The last words of James R. Woodworth

From John Hennessy, for Memorial Day weekend (Eric is working on special post fitting for Memorial Day, but until then, we offer this):

The annual Luminaria at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, set this year for Saturday May 28.

Somewhere among the 12,000 unknown graves in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery probably lie the remains of a young Union soldier, James R.  Woodworth, from Varick, New York. Woodworth served in the 44th New York Infantry of the Fifth Corps. “Ellsworth’s Avengers,” the regiment was called, and they gained fame by virtue of steady service on many battlefields, including Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Woodworth joined the 44th in the late summer of 1862, leaving behind his farm, young wife–Phebe Burroughs Woodworth–and baby Frankie.

Woodworth’s letters and diaries record his toils in the army as so many thousands of others do–the blessings of life, the curses of war, and the desire to go home mingling (and sometimes conflicting) with the commitment to do one’s duty. In many ways they are unremarkable. Except for one passage.

James Woodworth died on May 8, 1864 in the fighting at Laurel, a the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Months before, inside the cover of his diary, he had written a note to his wife, bidding her (and all of us) not to forget in case he fell. It is, I think, one of the most beautiful pieces of writing to emerge from the Civil War.

Should it be my lot to die in the present struggle, let the thought that I die in defense of my country console you. And when peace with its happy train of attendants shall once more visit this land, let it be your greatest joy to teach my child that I was one who loved my country more than life. This is the only legacy I can bequeath to him, but it is one that a prince might well be proud of.

Kenmore’s last soldier–and one of the last reburials in the National Cemetery

In 1864, Union burial crews interred at least 103 Union dead on the grounds of Kenmore, the elegant plantation home of Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis–George Washington’s sister. By then, Kenmore amounted only to a handful of acres, and exactly where on the grounds the dead were buried is not entirely clear. But, research by Noel Harrison (we’ll post on this in the future) has confirmed that the famous series of images taken of Fredericksburg burials in May 1864 was taken only a few hundred feet from Kenmore’s back door. It is highly likely that the graves in that series of images (one of which is below) constitute some of the dead recorded to have been buried at Kenmore. 

Donald Pfanz, who has written a book on the creation of the National Cemetery, learned of one more soldier from Kenmore, discovered in 1929.  What follows is derived from his upcoming book:

These May 1864 burials along what is today Winchester Street likely included the 102 men recorded as having been disinterred from Kenmore after the war.

Continue reading

Edwin Forbes Leaves Us a Colorful Stafford County Mystery, in Black-and-White

From Noel Harrison:

For me, few eyewitness artworks better match the written accounts of the bleakness and tedium of Civil War life than this sketch by special artist Edwin Forbes:

His drawing depicts one and perhaps two brush shelters, and occupants, of a Federal picket station situated in Stafford County on Potomac Creek, somewhere upstream from its gorge crossed by the famous “Beanpoles and Cornstalks” railroad bridge.

It’s March 13, 1863. In a diary entry for that day, a soldier in one of the regimental camps guarded by the picket line noted, “A little snow this morning—some clouds—clear this evening.”

On the one hand, Forbes accurately captures the eternal, overarching reality of soldier life: the “wait” part of “hurry up and wait.” The sketch’s undistinguished setting, moreover, characterized the terrain along at least a third of the length of the picket line that surrounded the Army of the Potomac’s camps in southern Stafford in November 1862-June 1863. Much of the line extended between low, brushy hills north and west of the Rappahannock, far from the diverting vistas (and banter with enemy pickets) that duty along the river and its high bluffs afforded.
Continue reading

The obscure Carpenter farm, and a soldier’s grave

From John Hennessy:

It is an evocative though rarely used photograph: a man standing before an unkempt line of graves, the markers askew and unadorned. The image is known to have been taken on the farm of James and Elizabeth Carpenter (an elderly couple whose son Solon served in the Fredericksburg Artillery) on the Wilderness Battlefield, a now-forgotten area well behind the Union lines, about midway between NPS holdings at Wilderness and Chancellorsville.

