Where Is General Stonewall Jackson's Arm Buried?
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There is in a secluded setting behind historic Ellwood Manor at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia a low stone monument that marks the spot where Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's left arm is supposedly buried. But is it really there? Was it ever there?
Stonewall Jackson was a military genius for the Confederate Arm, but how great he might have been, or how his tactical expertise might have altered the outcome of the war, was never known as he died in May 1863 10 days after being shot by “friendly fire” while scouting for Union lines.
In 1903, James Power Smith, who had been Stonewall Jackson’s aide-de-camp, had the monument erected in the family cemetery at Ellwood where the general’s arm supposedly was buried.
Traveler Editor Kurt Repanshek recently talked with John Hennessy, the National Park Service’s chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, about the final resting place for the general’s left arm.
Do you know any of the details behind the amputation and, how much of his arm was removed and why? And can you explain why did B. Tucker Lacy, the general’s chaplain, took it to Ellwood for burial?
Jackson was wounded in three places on the night of May 2, 1863. Two of them in his left arm, one in his upper arm and one in his forearm. At the time, of course, medical practice rightly deemed that the best treatment for most wounds of that nature was removal. 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.
“Of course, 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. Now Beverly Tucker Lacy was the chaplain of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia under Jackson’s command, and 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 trucked the half-mile across the fields to the family cemetery at Ellwood, and buried the arm in the family cemetery.
“There’s not really any doubt about that. And since that time the arm has had a little bit of an interesting history, not that it’s been moved around too much since then, 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.”
You said that his arm was placed outside the tent. Was that common practice, did they just basically discard the limbs?
Yeah, in fact, the fact that his was wrapped in anything rendered it somewhat remarkable and a mark of his distinction. Most arms and legs, you see these horrific descriptions of arms and legs piling up outside of field hospitals and such, and receiving no tender care whatsoever and ultimately being disposed of either by being burned or buried.
“But Jackson’s arm was at least wrapped, and so it was probably for that reason that Lacy recognized it for what it was.... Needless to say it received an exceptional amount of care and 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.
Is it safe to say that the story around the general’s arm, whether there’s a mystery there or not, is one of the more enduring stories or mysteries handed down from the Civil War?
“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. 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.
“Ellwood by the way is this magnificent kind of middling plantation built in the 18th Century. Unfortunately it’s overshadowed, its story is often overshadowed by the presence of this extremity of Jackson’s. And, so, visitors have sought it out for years, and interest in it has intensified since Ellwood opened and people can get back there much more easily then they ever could before.
“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.”
Now, during the Civil War weren’t there some efforts or some concerns that the Union forces might find the limb?
“The union forces did find the limb. Of course, the Union army appeared on the Wilderness Battlefield the following year, and the Wilderness Battlefield encompasses Lacy’s house, plantation, and the family burial ground where the arm was buried. And we have at least two accounts that make reference to the arm being dug up at the time. Both of them, well 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, um, but clearly there was knowledge in the Union Army that Jackson’s arm was there at the time. Presumably, in fact 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.”
“I found reference to a 1921 incident where the U.S. Marine Corps supposedly was conducting training maneuvers in the area adjacent to Ellwood, and that a General Smedley Butler didn’t believe that Jackson’s arm was buried there and so he ordered some marines to dig up next to the Smith marker and actually found the arm. Is there any truth to that?
“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.
“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. 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.
“Now, does that mean that Jackson’s arm isn’t there? No, not at all. 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. 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.”
“You mention some archaeological work was done back in the 1990s. Has the Park Service ever conducted any definitive tests, such as using ground piercing radar to try and determine if the limb is indeed in the cemetery?
"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.
“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. 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.”
You said you conducted some research in the immediate vicinity of that marker. Can you put a measurement on that, five feet, ten feet?
“I think it was an area probably about, a radius about 5 feet out from the marker. And there was no evidence of any burial shaft. No evidence of any arm. It’s possible that the arm was buried shallow and has turned to dust. Although I think that’s pretty unlikely. Generally the bones in that part of the world do survive. Somewhere over the years the little detail that Smedley Butler had buried it in a metal box gained currency. In fact that’s what our sign out there says today, which was put up before 1998. But there’s, it’s very clear that that didn’t happen because we certainly would have found the metal box.
Now that monument that is out there, that marker, is that the original one that was placed there in 1903?
“Hmm-hmph. by James Power Smith, who was one of Jackson’s staff officers who also happened to marry one of the Lacy girls. So, 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, 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. But it’s pretty clear that he did not, ultimately in fact mark the location of the arm itself.”
“What about the other grave markers. As you mentioned, it was a family cemetery with I believe you said 21 other burials there.
“Right, we know that because James Power Smith produced a sketch of the cemetery that indicated where those burials area. But as is very common in Virginia’s family cemeteries, there are no other headstones and we don’t know if there ever were other headstones in that cemetery.
“Oftentimes family knew pretty well for themselves where everybody was located in these cemeteries, and doing a headstone was a fairly expensive proposition and so, frequently they did not get done. That was the case here for sure. There were other military burials after, or during the Civil War in that cemetery, as far as we know. Those, at least three others were removed from that cemetery.
Here’s a question for that: If Jackson’s arm was that significant, had been marked at the time, this was right after the war, it seems to me that the Ladies Memorial Association who reburied those soldiers who were buried in that cemetery, in a confederate cemetery in Fredericksburg, they probably would have sought to bury Jackson’s arm in the Confederate cemetery in Fredericksburg too. But that tells me that by the immediate post-war period there was no marker on Jackson’s arm, and thus nothing necessarily to lead James Powers Smith to replica the location of an original marker, so my guess is his marker is intended to indicate the general area, the fact that it’s in the cemetery, not the specific spot.”
“Any idea why they didn’t reunite the arm, so to speak, with the general's body? He only died 10 days later.
“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. 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.