There is in a secluded setting behind historic Ellwood Manor at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park a low stone monument that marks the spot where Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's amputated left arm is supposedly buried.
But is it really there?
For someone the stature of General Jackson, considered by many a brilliant strategist, the simple stone seems an afterthought. And, actually, it was, having been placed there some 40 years after the general was shot down by his own troops in a case of mistaken identity that had crippling effects on the Confederate Army. The marker was placed there in 1903 by Capt. James Power Smith, who had served as Gen. Jackson's aide de camp.
The question as to whether the arm really is somewhere beneath that stone monument is one that comes to more than a few visitors to the site. The marker is the only one standing in the Jones family cemetery, which lies about 300 yards from Ellwood Manor, the hub of a plantation with roots in the 18th century and which found itself in the middle of the Wilderness Battlefield during the Civil War. Fenced in, shaded by a stand of large trees and surrounded by corn fields, the cemetery seemingly lacks the dignity one might extend to Stonewall Jackson.
The fatal wounding of Gen. Jackson on May 2, 1863, is one of the most infamous cases of "friendly fire" in U.S. military history. The general and a small party were riding along the Old Mountain Road near Chancellorsville to scout the front lines. However, Confederate forces that heard his approach assumed Union troops were trying to attack and fired into the woods.
Private David Kyle, who was serving as Gen. Jackson's guide through the woods, later described the incident:
"We went down that old Mountain road some four hundred yards when we came in hearing of the Federals....We stayed there I should judge from two to four minutes when the Gen Jackson Turned his horse around and started back up the road we had come down....When we were about halfway back...he turned his horse head toward the south and facing the front of our own line of Battle he started to leave the old Mountain road and just as his horses front feet had cleared the edge of the road while his hind feet was still on the edge of the bank there was a single shot fired...in an instant it was taken up and...a volley as if from a regiment was fired."
Capt. Smith, who rode up to the general moments after he was wounded, also recounted the incident, in October 1886, for The Century Magazine.
As he rode near to the Confederate troops just placed in position, and ignorant that he was in the front, the left company began firing to the front, and two of his party fell from their saddles—Capt. Boswell of the Engineers, and Sergeant Cunliffe of the Signal Corps. Spurring his horse across the road to his right, he was met by a second volley from the right company of Pender's North Carolina Brigade.
Under this volley, when not two rods from the troops, the general received three balls at the same instant. One penetrated the palm of his right hand and was cut out that night from the back of his hand. A second passed around the wrist of the left arm and out through the left hand. But a third ball passed through the left arm halfway from shoulder to elbow. The large bone of the upper arm was splintered to the elbow-joint, and the wound bled freely.
His horse turned quickly from the fire, through the thick bushes, which swept the cap from the general's head, and scratched his forehead, leaving drops of blood to stain his face. As he lost hold upon the bridle-rein, he reeled from the saddle, and was caught by the arms of Captain Milbourne of the Signal Corps. Laid upon the ground, there came at once to his succor, General A. P. Hill and members of his staff.
John Hennessy, the National Park Service's chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, says doctors who treated the general's wounds had little choice but to amputate the arm.
"At the time, of course, medical practice rightly deemed that the best treatment for most wounds of that nature was removal," Mr. Hennessy explained. "And so his arm was removed just below the left shoulder. The operation was done at a field hospital. In fact, we just located generally where that field hospital was, about a half-a mile east of Ellwood."
As was common practice during the Civil War, the general's arm was placed outside the hospital tent, where Beverly Tucker Lacy, the chaplin for the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, found it, the historian continued.
“The focus was on the living part of Jackson and the removed part of Jackson, his arm, was wrapped in some sort of a towel and laid by the door of the tent in which the operation had taken place," Mr. Hennessy said. "Now Beverly Tucker Lacy ... he came to see Jackson the following morning, spotted the arm at the entrance to the tent, and decided that even this fractional piece of Jackson deserved an honorable and Christian burial, and so he picked it up and, pondering his options, of course his mind settled on his brother’s house, which is Ellwood, and Beverly Tucker Lacy trucked the half-mile across the fields to the family cemetery at Ellwood, and buried the arm in the family cemetery."
But is it still there? While there are stories about the limb being disturbed and reburied, Mr. Hennessy doesn't doubt that it remains in the family cemetery.
“There’s not really any doubt about that," he maintains. "But it’s been the subject of curiosity for sure, and questioning, more recently, some people theorizing that it’s not there in fact. But we think it is and the circumstances that suggest that are in my view pretty strong.”
And yet, the fate of the arm remains a conversation starter.
“I think that of all the sites that we manage in our park -- and of course there are hundreds and hundreds of them, four major battlefields -- Jackson’s arm is probably the most curious of them all," the chief historian said. "Visitors wrinkle their noses and their eyebrows when they hear about it, they want to see the place. Before Ellwood was open to the public, virtually every time I went back there there was a visitor who had managed to find his way or her way back there to see, they wanted to see the arm.
“.. The idea that the arm isn’t there, is a pretty recent phenomenon. It is one of those Internet phenomenons, at least where I encountered it. There’s no reason to believe that it’s not there. But it has had an interesting history and a lot of legend and stories surrounding it over the years.”
One story that Mr. Hennessy says is true is that Union soldiers, when they captured Ellwood, did indeed dig up the limb.
"The Union army appeared on the Wilderness Battlefield the following year (1864), and the Wilderness Battlefield encompasses Lacy’s house, plantation, and the family burial ground where the arm was buried," he notes. "And we have at least two accounts that make reference to the arm being dug up at the time. One of them says actually all of Jackson was dug up. But that clearly isn’t true because he wasn’t there.
