A large, bright ball of light crested the wooded horizon, over-spilling light into the fields below. No, this wasn’t the beginning of morning but rather of night. The moon was making its debut for the night.
Technically, it is illegal to be inside the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP battlefields after dusk. But on this night, I was not considered a felon. Now working for the natural resource division of the park, one of my responsibilities is to count the number of deer within our boundaries (in hunter lingo, went we “deer spotting”). While the task of tallying animals might not sound appealing, being out on the battlefield at night sounded invigorating.
Our cruise down the park road in the Spotsylvania Battlefield ended as we turned sharply down a farm road that took us along the perimeter of the field lining the Bloody Angle. My co-worker focused on driving, freeing me to gaze out the window across the field I had seen many times before but had never seen like this.
The clear, dark sky was dotted with precise points of the stars, dominated by the nearly full and ever-so-slowly rising moon. The grassy field below was illuminated by the moon’s glow. As a naturalist, my mind was immediately captivated by this rare and stunning beauty. But as a historian, my mind is further consumed by this new sight in front of me. The average visitor (and the average park employee, for that matter) only knows the battlefield stories with light. While ranging from bright, clear skies to dark, shadowy clouds, the ground is only ever accessible during the day. While the sun certainly aids in a clearer visitation, it doesn’t allow for the full story to be told.
Maintaining a normal sleeping schedule typically dissuades us from fully understanding the fickleness of a soldier’s routine. And when in battle, there was none. Depending on the circumstance, most soldiers were unaware of when the enemy might attack. In the case of Spotsylvania, , in May 1864, the second installment of General Grant’s attempt to force General Lee’s surrender, fighting took place at all times of the day and night. Literally. It didn’t matter if there was sunlight or not—there was no “routine” for these fighting schedules. So, to be privy to this new look of the fields, and not just to see them in a new “light,” was an honor.
For many of you hearing of my adventure into the dark fields, your first thought might be something like this: “Did you see, or feel, any ghosts?!” While I am not a believer in spirits from the afterlife, I am one to respect the ground souls were lost on. No, to answer your potential question, I did not see any ghosts (unless you count the roaming deer as such).
But with the darkness of the night sky, the stillness of the air, and the solitude of the surroundings, I could sense that there was unfinished business on those open fields.
Thousands of lives abruptly ended on those fields in the most gruesome of settings. The sun rises each day so that we might be able to see what remains and learn of their tragedy. The moon, however, hangs in the night sky to stand guard over the stories, too.