Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Weirdness in Wilderness: A president, Marines and buried arm

An aerial view of Marines forming a profile on the Wilderness battlefield of President Harding.
Apparently not all of the Marines were pleased to be there, as these cropped enlargements
of the photo above show.  (Library of Congress)
Clad in white T-shirts, these Marines apparently formed President Harding's "collar."

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In late September and early October 1921, 57 years after the Confederate and U.S. armies slaughtered each other in the Wilderness, U.S. Marines held maneuvers on the old Virginia battleground. The event included what you would expect when the military stages a sham battle with  5,000 "Devil Dogs": machine guns and mortars, military airplane flyovers, anti-aircraft guns, massive searchlights, a camouflaged tank, an "attack" on a hill ... and grunts forming a silhouette of their commander in chief for a photograph near the final resting place of the arm of a revered Confederate general.

At the Marine manuevers at the Wilderness battlefield
in 1921, 
President Harding (left) visits with a
Confederate veteran. (Library of Congress)
Yes, sometimes history can get a little weird.

Exuding a "man of the people" demeanor, President Warren Harding attended the event, staying overnight with the First Lady on the battlefield in the same military encampment as the troops. The Hardings ate a breakfast of ham and eggs in the officers' mess, but they didn't exactly rough it in the wilderness -- their large tent, the "canvas White House," included three rooms, hardwood floors, electric lights, and a sunken tub with hot running water "electrically heated." (No word if there was a fully stocked bar for the president, who enjoyed whiskey, and cabaret singers recruited from Paris.) Two Black servants of Fredericksburg families tended to the Hardings' needs. 

The president chatted with the few Civil War vets who attended the event, sang hymns with the Marines, reviewed troops, somehow endured the Marine Corps Band playing "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," and enthusiastically watched the war games. "His neat, brown suit was dusty, he was ruddy faced, and down his cheeks trickled small streams of perspiration," a wire service reporter described the president's battlefield appearance. Florence Harding, who witnessed part of the battle, told the commanding general she thought there ought to be "a little more noise," but the Marines apparently were short on ammo.

The president, however, was hardly disappointed. Harding loved his Marines, and they loved their commander in chief back.

"I shall not exaggerate a single word when I tell you that from my boyhood to the present hour, I have always had a profound regard for the United States marines and I am leaving camp today with my regard strengthened and a geniune affection added," he told them in a speech.

The Marines -- who had marched to the battlefield from their base in Quantico, Va., roughly 40 miles -- cheered loudly. (Or was the roar because their feet were sore?) "The unaffected, human fashion in which [Harding] displayed interest in all the affairs of the camp bridged the gap of officialdom between the President of the United States and a buck private in the Marine Corps," the New York Times reported. "Each was well satisfied with the other."

President Harding and the First Lady pose with some of the few Civil War vets who attended.
(Library of Congress)
But back to that revered general's buried arm ... 

Near the end of their stay, the Hardings examined markers in the Lacy family graveyard behind Ellwood Manor, HQ for U.S. Army General Gouveneur Warren during the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-7, 1864. Among them was a stone marking the burial site for the left arm of Stonewall Jackson, who lost the limb to amputation after his friendly fire wounding at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Prior to the visit, Florence Harding admitted to "sort of a creepy feeling" knowing the arm was buried there. To put the cemetery "in a condition in honor of Jackson," Marines days earlier cleared weeds, added a white fence, and repaired and decorated the monument atop the general's buried arm. (Who knows if the limb is still there.)

Marker for Stonewall Jackson's amputated left arm
at the Lacy Family Cemetery, near Ellwood Manor.
Before the Hardings departed for their three-hour drive back to the White House, hundreds of Marines quickly formed the profile likeness of the president in a field near Jackson's buried arm. Roughly a dozen Devil Dogs clad in white T-shirts were the "collar" of the president's shirt, undoubtedly a plum assignment. A photographer in a high platform shot images of the stunt, which was supposed to be a surprise for the president, but word leaked. (Hey, who's that stray dude at upper left of the image?) Judging from their faces and body language (see cropped enlargements of photo above), some Marines preferred a good ass-chewing from their sergeant instead. 

Unsurprisingly, Harding was impressed with the "colossal living picture of himself."

"He was extremely interested in this accomplishment," the Times wrote, "and watched the making of the picture with close attention." 

In this cropped enlargement, we spot the "stray dude." 

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? Email me here.


-- Alexandria Gazette, Oct. 4, 1921.
-- New York Times, Oct. 3, 1921.
-- New York Tribune, Oct. 3, 1921.
-- The News Leader, Staunton, Va., Oct. 2, 1921.
-- The Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 2, 1921.


  1. This picture was taken

  2. See this article. Any number of people have done some digging at Ellwood to find Jackson's amputated arm. When I took tour groups there Bob Krick or Ed Bearss always told the story about Smedley Butler.,%E2%80%9Cdug%20up%E2%80%9D%20Jackson%E2%80%99s%20arm%20and%20then%20reburied%20it.

  3. Another amazing piece of history.
    Thanks John.



  4. Thank you for an interesting article.
    My kids still mock me for dragging them a half a mile through a hot cornfield to visit the grave of Stonewall Jackson's left arm.
    My wife was amazed that we needed a permission ticket to do so.
    We also visited the house and room where General Jackson died.
    "Let us cross the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."
    Visiting Lexington however, the kids liked Jackson's grave, with lemons tossed over the fence.
    Although they were not interested in Robert E. Lee's tomb, Traveller is buried on the side of the chapel, and the kids liked that visit.
    Now, that's real family fun.