I’ll never understand my husband’s interest in Civil War battlefields. What is interesting about the least civil activity known to mankind?
But at his urging, while he attends a training seminar in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, I agree to take my morning walk on the other side of the river, along the “Final Attack Trail.”
And I choose that only because “Bloody Lane” is not by the river.
What ghosts would I find, what remnants of the 23,000 blue and gray-clad men who died here?
And why is it called “Antietam National Battlefield: Recreational Park and Historic Monument?”
By recreational, surely they mean place where history is re-created.
Because ain’t nothin’ fun goin’ on here.
I begin my walk early, before the visitor center opens (9:00 a.m.) and before the dew has evaporated from the lovely grass that lines the trail. Aware my shoes would dampen, I take a quick spin through the cornfields that are now apparently leased to some lucky farmer. The lines of the cornfields follow the undulations of the hills and slip around the interruptions of stone — showing the farmer’s grace and technical skill.
Shadows here are long, tall and ominous, even on this clear bright October morning.
Soon I arrive at the southernmost parking place onsite and slip into a spot next to a Fed-Ex truck where a driver is apparently napping.
As I stumble along the unworn trail through fields of millet that appears almost ready to harvest, I imagine the bodies that fell here. Young men at the primes of their lives, dying, willingly or not, for the causes of freedom from slavery or for freedom of southern lifestyle, whisper here.
Oh, wait, is that what the civil war was about?
I re-create the arguments, the perception of rebel cause, freedom from northern tyranny, from economic hardship, from wearing expensive clothes because cotton-pickers must be paid.
These issues, which remain clouded today, caused the unfathomable pain, heartache and grief of misery that has been perfected it seems, only by man. Suffering imposed on 23,000 families from this battle alone.
My children, upon reaching the age of reason (age 7 in most humans) figured out right away – as most children probably do – that war is not the answer. One of my kids stated, somewhat obviously, ‘why don’t the leaders just sit down and play chess instead?’
As I seek the answer to these interminable questions, I focus on the lettering on the signs. Recognition, nay, glory, is herein handed to the victorious and vanquished alike, (with considerable political skill.) Is that why they went to war? Or was it truly to achieve the result – a little population control?
Why is this so interesting to my husband? I know he doesn’t watch horror films, that’s not the appeal.
All he can tell me is that it is fascinating—and that Antietam is beautiful.
So, it is a lack of imagination that makes it pleasurable to him? An inability to see the horror?
As I stride among the falling yellow leaves of sycamore and hickory trees, wonder when in the intervening 152 years since the bloodbath the cypress groves were planted and watch geese heading south, for just a moment I get a glimpse of the answer.
I pause to read a sign by the river. Rodman’s men climbed up this gulley, an action that saved many of Burnside’s men who were being picked off by riflemen on the ridge … it’s about strategy.
That is what is fascinating about war.
And if so, if my husband in his maleness finds this strategizing fascinating, is able to put aside the horrors my imagination won’t let me put aside … and if this is truly a part of what evolution has made the male human to be, then aren’t video games the answer? Suspend the reality and indulge — thus suspending also the need to exercise war in reality?
Antietam Creek runs slowly enough that even a canoe with a Labrador puppy aboard would not flip. It offers reflection, a need to find an upside.
He is right, it is beautiful.