Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

RSS feed of this blog

CVBT saves Jackson amputation site at Wilderness gateway

MORE: Read more Spotsylvania County news

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

Lloyd Harrison III (left), John Mitchell, Enos Richardson Jr. and Jerry Brent of CVBT stand on the newly preserved Jackson amputation tract near Wilderness Run in Spotsylvania County. (ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/THE FREE LANCE–STAR)

“Passing back over the battle-field of the afternoon, we reached the Wilderness store, and then, in a field on the north, the field-hospital of our corps under Dr. Harvey Black. Here we found a tent prepared.”

—James Power Smith, “Stonewall” Jackson’s aide-de-camp


The place is rich in legend, and now it’s safe for future generations.

The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has acquired 81 acres along State Route 3 in Spotsylvania where doctors tried to save Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, wounded by his troops in a “friendly fire” mishap.

Dr. Hunter McGuire (the namesake of today’s Veterans Administration hospital in Richmond) amputated the Confederate leader’s left arm, hit in two places.

“It all happened right here,” says Jerry H. Brent of Fredericksburg, the trust’s executive director. “This was part of the Wilderness Tavern site, on both sides of the road. With the corps’ field hospital in operation, there were hundreds of soldiers in tents or milling about, and wagons coming and going.”

Nowadays, the area bridges two counties—Orange and Spotsylvania—and two overlapping Civil War battlefields, Chancellorsville and The Wilderness.

“Personally, I think that made it very important to save the property, for that reason if nothing else,” Brent said.

This part of the Wilderness Tavern complex sat opposite the Jackson amputation tract recently bought by CVBT. (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

On a sign greeting eastbound motorists, Spotsylvania proudly proclaims itself the “Crossroads of the Civil War.” Orange County’s welcome sign doesn’t reference the Civil War, but Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson calls the area the “nerve center” for Union commanders Meade and Grant during the Battle of the Wilderness, fought nearly one year to the day after Chancellorsville.

Nearby, Walmart tried to build a SuperCenter-anchored shopping center, prompting local and national preservation groups to battle the world’s largest retailer. In 2011, on the first day of an Orange County trial over its proposal, Walmart opted to build its store farther west on Route 3, as the groups had urged.

This historic landscape’s “viewshed,” from the nearby national park, was one issue in the dispute.

The Jackson tract, mostly open farmland bordering Route 3 near the entrance to Fox Chase subdivision, preserves a long view toward the Blue Ridge Mountains and the would-be Walmart site.

The site’s gateway role, its Jackson association, and fit in Wilderness Run’s landscape made it compelling to preserve, Brent said.

Normally, the lean, Fredericksburg-based nonprofit limits itself to buying bits of battlefields where “bullets flew,” he said.

On this table, now exhibited at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s arm may have been amputated. (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

But two of its founders, Fredericksburg residents John Mitchell and Enos Richardson Jr., felt strongly enough about the Jackson-amputation tract that they risked their own money to buy time for preservationists to purchase the property.

Incorporating Wilderness Fields LLC, Richardson and Mitchell optioned the tract with the Link family trust from which CVBT had earlier bought a neighboring tract, the 93-acre “Wilderness Crossroads” site south of Route 3 and east of Wilderness Run, abutting Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

In time, CVBT’s board—on which Richardson and Mitchell don’t now serve—agreed to buy the three noncontiguous parcels.

Partnerships with the National Park Service’s American Battlefields Protection Program, the state of Virginia and the national Civil War Trust made that possible without obligating CVBT to raise funds for the purpose, Brent said. The land cost $575,000, the lion’s share of which was covered by the national and state grants.

After he was shot, Jackson was taken to the Second Corp field hospital near Wilderness Tavern. In a tent there, doctors removed his wounded left arm. (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

A state historical marker beside Route 3 notes that Jackson’s surgery happened in the vicinity, yet thousands of motorists a day whiz past it unaware of what transpired there on May 3, 1864.

That Sunday, Jackson was rushed to the Army of Northern Virginia’s 2nd Corps hospital complex at the rear of its lines in the Battle of Chancellorsville.

The vaunted tactician was in pain, wounded by three bullets fired by North Carolinians as he reconnoitered through moonlit woods three miles east after his troops’ brilliant flank attack, urging his men to press the Yankees back to the Rappahannock River.

Surgeon McGuire, using anaesthetic in the field hospital near the stream that divides Spotsylvania and Orange counties, amputated Jackson’s arm. Surgeons preferred to operate outside because of the better lighting and ventilation.

Afterward, Jackson said he’d heard the most beautiful music while under the chloroform. Reflecting a bit, he said, “I believe it was the sawing of the bone.”

On learning of his trusted lieutenant’s injuries, Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to Jackson, saying “Could I have directed events, I would have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead.”

Seven days after the surgery, the man Lee called “my right arm” died of pneumonia complications.

It’s now believed that Jackson had been ill with a cold before he was shot. The combination of that, his wounding, rough handling on the way to the field hospital and during his evacuation from Wilderness Tavern to the Fairfield plantation behind the lines in Caroline County, and the surgery led to his demise.

CVBT bought 81 acres it has designated as “’Wilderness Crossroads II’–three nearby but noncontiguous parcels, all of which face the historic Orange Turnpike (modern-day State Route 3). (CENTRAL VIRGINIA BATTLEFIELDS TRUST)

The Wilderness Run area remains popular with Jackson buffs today for another reason. It is where Jackson’s arm was buried by his military chaplain, the Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy, on his family’s farm, Ellwood.

The story of “the farm with the arm” never loses interest. Witness treatments of the tale in a 2012 segment on National Public Radio, in director Ron Maxwell’s movie “Gods and Generals,” and as the cover story in the latest Civil War Times magazine (headline: “Where is Stonewall’s Arm?).

“Those events have fascinated people for a long time,” Brent said. “Tons of local stories evolve around the whole thing.”

Today, nothing save the chimney base of an outbuilding remains from the Wilderness Tavern. Gettysburg National Military Park’s visitor center proudly exhibits the local residents’ table on which Dr. McGuire is said to have operated on his most famous patient, as well as a canvas stretcher said to be the one on which bearers carried the general off the battlefield.


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust:

NPR on Farm with the Arm:

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029