During the two decades after the NPS acquired Ellwood (in 1977), Jackson’s arm gained status as a roadside curiosity, identified in a growing number of guidebooks and, eventually, online sources. When in 1998 the NPS, in conjunction with the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, announced that Ellwood would be open to the public for the first time, the press latched on not to the idea of the house and its powerful history, but to the oddity of Jackson’s arm. Fearing looters–and cognizant of the surreptitious night-time visit to the cemetery described in Confederates in the Attic (and the possibility it could inspire imitators or worse)–the NPS decided to protect the presumed gravesite. The plan was to locate the burial and then pour a concrete apron atop it as a permanent barrier to vandals seeking the ultimate Civil War artifact (what someone might have done with Jackson’s arm afterwards is anyone’s guess, but some thieves don’t think that far ahead). Given the entrenched wisdom that Butler had reburied the arm in a metal box, we presumed locating it would be an easy matter accomplished with a magnatometer and little digging.
No metal box. Which in turn led to an archeological excavation by increments that no one thought would be needed. Careful investigation of the area revealed no evidence that there had ever been a grave shaft dug near the monument–the clay subsoil nearby was undisturbed–or if one had been dug, it was very shallow. The archeologist found just a few artifacts from the war period in a narrow disturbed layer.
During the work, which spanned two days about three weeks apart, apparently a visitor happened along, inquired, and was told that nothing had been found. This apparently, is the nugget of news that morphed into the internet rumor that emerged a few years later: that the NPS had dug up the arm and secretly stashed it away. When this suggestion came across my desk in 2004, we decided to lay everything we knew on the table and reassess the entire arm story. These posts derive from that effort (though they have been enhanced greatly by Eric Mink’s subsequent research).
Here is what we know for certain.
- Lacy buried the arm in the cemetery.
- In 1864, according to Colonel Phelps, Union soldiers dug it up and reburied it. By the next day, there was, according to Brainerd, no stone or board marking the site.
- In 1903, James Power Smith placed a commemorative stone in the cemetery.
- In 1998, the NPS found no evidence of the arm or a grave shaft in the vicinity of the Smith monument.
Here are some things we once we thought we knew, but really do not.
- We cannot say that the Union soldiers who dug up the arm in 1864 reburied it in the same location.
- 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. The idea that the Smith marker indicates the precise location of the arm is pure presumption. It seems most likely to us that the stone simply does not, and was never intended to, mark the specific location of Jackson’s arm. Others of his markers are quite approximate in their location.
- Beyond Jones family tradition, there is no evidence that Smedley Butler had the arm dug up and reburied in 1921. Certainly the 1998 archeology 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 us that the idea of a US military officer disturbing the remains of a fallen soldier seems to run against the grain of military culture and honor.
- There is absolutely no evidence that anyone ever put Jackson’s arm in a metal box. That’s a detail that was somehow added to the oral tradition over the years. If there had been a metal box, we would have found it.
There are other possibilities: Did other Union soldiers excavate the arm after the pioneers did and throw the arm in with other burials going on in the area during the Battle of the Wilderness? Did Smith purposely put his marker in the wrong place to throw off looters? Has the arm simply turned to dust?
A reasonable and likely conclusion, based on the evidence: today the arm remains in the cemetery, its precise location within the enclosure unknown–and likely to remain so forever.
While visitors might not be able to direct their reflective musings on the arm as precisely as they might have liked (and thousands have presumed), at least one worry goes away with all this: the mystery of the arm’s exact location also accords it protection, and no one will be digging up Stonewall Jackson’s arm anytime soon. After nearly 150 years of tumult–real and presumed–America’s most famous body part can rest in peace.
(We will, by the way, be changing the on site wayside exhibit to reflect this critical look at the evidence. If you have never been to Ellwood, it’s very much worth the visit–replete with new interior exhibits. It’s open weekends through October)