Today the site of the Carpenter farm is home to the local chapter of the Isaac Walton League.  Nobody that I know of has been able to identify the specific location on the farm of this view (or another less interesting image apparently from the same series).  [Update:  John Cummings believes he has located the site of these graves, and certainly the evidence on the ground supports his conclusions.] These don’t appear to be fresh burials, for the ground seems covered with a season’s worth of leaves and nature’s refuse–something consistent with its 1866 date (our friend John Cummings will have much more to say about this series of postwar images in an upcoming book).

The scene shows at least twenty-one graves, all but one of them seemingly marked by a stake or pole rather than a headboard. The method of marking the graves suggests this work was done in the aftermath of battle, rather than by the Union burial corps that came through the area in 1865. (We discussed and illustrated their method of marking graves in our post on Wilderness Cemetery #2, which you can find here.) No place else do I know of stakes being used to mark field burials, and the lone visible headboard in this view is radically different from the mass-produced, carefully painted boards carried and planted by the 1865 burial crews. Continue reading

The Bone Collectors: Creation of Wilderness Cemetery #1

From Donald Pfanz (for an earlier post on Wilderness Cemetery #2, click here):

[We are very happy to welcome Donald Pfanz to Mysteries and Conundrums. The following is the product of his extensive work on the creation of the National Cemetery, which we’ll soon be publishing as part of our publication series. ]

Skeletons in the Wilderness. Scenes like this stimulated the Federal government to take action, and so they dispatched a regiment to accord the dead proper burial.

In June 1865, in response to clamorous complaints about the dead left unburied on the battlefields around Fredericksburg, the Federal government dispatched the 1st U.S. Veteran Volunteers to undertake reburial of the bodies. The 1st Volunteers reached Fredericksburg late on the afternoon of June 10 and pitched its tents on the south side of the Rappahannock River.  Some wandered the streets of the shell-torn town; others walked across the plain leading to Marye’s Heights, where Union arms had suffered defeat on December 13, 1862.  Unlike the Union soldiers who had perished in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House, most of those who had died at Fredericksburg had been buried immediately after the battle.  William Landon, who had fought at Fredericksburg as a member of the 14th Indiana Infantry, took the opportunity to search the town for the graves of comrades who had fallen there.  He found but one:  Corporal John E. Hutchins of Company B, the “Old Post Guards.”

Landon and his comrades resumed their march the next morning, heading west along one of two roads:  the Orange Turnpike or the Orange Plank Road.  By noon, the First Regiment reached Chancellorsville.  The charred remains of the Chancellor house and the scattered remnants of blankets, knapsacks, and other equipment bore silent witness to the fierce struggle that had been waged there.  Passing on, the regiment reached the Wilderness Battlefield late that afternoon.  The soldiers bivouacked on the northern end of the battlefield at an abandoned goldmine– possibly the Woodville Mine.  No sooner had they arrived than “a crowd of half-starved women and children” and a few men in Confederate uniform flooded into the camp, hoping to trade garden vegetables for food that the soldiers carried in their wagons.  “All the rations we could spare were freely given them,” wrote Landon, but the demand far exceeded the supply and many went away hungry.

Wilderness Cemetery #1, created June 1865, and in existence for just over one year. Brevet Major Moore enclosed Wilderness National Cemetery No. 1 with a simple board fence. Each of the headboards visible in the photograph appears to read: "Uknown U.S. Soldiers Killed May 1864"

Continue reading

Trail and tale of Jackson’s arm, Part 3: apologies to the conspiracy theorists

From Hennessy and Mink (we suggest reading part 1 and part 2 of this post first):

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.

Ellwood, the wartime home of J. Horace Lacy, the brother of Jackson's chaplain Beverly Tucker Lacy.

