The story is familiar to many. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson lies dying in an outbuilding near Guiney Station, Virginia. After being wounded in a friendly fire accident at the battle of Chancellorsville on May 2,1863, Jackson survives amputation of his left arm only to develop a deadly pneumonia four days later. With his wife, Anna, and members of his staff gathered near his bed, Jackson drifts in and out of delirium, muttering disconnected words and sentences. Then, suddenly and clearly, Jackson utters his famous last words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” A short time later that day, May 10, 1863, Jackson breathes his last.
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Although Jackson’s final words have become legendary, the exact phrasing of his statement is not without some controversy. In 1888, a large obelisk-style monument was placed on the Chancellorsville battlefield to commemorate the approximate location of Jackson’s wounding. His “last words” are engraved on one side: “Let us pass over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Furthermore, in the first authorized biography of Stonewall Jackson, Life and Campaigns of Lieut-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson (1866), author Robert L. Dabney also quotes Jackson as saying: “Let us pass over the river….”
In contrast to Dabney’s book, a slightly earlier biography by John Esten Cooke, Stonewall Jackson: A Military Biography (1866), documents Jackson’s last words as being “Let us cross over the river….”
So, did Jackson “cross” or “pass” over the river? The answer is not entirely clear. Dabney’s apparent source for the quote was Anna Jackson, who provided the author with a detailed account of the event. In her narrative, Anna states her husband’s last audible words were: “Let us pass over the river….” As she was likely in the closest proximity to Jackson when he made the statement, her testimony carries considerable weight. But Anna would later use the phrase “Let us cross over the river…” when recounting the event in her own two books, the Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (1892) and Memoirs of Stonewall Jackson by his Widow Mary Anna Jackson (1895).
Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, Jackson’s chief physician, is credited with writing the most famous and eloquent description of the general’s final moments. McGuire’s account – the most oft-cited source of Jackson’s last words – records the general as saying “Let us cross over the river….” Complicating the matter, however, is the fact that McGuire admits in an early handwritten account that he was not actually present at the time Jackson uttered the words.
Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly and with an expression as if of relief, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees “; and then, without pain or the least struggle, his spirit passed from earth to the God who gave it.
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– Hunter Holmes McGuire
On the other hand, the general’s meticulous aide-de-camp – Lieut. James Power Smith – was a witness to Jackson’s final moments. Smith wrote several post-war narratives, each time quoting Jackson as using the verb “cross.” Additionally, within one to two weeks of Jackson’s death, several period newspapers, including the Richmond Sentinel, the Richmond Daily Dispatch, and the Central Presbyterian, reported Jackson’s final words as being: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
Despite the discrepancy in the exact wording, several primary accounts confirm the fact that Jackson did voice some form of the phrase before he died. Although we may never know with certainty whether he actually used the word “pass” or “cross,” the expression “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees” has become the most widely accepted version of Stonewall Jackson’s last words.