The tale and trail of Jackson’s Arm–Part 2: The marker, Smedley Butler…and a metal box that never was

From Mink and Hennessy (for the initial post on Jackson’s arm, click here, and for the conclusion here):

In 1903, James Power Smith, one of Jackson’s staff officers, directed the placement of ten markers in the Fredericksburg region–most of them associated with Jackson or Lee. One of these commemorates the burial of Jackson’s arm at Ellwood.

The marker placed by James Power Smith in 1903

Of all the people on earth in 1903, probably none were more qualified to know and mark the site of Jackson’s arm than Smith. He had been with Jackson the night of May 2, 1863.  He was married to Agnes Lacy, J. Horace Lacy’s daughter, who had grown up at Ellwood (she was Beverly Tucker Lacy’s niece). After the war Smith assumed the pastorship of the Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, which during the war had been (in an unofficial sort of way) Tucker Lacy’s church. From 1887 until his death in 1900, Rev. Lacy lived in Washington DC, though physically disabled, still bright of mind; Smith surely had regular contact with him. The point is, Smith had access to more knowledge about Jackson, his arm, and its fate than anyone alive.

But we know little of the knowledge that guided Smith in the placement of the stone that “marks” the grave of Jackson’s arm. We know there was no marker at the site when Brainerd visited on May 7, 1864. We don’t know if Smith knew the specific location from conversations with B.T. Lacy, or from family tradition, or if indeed someone had placed another marker after the war. Indeed, we have no idea if Smith even intended to mark the specific place of burial, if he knew it at all. We do know that others of his markers were knowingly approximate. Perhaps he intended his stone to be purely commemorative rather than a grave marker. Or perhaps he intentionally put the stone away from the grave itself, to avoid future desecrations like that carried out by Union soldiers in 1864.  Regardless, over time the stone was presumed not just to commemorate the burial, but to mark it specifically. Still, we can’ be certain of that.

Smedley Butler at the Wilderness maneuvers, 1921

This brings us to the most bizarre of all the stories associated with the grave of Jackson’s arm. According to Dr. Gordon Jones, grandson of the then-owner of Ellwood (Jones wrote his recollection in 1986), during the US Marine Corps maneuvers on Wilderness Battlefield in 1921, General Smedley Butler reacted with disbelief when told that Jackson’s arm was buried in the family cemetery.  “Bosh!” he declared. “I will take a squad of Marines and dig up that spot to prove you wrong!” And, according to Dr. Jones (who was not present, but was relaying the story as told by his grandfather), they did, and “found an arm bone in a box a few feet down.” The Marines reburied it and had a plaque fashioned for the stone, which later came off and is now in the park’s collection.

Over the years, this story has become fixed as fact, incorporating along the way a few details that don’t appear in the original telling–most importantly,that Butler reburied the arm in a metal box. In fact, we include this story on our wayside exhibit at the site, which was installed in about 1998. It’s still there, and those official US government words are consumed by thousands of visitors a year.

Eric Mink has pointedly looked into this story. Though the 1921 maneuvers received intense coverage from national media, and even though President and Mrs. Harding and many reporters visited the cemetery (Mrs. Harding had “sort of a creepy feeling” about the place), Eric found nothing from the time mentions what would have been a sensational investigation and discovery. Several newspapers mention the efforts of the Marines to clean up the cemetery–they cleared the brush and built a new fence, leaving behind, reporter Glenn Tucker wrote, a “strikingly beautiful little graveyard.”

The plaque placed by the Marines on the Smith stone in 1921, today in the park's museum collection.

It’s possible, of course, that only a few people knew of Butler’s untoward disturbance of the grave, or perhaps the reporters agreed not to publicize what by any measure was a violation of mortuary and military ethics. In any event, no source mentions digging up Jackson’s arm. The story that Butler did is derived from family tradition finally written down 65 years later.

The arm lay largely overlooked until the 1970s, when Ellwood and the family cemetery were acquired by the National Park Service. In our final post, we’ll look at the NPS archeological investigation of the site in 1998 and take a clear-eyed look at what (really) we know and what we don’t know, offering up what seems to be the most logical conclusion for all this (with all due apologies to the conspiracy theorists).


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