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The trail and tale of Stonewall Jackson’s arm–Part 1: burying and re-burying

From Hennessy and Mink (click for part 2 and part 3):

Few body parts in history have received as much attention or inquiry as Stonewall Jackson’s arm (a Google search on “Stonewall Jackson’s arm” returns 43,000 listings). The arm, buried in the Jones-Lacy family cemetery at Ellwood, has for decades been the object of theories and rumors–some of them curious, like one several years ago that claimed the NPS had secretly disinterred Jackson’s arm and put it into museum storage (the NPS did not). When confronted with that theory, we were inspired to take a hard look at exactly what we do know about Stonewall Jackson’s arm. We’ll share the results of that work here in a three-part post. The first will convey what we know about the arm and its meanderings during the Civil War; the second will untangle what we know about it since 1865, including a purported effort to dig it up in 1921 and the 1998 archeology at the site intended to locate the burial so it could be protected.

Jackson was wounded on the evening of May 2, 1863, along the Mountain Road, near the modern Chancellorsville Visitor Center (see Eric Mink’s very interesting series of posts about the location of that visitor center here). Put in an ambulance, he was transported back almost exactly 4 miles to a tented field hospital near Wilderness Tavern, along the Orange Turnpike (modern Route 3). There, famously, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire amputated Jackson’s left arm. The arm, according to Jackson’s chaplain Beverly Tucker Lacy, was “wrapped” and laid beside the doorway to the tent. The next morning Lacy found it there.

The environs of Ellwood and Wilderness Tavern. Field hospital site at upper right, Jones-Lacy cemetery at lower left. The intersection of Routes 20 and 3 is just off the top edge of the image.

Determined that the arm should have a proper burial, Lacy had access to a convenient spot.  Rev. Lacy’s brother, J. Horace Lacy, owned nearby Ellwood, and so the reverend decided to take the arm there and bury it in the family cemetery. We know nothing of any ceremony that might have attended this, and he does not tell us where in the cemetery he buried it. We only know that he did. At about the same time, two other Confederate officers killed at Chancellorsville were buried in the Jones-Lacy Cemetery– Captain James Keith Boswell, killed in the same volley that caused Jackson’s mortal wound, and Major Joshua Stover of the 10th Virginia.

The Jones-Lacy cemetery today

We have found no reference to the arm again until the following spring, when the Union army marched into the Wilderness. From the May 6 diary entry of Colonel Charles Phelps of the 7th Maryland comes this cryptic but ghoulish notation. Continue reading

Belvoir today–the Yerby place and Stonewall Jackson

From Hennessy:  (Note: this post deals with a historic site that is privately owned. While the property owner has been gracious in permitting us occasional entry and establishing a deed restriction that will protect the house site and about ten acres, access to the site by the general public is not permitted [which is one reason we’re offering up this glimpse].  We will attempt to organize a tour to the site for those of you who wish to come in the fall or spring.  But in the meantime, please respect the property owner’s rights and do not attempt access.)

One of the real challenges that faces the NPS is how to respond when significant sites outside our boundaries are threatened. Opinions on the proper role of the NPS in such cases–which are quite common hereabouts–range from, “Keep your nose out of our business” to “buy it all” (that, by the way, ain’t happening).   When a site is on or near our boundary, I think most people understand the interests that compel the NPS to offer an opinion on the likely impacts of development on that site.  But when a site is well beyond our boundary, our interests narrow, sometimes to little more than a hope something good happens.  Most commonly, in such cases we play the role of advisor rather than advocate, and then only when invited to do so by someone involved in the issue–be they a local government, a sister federal agency, or the landowner or developer.

 One case years ago had a fairly happy ending.  We were asked by Hal Wiggins of the Corps of Engineers to advise on the possible long-term preservation of Belvoir–the Yerby home beyond the southeast edge of the Fredericksburg Battlefield.  Long story short, the end result was that the site of the house and ten surrounding acres was put under deed restriction (largely thanks to the efforts of Hal and Noel Harrison).  While the restriction does not permit public access, it ensures the site will be forever preserved.  It’s a good thing.  The site of Belvoir is a magnificent place.

