The day was hot; summer announcing itself. There’s a smell in the south — warm earth and wilting verdure — that I forget every fall and rediscover in the late spring: the smell of summer. The breeze stirring my hair didn’t cool me, though it moved the wheat in which I stood. From the top of the hill, looking down over the field, I tried to imagine the scene 150 years earlier when the Battle of Chancellorsville raged.
I stood at the spot where Robert Lee’s Confederate troops flanked Joseph Hooker’s Federal forces. Among the Federal troops at Chancellorsville was the Connecticut Fifth, the unit to which the hero in my forthcoming novel, Brave in Heart, belongs. Without spoiling the book, the battle is significant to the story I’m telling. I’ve looked at engravings. Read survivors’ accounts. But I needed to see it for myself.
I’ve walked battlefields before. Little Bigfoot. Lexington. Yorktown.
I’ve never seen more than half a dozen people on any one of these. There’s almost always a middle-aged man clutching a David McCullough tome trying to stump the nervous looking NPS ranger — when there even is a NPS ranger. Usually I’ve had the spaces to myself.
Sometimes battle changed the land, trenches or craters remain as evidence of the violence. Seeing the landscape can help you understand what happened. A ravine that funneled troops into the bloody angle on the Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefield, for example, which wasn’t marked on my map. Other times, the significance of the space must be taken on faith. Why is this field significant and not that one?
Of course battlefields only record certain kinds of history. Military history tends to be top-down, focusing on the achievements or failures of commanders. It does not tell us about the causes of conflicts, about social and economic factors. It valorizes the individual at the same time it obliterates him.
The contributions of women to history are not generally honored with plaques; their graves are not hallowed. My battlefield fascination stands at odds with my training and my politics in so many ways.
I accept the weirdness of battlefield tourism. The morbidity of it. I’ve heard the lurid questions, felt repelled by the details recorded in clinical prose on interpretive signs, and wanted to scream about the humanity written over by the language. And yet still I go.
Before my trip to Chancellorsville last month, I’m not sure I could have explained what compelled me to visit these sites. But standing on that hill in the Virginia heat, I knew that it was about proving history real.
In the preface to Assassination Vacation, her book about pilgrimages to sites associated with the three 19th century presidential assassinations, Sarah Vowell writes,
I crave my relics for the same reason … We’re religious. I used to share the king’s faith. And while I gave up God a long time ago, I never shook the habit of wanting to believe in something bigger and better than myself. So I replaced my creed of everlasting life with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … It’s reassuring to be able to go look at something real, something you can put your hands on … Well, come along on one of these We Cannot Escape History weekend escape packages and we’ll genuflect before the bone from inside his head … somehow, jumping up a foot to stare at my own face framed in Lincoln’s Springfield shaving mirror makes the whole far-fetched, grisly, inspiring story of the country seem more shocking and more true. (11 – 12)
I love the United States, but we’re not, or at least we’re not only, the values we celebrate on the Fourth of July — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom, the flag, and opportunity. We’re the messy, ongoing struggle to assure every American access to those things. We are imperfect and contradictory and our promise is unfulfilled.
So I went to Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse to honor what was done there but also to remind myself the work is unfinished. When we remember those battles, we’re charged to continue the perfecting revolution. I hoped to ground in the physical the words and images in my head and to keep writing about the conflicts that made our chaotic nation.