"The other one says fairly clearly that Jackson’s arm was dug up. Now, we can’t tell whether the person who wrote this saw the arm, or how close he was, he was probably a couple hundred yards away, but clearly there was knowledge in the Union Army that Jackson’s arm was there at the time," said Mr. Hennessy. "The one man said it was dug up and reburied. If it was reburied in the same place we have no idea. But, it was the most famous appendage in America at that time and certainly remains one of the most famous today.”
There has been mention of a 1921 incident where the U.S. Marine Corps supposedly was conducting training maneuvers in the area adjacent to Ellwood, and that General Smedley Butler, the Marine Corps commandant, didn’t believe the general's arm was buried there and so ordered some Marines to dig around the marker. They supposedly found the arm and, as the story goes, Gen. Butler had it placed in a metal box and reburied.
But Mr. Hennessy has not found anything to substantiate that account.
“The story comes from an oral tradition passed down among the family who owned Ellwood at the time, a family named Jones. And so, for years that was all kind of generally accepted, but we’ve looked pretty hard at that story and done some archaeology back in the late '90s at the site, and there’s a lot about that story that’s worth questioning," he said.
“First off, the disturbance of human remains, be it an arm or an entire body, is generally not something, especially those of a soldier, is not something that Marines routinely engage in, and certainly not the commandant of the Marine Corps," said Mr. Hennessy. "Smedley Butler was a pretty prominent guy. Nobody wrote it about the time, that this had happened. In fact, there was other discussion about Butler’s interest in the arm site and in fact President Warren Harding went over and his wife went over and visited the arm site as well, but nobody references it being dug up at the time.
“And when we did archaeology at the site when it became apparent we were going to open it to the public we were a little bit worried that the site might be disturbed, so we wanted to locate the arm and protect it, put an apron over it. And the archaeologists found that there was no evidence of any digging, at least no deep digging in the area of the monument."
That the archaeologists couldn't find any signs of digging in the area of the monument also spurs questions about whether the arm is indeed in the cemetery, but Mr. Hennessy dismisses them.
“Now, does that mean that Jackson’s arm isn’t there? No, not at all," he said. "We don’t know exactly what the man who put the monument up knew and what his intentions were at the time, whether he was trying to mark precisely the location of the arm or just indicated that the arm was generally in the cemetery. We think probably the latter. So, there’s no reason to believe that Jackson’s arm isn’t there.
"There’s every reason to believe that the monument that marks Jackson’s arm was never intended to mark the precise site of the burial," added the historian. "We can’t say that for sure, but the same man erected 10 other markers in the area in 1903 and many of them are very approximate in their locations. It may very well be that this one is too.
“So, my sense is that the arm was never dug up. It certainly was not reburied in the box near the marker, there’s no question about that. We would have found that, which tells me that very likely the story did not happen.”
While the Park Service performed some archaeological work in the cemetery in the late 1990s, those efforts did not involve ground-penetrating radar.
"We did an excavation down to sterile soil and there was no indication of the arm in the immediate area of the marker. Now, we have not done any kind of GPR -- ground-penetrating radar -- study of the cemetery at large. There are at least 21 known burials in there, and it would probably be impossible to locate the burial shaft of an arm with all the disturbance and such that’s gone on in there," said Mr. Hennessy.
“You know, I’m not sure how important it is that we do that, either. There’s no scandal here. Everything that we know suggests that the arm is buried there. If it’s buried five feet in this direction or ten feet in that direction I’m not sure that that much matters I guess in people’s mind’s eye," he said. "Although, I will say almost everybody who comes out there, or many of the people who come out there at least, when they get out there and they see the marker, they often say to me, ‘Well, is that all there is?’
“I’m not sure what their expectations are when they come out there, whether they’d like to see the arm hanging off the marker or something of that sort, but yeah, that’s all their is, the marker.”
Adding credence to the belief that the arm is indeed somewhere in the small cemetery is that the monument was placed by Capt. Smith, adds Mr. Hennessy.
"If there’s anyone alive in 1903 who might have known where Jackson’s arm was specifically buried, James Power Smith was probably the man. And he also knew Beverly Tucker Lacy well," the historian pointed out. "But we don’t know whether he intended to mark it specifically. It’s possible he mis-marked it intentionally so people wouldn’t go dig it up as the Yankees had done during the war."
As to why the general's arm wasn't reburied with his body when he died from his wounds is a question Mr. Hennessy can't so easily answer.
“I’ve never seen any conversation about that. I don’t know that there was any thought given to that. The arm was already buried, and probably by then, by the time Jackson himself died, in pretty offensive shape I would imagine, having been in the ground for ten days, so it’s just something that didn’t occur," he said. "Jackson’s spirit resided in his body, not in his arm, and I think that most people kind of viewed the arm as an inanimate object, if you will, by that time that had been removed from him. Albeit a significant one."
Traveler postscript: According to Mr. Hennessy, "Jackson is one of the few American, major American figures, who has more than one grave. He now actually has three graves. One for his arm, one for the rest of him, which resides in Lexington, Virginia, but also a third grave where he was buried on an interim basis for several years before his current gravesite was prepared. And that grave, in the Lexington cemetery in Virginia, is still marked and preserved as the former grave of Stonewall Jackson. So I don’t know anybody who has three graves associated with them. I think the most most of us can aspire to is maybe one, if we’re lucky."