This view is of the house site, taken from about the location of the small tree to the left of the steps in the historic photograph. Jackson, Lee, Ewell, and a mortally wounded Maxcy Gregg passed over this ground

While it may be difficult to ponder the words romance and Stonewall Jackson in the same sentence–much less in the same physical space–there is indeed one such place where the two famously come together:  Belvoir, the home of Thomas Yerby.  It was at Belvoir that Thomas J. Jackson spent the last happy week of his life, with his wife Anna and five-month-old daughter Julia. The story is well known. Few passages in Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants surpass his description of Jackson’s time at Belvoir, and Anna Jackson’s own memoir offers memorable images.  From there, of course, Jackson would ride to victory and tragedy at Chancellorsville.  He next saw his wife on his deathbed at Fairfield Plantation–today’s Jackson Shrine.

Lee came here too, the last week of March 1863, when he suffered a severe respiratory infection that we now know to be his first bout of heart trouble.  He remembered the doctors at Belvoir “tapping me all over like an old steam boiler before condemning it.”

Click to enlarge

Today the site of Belvoir is privately owned, largely inaccessible, and overlooked by most. But it is, in fact, one of the more compelling historic places I have ever been. The house burned about 1910, and the property would not again be occupied. Though deep in the woods, tucked amidst briars and poison ivy, as a ruin and archeological site the place retains much of its integrity. Each spring Yerby family daffodils by the hundreds bloom all over what was the yard.  The cellar of the big house is still clearly visible, with at least a couple of its walls intact. East of the house is the Yerby family cemetery, covered with periwinkle (as so many family plots were). West of the house is evidence of several outbuildings–some of them no doubt home to some of Yerby’s 41 slaves in 1860 (only four of the plantation’s 45 residents in 1860 were white)–including an ice house. Terraces step down to the house from a hill behind it–terraces no doubt created by slave labor, and once the site of elegant gardens long ago gone (except for the daffodils).  And winding through the woods are the several simple roads that led to Belvoir–driveways that in 1862 carried hundreds of wounded Confederates (including Maxcy Gregg, who died in the house) and in 1863 the elite of the neighborhood and brass of the army for a lavish reception welcoming Dick Ewell back from the wound he received at Second Manassas. These roads came from the Hamilton Place at Forest Hill (along Mine Road) and Hunter’s Lodge, the home of John Pratt Yerby, the site of which now resides under a cul-de-sac on the Lee’s Hill subdivision.

Several years ago I did an article on Belvoir for the Journal of Fredericksburg History.  You can read it by clicking here (a new window will open).

To see images of Belvoir as it exists today, continue reading beyond the jump. Continue reading

When Historical Conclusions Go Bad; or, What was I Thinking, and How Do I Fix It?

From Harrison:

In a recent interview I likened my historical conclusions to new cars.  Those begin depreciating in accuracy at the moment of publication, i.e., the moment of leaving the dealers’ lots.  At best, I can hope that the quality of the underlying historical research and interpretation proves sufficiently high to keep the rate of deprecation low.

What follows considers one such historical conclusion ultimately “gone bad;” the consequent mystery regarding a feature of The Bloody Plain in front of Fredericksburg’s Stone Wall and Sunken Road; and a broader conundrum regarding the degree to which our interpretive publications, signs, and other programming should be designed to “sunset,” or to accommodate—or even anticipate—revisions reflecting newly discovered information or more plausible interpretations.

Over the course of many examinations of this photograph of the Bloody Plain, viewed from atop Marye’s Heights in May 1864, I became fascinated by what appeared to be a berm-like feature.  For me this was defined by a white line bisecting two narrow zones of dark, freshly disturbed ground–darker strips that in turn bisected lighter patches of ground.  Here’s a detail from a digital copy of the image, in the collection of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park:

Continue reading