For the past few weeks, I have been working on a passion project and have been out of the blogging world. As I was researching and writing, I’ve been keeping up with the comings and goings of the real world and history world.
In the past few days, many of my friends on Facebook were writing about the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg and what they were doing to remember. Others were writing about the United States ending its nearly nine years of operations in Iraq. The two moments in time brought up a memory that I think about often as I write history.
In October 2005, I was a new seasonal historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. I had spent the summer as an intern and was fortunate enough to be hired on as a paid employee. I was only working weekends at that point as I finished my undergraduate degree. On that October weekend, I went out to give my last tour and had a small group of visitors walking the Sunken Road with me. On my Sunken Road tours, I always tried to tell the story of not only Marye’s Heights but the story of the battle as a whole. As usual my tour touched on the street fighting of December 11th and the struggle for Prospect Hill. Naturally, the bulk of the story dealt with the area we were walking along.
As I ended the tour, a gentleman approached me with numerous questions about the street-fighting phase of the battle. He wanted to know the tactics used, whether the men had actually been trained to fight that way, what the casualties were, and how the common soldier coped with that phase of battle. I answered all of his questions, and he added a few more. As we made our way back to the visitor center, he told me why he’d asked so many questions about this particular phase of battle. He was a captain in the United States Marine Corps and had just made his way back from Iraq. He and his men fought in the battles for Fallujah and were some of the troops tasked with holding the city after the major fighting had ended. Though the battle was over, he and his men were still subjected to enemy sniper fire.
One day in 2005, his men were making their way down one of the streets of the city when a sniper opened on them. It took them a while to locate and eliminate the sniper. When it was all said and done, the captain had lost three men killed in action to this single sniper.
What brought him to Fredericksburg was a drive up I-95. He told me he pulled off the highway because he had heard of Fredericksburg and the street fighting that took place there, so he wanted to learn more about the action. The captain was up for another tour of duty, and it seemed to me that he was looking for answers. He was not looking just for answers on how to deal with situations on the modern battlefield, though; it seemed as if he was wrestling to find other answers in his own mind.
Before we parted, I wished him luck and thanked him for his service. He thanked me for the tour and told me he had to get back on the road and up to Washington because the next day he was going to Arlington National Cemetery to lay to rest the three men he had lost in Iraq. To this day, I can still see the look on his face as he told me. It was a mixture of sadness and confusion. Honestly I had no idea how to even respond. According to him, the hardest part of the next day would be facing their wives and loved ones. He turned, got back into his car, and drove north.
Of the hundreds of men and women of the armed forces I had the privilege to lead on staff rides or walking tours, this young Marine captain sticks out in my mind. He came to a battlefield of the past to try to find answers to modern questions. In a way, I believe he was looking to the past to cope in some way with the present. You would think that with what he had seen and what he had to deal with next, another battlefield would be the last place to turn. I still hope, to this day, that he found some of the solace he was looking for.