A Hello to Arms
The slow sad sound of trumpet taps recalls with an abiding heaviness that awful conflagration. That war between the states -- that Civil War -- that abomination of madness and valor which gives us pause every Memorial Day.
And since Memorial Day weekend kicks-off the season of high-spirited vaykay, what better way to turbo-start summertime than with a celebration of America's war dead? For our part, here's a terrible swift tour of some anatomical reminders of the Civil War.
624,000 Americans lost their lives on those battlefields. Major General Daniel Sickles was lucky; he just lost a leg. While defending the Union during the Battle of Gettysburg, a cannonball struck below the knee, shattering the bone. The leg was cut off.
Sickles, who previously was a congressman from New York, gave the leg bones to what is now the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC. He used to visit them every year on the anniversary of the amputation. (The General also murdered Philip Barton Key, son of the author of the Star Spangled Banner. Key was having an affair with Sickles' wife. Sickles got himself off by pleading temporary insanity.)
Bravery was not limited to the victors, of course, nor the nobility forged in the crucible of combat. And few Confederates were more noble than General Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee's "right arm." In the early days of the war, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia surprised the oddsmakers by winning battle after battle. In Chancellorsville, though, Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men. He had his left arm amputated, and died eight days later. It was as if Lee's right arm was amputated, too. Two months later came Gettysburg; it was all downhill for the South from then on.
At the Chancellorsville battle site, near Fredericksburg, VA, the spot where Jackson was hit is marked by a large obelisk (a puny cross for some "unknown Union soldier" pales next to it). A marker nearby shows the spot where the arm was amputated. Jackson died of his wounds near Guinea, VA, some thirty miles away, and the simple Stonewall Jackson Shrine there offers little to thrill seekers. His body was transported to Lexington, VA, where it was buried in the haunted Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.
Or most of his body was, anyway. Because the arm has its own grave. In 1929 it was exhumed from a nondescript crypt and reburied in a steel box on a plantation known as Ellwood in the Wilderness Battlefield. Little has changed around the field in which it now lays. There is only one gravestone, the one belonging to Jackson's arm.
Lasting longer than Jackson, but still succumbing, was the chief of Lee's cavalry, J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart received his mortal wound defending the perimeter of Richmond, VA, from the forces of General George Custer.
The coat worn by Stuart is exhibited in Richmond's Virginia Historical Society Museum (and displayed so that the hole is clearly visible). The field where he fell, north of town, has been marked with a memorial, though it is encroached upon by a business park, mall and housing development (sporting street names like Stonewall Court). The monument was erected by the "Veterans of Stuart's Calvary" in 1888, and has 16-Magazine inscriptions like "He was fearless and faithful. Pure and powerful. Tender and true."
In truth, the Civil War was not fought exclusively by famous, dashing generals on their mounts. It was also fought by the nameless, the faceless, and the equally limbless. So we end our journey with a respectful visit to the Arm of the Unknown Soldier at the Antietam Battlefield Museum in Sharpsburg, MD.
In a back room, up on the wall in its own pine display box, is the arm. It is displayed lengthwise, underneath several carbines similarly positioned. John Ray, who runs the place, purchased the museum thirty years ago without knowing that it had this grisly relic, found by a farmer plowing his fields three weeks after the Battle of Antietam.
Though the tapered fingers make the arm look feminine, a pathologist claimed that it belonged to a 19-year-old boy. He couldn't tell whether it was Union or Confederate arm, but others speculate that, with its nice manicure, it more-than-likely belonged to a Southerner.
Raggedly ripped just below the elbow, the arm is clearly the museum's main attraction, even though John Ray continues to add bugles and spent shells to his collection. "Ten years ago, I was offered $10,000 for the arm, and I said, 'No.' Other museums have this other stuff, but nobody has an arm."
Feb. 2012: The arm is now in the collection of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (48 E. Patrick Street, Frederick, Maryland). Its current status is "in conservation," quarantined and checked for other conservation/preservation issues prior to public display.
Note: The first amputation of the Civil War is reenacted every year at the Battle of Philippi, in Philippi, WV -- Home of the Mummies of the Insane! The first land battle of the Civil War happened in Philippi on June 3,1861. Confederate J. E. Hanger was hit by a cannonball, had his leg amputated by a Union doctor, later invented an artificial limb, and started a company which became one of the largest manufacturers of wooden legs in the world. There's a plaque in Philippi that commemorates the fateful cannon blast.