Mystery in the Wilderness:
It is not surprising that a man of such legendary stature as Lt. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson continues to garner attention, nor that Jackson devotees make pilgrimages to the small building at Guinea Station, Va., where he died on May 10, 1863. But you might be amazed by the number of people who show up at Virginia’s Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park to see the resting place of “The Arm,” the appendage that Jackson lost at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, when he was mortally wounded by his own troops as he patrolled in the gloaming in front of his lines.
Three bullets struck him—one lodged under the skin of his right hand, another went in by his left elbow and came out near his wrist, and the third hit him 3 inches below the left shoulder. Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire amputated his battered left arm in a field hospital. The next day Jackson’s chaplain, the Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy, stopped by to visit as preparations got under way to move him to Guinea Station for his own safety. As Lacy was leaving, he spotted a small bundle outside the tent: Jackson’s left arm, swaddled in cloth by doctors who had set it aside for burial in an unmarked ditch, along with thousands of other severed limbs. Lacy believed that Jackson’s arm didn’t deserve such an ignoble end, so he took it with him across the fields to Ellwood, the plantation owned by his brother James, a mile from the field hospital. The Lacys buried Jackson’s arm in their family cemetery. What happened after that, however, has long been a topic for speculation.
Every month hundreds of visitors travel down the long gravel driveway from Virginia Route 20 to Ellwood, acquired by the National Park Service in 1977, and walk through the rows of boxwood to the Lacy family cemetery. A shin-high ellipse of wooden fence curves around an area a little smaller than a typical classroom. A granite marker at one end reads, “Arm of Stonewall Jackson—May 3, 1863”—the day the arm was buried.
Fifteen people, most of them members of Lacy’s family, rest in that cemetery, but only Jackson’s arm has a marker. It was placed there in 1903 by a former member of Jackson’s staff, James Power Smith, who married into the Lacy family. But the curious public had begun stopping by long before that—even before the ground over the grave had settled.
On May 6, 1864—just a year after Jackson’s arm was first buried and in the midst of the Battle of the Wilderness, which swirled wildly around Ellwood—Union Colonel Charles Phelps of the 7th Maryland Infantry noted in his diary that several men had “dug up” Jackson’s arm and then reburied it. The next day, New York engineer Wesley Brainerd visited the site. “His grave was situated in the heart of the Wilderness on a knoll, unmarked by stone or board,” Brainerd noted. “It was hard to realize, as I stood beside that lonely grave, that the little mound of earth before me hid from view all that was mortal of the man whose great deeds had filled the world with wonder and amazement….I lingered for a long time at the grave of that wonderful and eccentric man. Nor could I leave the spot without having experienced those peculiar feelings of awe and respect for the memory of the genius which, though that of an enemy, possessed the faculty which inspired his Soldiers with a religious enthusiasm, resulting in most wonderful victories and made his name a terror to ourselves.”
Brainerd obviously believed that Jackson’s body had been buried there, not just his arm—an impression he may have received because at the time there were two fresh graves in the cemetery: those of Confederate Captain Keith Boswell, an engineer on Jackson’s staff who was killed by the same volley that wounded Jackson, and Major Joshua Stover of the 10th Virginia. Also note that Brainerd mentions the arm’s “lonely grave” was “unmarked by stone or board.” The first known marker would be Smith’s granite block in 1903.
A more famous exhumation allegedly happened in 1921, when U.S. Marines, under the command of Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, came to the Wilderness battlefield to conduct “the most gigantic mimic war and maneuvers ever staged.” President Warren G. Harding attended as a spectator, as did Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.
Harding and his wife stayed in a large canvas tent near Ellwood. Mrs. Harding told a reporter she had “sort of a creepy feeling” once she discovered that Jackson’s arm was buried so close by. “But I think I’d like to [visit] it anyhow,” she decided. Several newspapers reported on her visit to the grave, although some incorrectly reported she visited the right—rather than the left—arm.
