
Jackson and an entourage rode out between the lines to reconnoiter. Picking his way back in the darkness, he surprised a jittery Southern infantry regiment that mistook the group for enemy horsemen.
In what is perhaps the best-known friendly-fire episode in American history, the rebel soldiers unleashed a volley at their famous commander, wounding him grievously in the left arm.
In a harrowing scene, Jackson was caught on a plunging horse in no-man’s land as the Confederate and Union soldiers, now both alarmed, fired on each other with muskets and cannon. He was helped to safety, but only after stretcher bearers dropped him.
His left arm was amputated at the shoulder and he was taken to a rear area, where he briefly rallied.
But eight days later, after his stricken wife sang him hymns and brought him his newborn daughter for a last visit, he died of pneumonia, murmuring battlefield orders in his delirium.