Military-Related Deaths for the Week of May 6-12

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Military-Related Deaths for the Week of May 6-12

Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Lt. Gen., CSA
Photograph by Nathaniel Routzahn, taken November 1, 1862
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

This Week in Military History

May 10, 1863 – Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Lt. Gen., CSA; died of pneumonia from friendly fire wounds, age 39

He is one of the most iconic Southern commanders of the War Between the States, and his death was a severe morale blow to the Confederate cause.

He was born Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). Both of his parents died when he was still very young, and he was literally "farmed-out" to an uncle who ran a farm. Tom did all the work asked of him. He even taught one of his uncle's slaves how to read (which was against the law at the time). Jackson did not attend school regularly, and was basically self-taught.

In 1842, Jackson was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. Because of his inadequate schooling, he had difficulty with the entrance examinations and began his studies at the bottom of his class. Displaying a dogged determination that was to characterize his life, he became one of the hardest working cadets in the academy, and moved steadily up the academic rankings. Jackson graduated 17th out of 59 students in the Class of 1846. It was said by his peers that if he had stayed there another year, he would have graduated first.

Jackson served in the Mexican-American War, participating in the final assault on Mexico City. He did not get along well with his commanding officers. In 1851 Jackson was assigned to a teaching position at the newly created Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He was not well liked as a teacher, often memorizing portions of the textbook, and lecturing verbatim. If a student approached him after class for clarification, Jackson would parrot the same information; if a student returned a second time, Jackson viewed his action as insubordinate.

When the "Great Unpleasantness" opened, Jackson was assigned to train a number of newly-recruited Virginia regiments. Jackson's units participated in every major battle of the first 2 ½ years of the war in the East, including: 1st and 2nd Manassas (Bull Run), the Shenandoah Valley campaign, the Peninsular campaign, Sharpsburg (Antietam), Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.

Jackson won his cognomen at 1st Manassas, when his brigade reinforced other Rebel forces holding Henry House Hill against strong Federal assaults. Fellow Confederate General Bernard Bee said to his men, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall…Rally to the Virginians!" There is some controversy that Bee's comment was negative. However, we will never know because almost immediately after uttering the phrase, Bee was struck and killed by Union fire. Thereafter, Thomas Jonathan Jackson was known as "Stonewall" Jackson, and the men of his command became the "Stonewall Brigade." [The "Stonewall Brigade" is still part of the modern U.S. Army, now known as the 116th Infantry Combat Brigade Team. Its lineage is traced through the 5th Virginia Infantry Regiment.]

On May 2, at the Chancellorsville fight, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee took a huge chance to beat the Union forces of Gen. Joe Hooker. Lee ordered Jackson's brigade to make a flank march to attack the Federal right flank. The attack worked spectacularly, causing the Union line to buckle. That evening, in the aftermath of the attack, Jackson and his staff were reconnoitering the ground formerly held by the Federals, when they were fired upon by North Carolina troops, severely wounding Jackson.

His left arm was amputated, and he began exhibiting classic symptoms of pneumonia. With the lack of medical knowledge of the day, Jackson's condition worsened. He died Sunday, May 10, 1863; in his delirium, he gave battle orders to imaginary generals. His last words were, "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees." Jackson had earlier expressed his contentment at dying on a Sunday.

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, USA; Photograph by Mathew Brady, c 1862
Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, USA
Photograph by Mathew Brady, c 1862

May 9, 1864 – John Sedgwick, Major General, USA; died of wounds from sniper fire, age 50

John Sedgwick was born in Cornwall, Connecticut in September, 1813. He spent a few years teaching, then enrolled at West Point, graduating in 1837 ranking 24th in a class of 50. Commissioned a 2nd lieutenant of artillery, he fought in the Mexican-American War and the Seminole Wars. Sedgwick later transferred to the cavalry, participating in Indian skirmishes in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and in the Mormon War.

Sedgwick was in the Washington Territory at the beginning of the "War of Northern Aggression," but soon was transferred back east to the main cockpits of battle. He saw action in the Peninsular campaign, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse.

On the second day of the fight at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Sedgwick's corps was probing skirmish lines ahead of the left flank of Confederate defenses and he was directing artillery placements. Confederate sharpshooters were about 1,000 yards away, and their shots caused members of his staff and artillerymen to duck for cover.

Sedgwick strode around in the open and was quoted as saying, "What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?" Although ashamed, his men continued to flinch and he said, "Why are you dodging like this? They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." [The second sentence is usually quoted as his last words, but see below…]

He confronted one soldier for ducking, and the fellow told him he once dodged a cannon shell that would have taken off his head. The soldier finished his thought by saying, "I believe in dodging." The general laughed and replied, "All right, my man; return to your place." Almost immediately, the shrill, whistling sound of an incoming bullet ended with a thud. A Union general accompanying Sedgwick made a comment, and Sedgwick's face turned to him, and blood spurted from a hole in his face just below his left eye. He fell to the ground, already dead.

Sedgwick was the highest ranking Union officer to be killed by an enemy sniper during the War Between the States.

Midshipman Robert Heinlein, 1929 U.S. Naval Academy yearbook
Midshipman Robert Heinlein,
1929 U.S. Naval Academy yearbook

May 8, 1988 – Robert A. Heinlein, U.S. Navy officer, sci-fi author; died of heart failure, age 80

Robert A. Heinlein has been recognized as one of the Top Three science fiction writers of the developing years of the genre (the 1930s through the 1950s); the others were Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp.

Heinlein was born in July of 1907 in Butler, Missouri (family tradition states that a Heinlein had served in the American armed services since the War for Independence). He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929, and was assigned to the newly-commissioned aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), where he worked in radio communications. [His commanding officer on the "Lady Lex" was Ernest J. King, who would later become the Chief of Naval Operations during the 2nd World War.] Heinlein served on other vessels, until his discharge from the Navy because of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1934.

Heinlein tried working as a silver miner and selling real estate, but soon found his niche as a writer, mainly sci-fi. During WWII, he did aeronautical engineering for the Navy, recruiting fellow writers Asimov and de Camp to work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Heinlein decided on a new direction for his writing, described as political sci-fi.

This concept was probably cemented with the publication in 1959 of his novel "Starship Troopers." Heinlein completed the military sci-fi novel in a few weeks, after reading of liberal commentators urging the US government to suspend nuclear weapons testing. The novel depicted an homogenous, regimented future Earth society fighting against an alien society scorned as "Bugs." It also advanced the concept that only those who did government service – especially military veterans –were eligible to vote. Heinlein's concepts were described variously as "propaganda" or "fascist." The novel was turned into a board game by Avalon-Hill Company in 1976, and into a major motion picture in 1997, with 4 direct-to-DVD sequels. An animated series, a PC game, and a miniatures game were also spawned from Heinlein's work. [There is also a film reboot of SST in the works, said to be more closely based on the source material.]

Heinlein died May 8, 1988 from heart disease and emphysema, likely from his years of smoking. In addition to 4 Hugo Awards and four nominations for Nebula Awards, the Science Fiction Writers of America selected Heinlein as the organization's first Grand Master on 1974. He has an asteroid named for him, as well as a Martian crater. In 2001 the U.S. Naval Academy created the Robert A. Heinlein Chair In Aerospace Engineering.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.