April/May 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 2
You actually can spend a few moments in the past, if you’re willing to get out of your car—and if you’re lucky enough to meet the right guide
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.
“Well, you know Stonewall was wounded on the night of May second at Chancellorsville, returning from a recon mission when the first day’s battle was almost over. The South had ‘em whipped, and Jackson wanted to attempt a night attack to finish them off. Riding back into the Confederate lines, he was mistaken for Federal cavalry and fired on. He was hit once in the right hand and twice in the left arm. Here and here,” he said, demonstrating on his own arm where the bullets had struck Jackson’s. “Drive down this road, make a right, and you’ll meet up with his flanking march. It follows the highway into Chancellorsville.”
“I came in that way.”
“You see a sign for Wilderness Tavern?”
“Down by the traffic light?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s it,” the ranger said. “Wilderness Tavern is where they cut his arm off. He had no chance of keeping it. The bone was shattered. They amputated it around two in the morning on May third.” I shook my head, thinking about what amputations were like in those days.
“Well, they usually cremated all the arms and legs that were amputated after a battle, but they felt they couldn’t throw Stonewall Jackson’s arm in with the rest of them. So Jackson’s chaplain, Beverly Tucker Lacy, took the mangled arm, and at four o’clock in the morning he walked down the road to his brother’s plantation, banged on the door, and got his brother to help him bury it in the family plot behind the garden.” The way the ranger told it, there was just a glint of grim humor in this family errand.
“The very next year, almost on the same ground, Grant and Lee tangled for the first time. General Warren set up his headquarters at Lacy Plantation, right there with Jackson’s arm out in the back yard. The house was used as a Confederate hospital, too, after Chancellorsville. I guess that’s why the Park Service finally bought it. Lot of history in that place.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had known that Stonewall Jackson’s arm was buried away from the rest of him, but I’d never known where. And now, to not only hear the story but go to the actual place …
The ranger had been scribbling something across my trail map; now he took a paper napkin out of his backpack and started scribbling on that too. When he was finished, he handed me the napkin first.
“Put this on your windshield,” he said. “There’s another ranger that patrols the area, and if he sees your truck parked where I’m gonna tell you to park it, he’ll definitely write you up.”
He unfolded the park map across the picnic table in the lean-to, then pulled out a marker from his shirt pocket and stabbed at it. “Here’s where we are, and here’s where you turn off. It’s tough to find. Looks like somebody’s driveway, but when you pull in, go up a ways and you’ll see it’s all chained off. That’s where you park. Then you gotta hump it the rest of the way.” I glanced to the bottom of the page, trying to find the scale. Driveways in the old South could be lengthy. He continued before I could figure out the distance.
“Here’s your truck. Here’s the house.” He connected them with a dotted line. “There’s an old dirt road that you’ll follow that goes through a soy field and winds up at the house.” He looked up at me. “You with me so far?”
I nodded, still thinking about the napkin on the windshield.
“Walk almost up to the house, then look to the right. You’ll see a gate that leads out through some old landscaping, and then, maybe a hundred yards behind that, you’ll find the cemetery. There’s a couple of large trees right smack in the middle of it. You can’t miss it.”
We looked at each other and shook hands. I knew I’d probably never see him again, and I knew I’d never forget him either.
“Thanks a lot.”
“Come back here if you can’t find it. I’ll be here for another hour or so.”
He returned to his books. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and jumped in my truck, careful not to lose the map or the napkin.
I missed the turnoff only twice, both times thinking, That can’t be the place. But it was just the way the ranger called it. I pulled up to one of the chains that blocked the driveway and shut off the engine. It was eleven-thirty. After securing the parking-permit napkin on the windshield, I unpacked a sandwich and more water, then snagged the half-eaten bag of potato chips off the floor and stuffed them all in my pockets. I envisioned lunch on the veranda of Lacy Plantation.
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.
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.