By that time the Lacy family had sold Ellwood to local attorney Hugh Evander Willis. “He and my great-grandmother, Lucy, managed Ellwood for their son, my great-uncle Hugh, from 1910 until 1931,” says Willis’ great-granddaughter, Carolyn Elstner, who works with a local group to help manage the Ellwood property for the Park Service. “[I]t was my great-grandfather who told Butler about Jackson’s arm being buried in the family cemetery,” Elstner says, “and that it was under a stone erected by James Power Smith.” General Butler reportedly replied, “Nonsense!” Willis replied: “Oh yes. Everyone knows it.” “Bosh!” said Butler. “I’ll take a squadron of Marines and dig up that spot to prove you wrong.”
According to Elstner, her great-grandfather “was dumbfounded at this brash evasion of Virginia law but was intrigued and watched. And there was the arm bone a few feet down. I’ve heard ‘in a box’ or ‘wrapped.’ I don’t know which, if either, is correct. Butler ordered it to be reburied and a bronze plaque placed on the stone—a tribute to Jackson from the U.S. Marine Corps.”
The story has changed as it has been retold over the years. The arm, it’s been said, was first placed in a metal box—perhaps an ammunition canister—before reburial. Some accounts even have it that the burial took place with full military honors, including a 21-gun salute. Before they left, the Marines also cleaned up the cemetery, which was overgrown with weeds.
Such accounts later prompted the Park Service to use a metal detector to try to find the arm in its metal box, but those efforts turned up nothing. “Beyond family tradition, there is no evidence that Smedley Butler had the arm dug up and reburied,” says NPS historian Eric Mink. “Certainly…archaeology [done in 1998] supports the likelihood this never happened—there was simply no evidence of the digging that would have attended Butler’s investigation in the area around the monument. Moreover, it strikes [me] that the idea of a U.S. military officer disturbing the remains of a fallen soldier seems to run against the grain of military culture and honor.”
But Carolyn Elstner isn’t so sure. One summer day years after the war games, she says, “a little old man” drove into Ellwood and “gently” asked Elstner’s father—by then the farm’s owner—if he and his wife could see the spot where Jackson’s arm had been buried. “When the man got out of his car, he introduced himself as General Butler, now retired,” Elstner says. “I really think the re-visit is what gives merit to the story,” she adds. “It may not have happened exactly as [stated] above, but I don’t think my great-grandfather made it up.”
According to at least one account, Butler “supposedly made a full report of the incident,” though NPS historians have never found it. The 1998 archaeological work, using metal detectors, didn’t turn up anything either.
But the park’s curatorial collection does include a 5-by-8-inch bronze plaque from the Marines, long affixed to the grave marker until erosion caused it to fall off. No records exist of when the plaque was attached to the monument, although legend suggests it happened during the Marines’ 1921 exercises.
Likewise, there’s no record of when the plaque fell off the monument. It was donated to the Park Service by the Lacy family sometime before the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Military Park acquired the property.
If Butler hadn’t known about the arm beforehand, why did the Marines have a bronze plaque already prepared? And if they dug up the grave without finding anything in it, why would they have installed the plaque?
Whether the monument marks the arm’s exact spot is also part of the puzzle. “We have no idea whether Smith intended to mark the grave itself, or if he intended simply to commemorate the burial by putting a memorial in the family cemetery generally,” Mink says. “The idea that the Smith marker indicates the precise location of the arm is pure presumption.” Other markers that Smith installed at local battlefields are, as the NPS points out, “quite approximate in their location.”
It is possible that all the digging in the cemetery over time has compromised the site to such an extent that the arm cannot be located. The limb could have deteriorated by now—although others say that plenty of other bones have survived for 150 years and more, so it seems unlikely Jackson’s limb would disintegrate faster.
In all likelihood, Stonewall Jackson’s missing arm is still there in the Ellwood family cemetery—somewhere.
This article was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times.