Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Disarmament (sorry!)

Everyone has their own personality quirks--I'm not talking here about dark, twisted secrets or the proverbial skeletons in the closet--just some aspect of the Total Self that doesn't entirely mesh with the rest. Like the well-educated woman who should read the many classic works of literature she hasn't gotten to yet...but vastly prefers the collected works of J.K Rowling (oh wait...that's me).  Or the clean-living, healthy-eating woman who is also a chocoholic (um, yeah...me again).  Anyway, what I actually meant to confess is:  I'm a total non-violent, anti-war, pacifist-peacenik...with a strange penchant for visiting Civil War sites. I have no idea where this fascination came from, unless it started when I read Gone with the Wind approximately 17 times as a teenager. And I don't particularly care about battlefield logistics or strategy--whose regiment attacked on what hill or which battalion was outflanked and retreated down what road--I just enjoy photographing cannons...and meandering through graveyards...and seeing history recreated  in buildings that were constructed 150 years ago.

In my travels I've hit some of the "biggies" in the War Between the States: Gettysburg, Antietam, Monocacy, Manassas, Vicksburg, Appomattox, Harper's Ferry, to name a few. Yet somehow, even though it's only 70 miles away, even though my late Great Uncle Jere and Great Aunt Phoebe owned the second oldest house in the city, I had thus far failed to explore Fredericksburg, Virginia. So when my family was away this past weekend, and the Road Trip Bug bit me, I headed into the South for an educational field trip.

First stop: Chancellorsville--which would have been a stupefyingly boring waste of time (lots of big empty fields, marked by plaques describing troop movement....YAWN) if it weren't for the ultra-helpful and friendly Park Ranger who took the time to give me a brief history lesson. As he handed me my useful National Park Service map, he pointed out that, if I chose to make a small side trip, I could visit the Wilderness Battlefield. And just why would I want to do this, you may wonder? Because: General "Stonewall" Jackson's arm is buried there.  To be perfectly clear: not the whole body, just the ARM...WITH A HEADSTONE*. Now I ask you, how could I possibly miss this? It's just so compelling, in a delightfully bizarre and macabre sort of way!

Clearly, this needed to become a priority of my excursion. I found the scene of the...um..."internment", Ellwood House, tucked at the end of a quiet, winding country lane. Hoping to leave behind the (stifling, 100-degree) heat of the day for a few blessed minutes of air-conditioning, I opened the front door;  immediately three nice older gentlemen welcomed me and leaped to my assistance. The first Retired Volunteer led me to the "parlor" which had been reconstructed down to the most minute, exact details, using correspondence that described the room as it appeared during wartime meetings in 1863. In his quiet, gentle southern voice (in which "eighteen-sixty foh-uh" has 6 syllables--say it out loud and you'll hear what I mean!), with hands folded across his portly frame, he shared some of the colorful history of the property. He was an absolute treasure.

Then his partner, a silver-haired, distinguished-professor type, instructed me in the use of the interactive film clips in the next room. When I had dutifully listened to the presentation and absorbed all the facts and lore I could, I prepared to venture back out onto the grounds. The Professor followed me onto the porch and, with twinkling eyes and a sly sidelong look, whispered out of the corner of his mouth, "are you going to see The Arm?" It didn't seem polite or respectful to snicker (no matter how much I wanted to), so I earnestly assured him I was about to do just that, and he pointed me in the right direction and wished me well.

So of course, I proceeded to the small graveyard to...pay my respects? gawk in utter amazement? marvel at the absurdity? (a little bit of all of these, as a matter of fact). The General's arm is marked by the only headstone in that tiny cemetery, and once you've taken the obligatory picture, there's really nothing else to do. But my Fredericksburg experience would have been tragically incomplete without the Tale of the Arm. And what a weird, fantastic "Been There, Done That" kind of story it is, wouldn't you agree?

(*the Ranger also felt inspired to share a bit of related trivia with me: there is one other headstone in the United States dedicated to the final resting place of a famous person's...ahem...body part. The limb in question would be Benedict Arnold's leg, buried in Saratoga, NY. No, I do NOT have plans to go see it...right now, anyway!)

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