Just beyond its cross-the-T intersection with Brock Road, Route 3 west begins a gentle mile-long descent toward Wilderness Run. There, it crosses the creek and then jumps the border between Spotsylvania and Orange counties before pushing upward and westward again.
On its downward slope, the road passes out of a stand of trees, past a small housing development, and alongside a hayfield. A newly planted vineyard twines away from the road—and then rows and rows of corn. Near the domesticated grapevines stands a state historical marker: “Jackson’s amputation.”
Back in the 1860s, the Wilderness Tavern stood in this area—a cozy oasis in the middle of 70 square miles of tangled second-growth forest. In those days, Route 3—in its more modest iteration as the partially macadamized Orange Turnpike—cut across the property at a different angle. Today, the ruins of one of the tavern’s dependencies stands along the eastbound lanes.
The tavern and its environs provided one of the few plots of open ground for Confederates to set up a field hospital in during the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. It was here, after he was accidentally wounded by his own men along a night-shrouded road, that Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson was transported for treatment. As a result of the wounding, doctors were forced to amputate Jackson’s left arm.
From the area of the field hospital, one can see off in the far-away distance, like weak shadows cast against the horizon, the hazy silhouettes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They are fickle, those mountain, visible only on the nicest of days. Even then, roadside phone lines cross out part of the view.
The mountains are best seen from the very top of Route 3’s slope. Beyond that, they don’t stay visible long. As one drives down toward Wilderness Run, the mountains draw below the far treeline the way a turtle draws its head into its shell. By the time one reaches the amputation sign, the mountains have dropped away completely.
I see them as giant, geological whales basking in the sun, slipping silently beneath the surface as I get too close. Nary a ripple marks their vanishing.
In 1863, though, that treeline was lower, the second-growth forest less mature, the young trees not so high. The mountains, old and proud, would have stood taller, would have been more visible.
When Jackson was brought to the fields in this area, it was well after midnight on May 3. In the dark, he probably saw little and, in his condition and confusion, probably noticed even less.
But when morning came and his tent flap opened, could he see those mountains? Or the next day, when they loaded him on the ambulance for his 27-mile journey to the train depot at Guinea Station, had he caught a glimpse of them then?
Jackson’s home was on the far side of those mountains, in the Shenandoah Valley community of Lexington. “Of all the places . . . this little village is the most beautiful,” he’d once written of his adopted hometown.
Had the sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains evoked thoughts of home?
I ponder this each time I drive down that stretch of Route 3 on Mondays as I make my weekly trek from Chancellorsville, where I now live, to western New York, where I still teach. Will I see the mountains today? I wonder.
My commute by that point has only just begun. Home rests only a few miles behind me—which means it is still very much on my mind.
And so now, after months of this, the sight of those mountains has become for me wrapped with thoughts of home.
Did Jackson see them, too? Did Jackson think of home? Did he, too, hope to find himself safely back there when his journey was done?