Stonewall Jackson’s Arm

PrintPrintEmailEmailI have never shaken hands with a politician. I have never worked on a famous person’s house, nor have I ever witnessed a historic event. But one time I had lunch with Stonewall Jackson’s arm.

A few years back, during a family vacation in Virginia, I had a day set aside to go off on my own and do whatever I wanted. Civil War sites were first on the list. It was 88 degrees at 7:00 A.M. when I left the cabin. I had bottled water and some sandwiches stashed in a cooler on the floor of my pickup, next to my old hiking boots arid some battlefield trail maps that my uncle had given me. I’m a walker, and I firmly believe that the best way to experience a battlefield is all alone and on foot.

The Wilderness was my first stop. Fought in May of 1864, it was the first major battle that pitted U. S. Grant against Robert E. Lee. I pulled into a small parking area in the middle of Saunders Field, a hotly contested place in the first day’s fighting—and now the beginning of a two-mile loop trail that follows the Confederate trenches up and the Union trenches back. I pulled on my boots, stuffed a bottle of water into the large pocket of my shorts, and headed off.

The hike was better than I expected. There was nobody else around that day, and I relished the quiet. History tells us that the battle was fought in a woods so dense with saplings and underbrush that in some places visibility was less than 20 feet. It’s still dense in there; lush green leaves hung damp with moisture in the thick, humid air.

Breaking free from the woods back into Saunders Field, I found the sun higher and hotter than when I had ducked in. I looked to the left, trying to imagine the Union Army coming out of the trees into the clearing. I looked right, searching for the smoke of the Southern muskets there to greet that army.

Then something directly in front of me caught my eye. Someone was coming up the trail fast. He had a ranger hat on. Be calm, I thought, you haven’t done anything wrong. Still, the man was walking at a very brisk pace straight at me, and he looked grim. Was the trail closed? Was it a restricted area? Were the SEALS training today? He wasted no time.

“Did you hike that trail?” the ranger asked. His voice was deep and powerful.

“Yeah,” I said, inflecting it almost like a question.

“You hiked that whole trail?” He was the most perfect-looking park ranger I’d ever seen: tall, broad-shouldered, and lean; his tie was even tucked behind his shirt buttons. In fact, he looked more like a drill sergeant than a park ranger.

“Yeah, I did,” I said.

He paused for a second and sized me up. Then he held out his hand. “Well, goddamn,” the ranger said, shaking my hand and grinning. “It sure is nice to meet someone who doesn’t just drive around and look out the window!”

The next thing I knew we were at the lean-to by the parking lot combing over every book he had with him about the battle. The man knew his history. States’ regiments were here; artillery units were there. Here’s where Longstreet was wounded, there’s where Grant spent the day whittling sticks. He was awesome.

After we’d swapped stories for about half an hour, the conversation drifted from 1864 to 1863 and the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought one year earlier and only a few clicks down the road.

“You like Stonewall Jackson?” he asked. His eyes were still a bit intimidating.

“Sure. I want to try to hike some of his march around Hooker’s flank today after lunch.”

The ranger paused. He was tapping a book into the palm of his hand, obviously deep in thought. Then he sprang it. “Wanna go see where his arm is buried?”

“Hell, yeah!” I said. “Stonewall’s arm? Are you kidding me?”

The ranger rummaged around in his backpack and pulled out a book titled The Attack of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville . Inside was a picture of a gravestone that read “Arm of Stonewall Jackson.” I was flabbergasted.

“His arm’s buried on an old plantation about two miles from here,” the ranger said. “It’s part of the park, but it’s not open to the public yet. Remember I mentioned that Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren’s headquarters at The Wilderness was in a house right down the road from here?” I nodded. “Same house,” he said.

“Is it still there? The house, I mean.”

“You betcha. The government owns it, and it’s being restored, but it’s not ready to open.” He raised an eyebrow. “I can get you in there.”

“How did Jackson’s arm end up at Warren ’s headquarters?” I asked.