Stonewall Jackson’s Arm

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About 30 minutes into the hike I began to wonder if I“d made a wrong turn. The ranger had said dirt road through a soy field, and he wasn’t kidding. There were soybeans as far as I could see. Birds and bugs skimmed the leaf tops, never landing, forever skipping across the huge field. The chatter of summertime insects blended with the scorching sun. The weather was taking its toll, and I was getting hungry. There was a tree line a few hundred yards ahead that crossed the dirt road, I decided to walk to that point, and if I still couldn’t see the house, I would turn back.

Ten minutes after I passed the tree line, I finally caught sight of the roof of a large house, with some open land around it. The road turned from dirt to gravel and now was heading directly toward the homestead. My pulse quickened at the thought that this might be the wrong place and I was about to get myself into trouble. But by now I’d come too far to turn back. I began to think about General Jackson and the reason I’d come here in the first place.

I skipped up the porch steps to check out the house. It was vacant. The old window glass made the inside look wavy and distorted. But I could see the work was almost done, although nobody was there that day. It felt good to get out of the sun. I sat down on the top step, drinking water and thinking about what this house had witnessed. Through which downstairs window did the surgeons throw all the sawed-off limbs after Chancellorsville? How high did they pile up? How many soldiers had died within these walls? What had happened to the people who lived here? Which room was General Warren’s? What other famous men had walked up these steps? General Hancock? Lieutenant General Grant? I realized that if I didn’t start looking for Stonewall’s arm, I’d likely sit here and daydream all afternoon. Getting up before I got stiff, I searched out the gate that led to the old garden.

Be calm: I hadn’t done anything wrong. Still, the man was walking at a very brisk pace straight at me, and he looked grim.

Everything was just as the ranger had said it would be. After passing the ancient gate and the obviously once-grand garden, I saw some large trees circled by an aging post-and-wire fence. Inside the circle were headstones. I walked quickly until I reached the fence, then slowed, passing from the present back to 1863.

The tombstones were very old—many of them could not even be read anymore—but one was clearly newer. Sure enough, there it was, bearing its simple inscription: “Arm of Stonewall Jackson.” The grass around the stone was both soft and in the shade. I sat down gratefully about six feet in front of Stonewall’s arm stone and ate my sandwich and my potato chips, thinking about a general who lived a hundred years before me, about his triumphs in the Shenandoah Valley, his steadiness at Sharpsburg, and his rout of the Federal XI Corps at Chancellorsville. I wanted to hear him preach about his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, then watch him fall asleep in church during the sermon, as he so often did. And so I sat, happy and content, at the incredible place that I had discovered because of a park ranger with a love of history.

That night my 82-year-old father sat down next to me, a glass of Scotch in his hand, and asked about my day. My dad couldn’t spend two seconds in a museum if his life depended on it, and the Civil War was gone and forgotten as far as he was concerned. Still, he decided to make an attempt at understanding his son’s passion. When I told him that I had walked more than 10 miles in 95-degree heat—4 of them to go see where a dead guy’s arm was buried—that was enough for him.

“Why would anyone want to do that?“ he asked, heading away toward the kitchen.

I smiled. Truth was, perhaps I didn’t really know myself. But one thing’s for sure. I’d do it again tomorrow.