After the Fire

The smell of smoke still hangs over the battlefield. It’s been a week since Park Service personnel have done their prescribed burn at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, and I’ve come out to see the scorched landscape for myself.

I’m not sure what I expected to see, but I am surprised by how the land has already started to green. Life has already begun to return.

The natural beauty of the Bloody Angle remains its most powerful draw for me. It stuns me with its beauty, yet it also infuses within me a deep sense of quiet. It’s the perfect place for reflection, for contemplation.

A swallowtail flickers by, rising and falling in heavy dips and rises with the beat of its wings. I see other insects, pinhead-sized, catching the sunlight as they flicker in spasmic orbits around the tall stalks of field grass that border the area of the burn.

I don’t know enough about birdcalls to know who’s calling me from the woods, but there are songs all around me. I do recognize the sounds of peepers in the marshy area on the far side of the road, down where the Stonewall Brigade had once been stationed; a wood frog croaks somewhere in the Mule Shoe’s interior.

As the best-preserved of the battlefields in the Fredericksburg area, Spotsylvania offers visitors a chance to see the land much as the soldiers themselves saw it when they first arrived in May of 1864. The armies soon trampled and stripped much of the land as they fortified positions and maneuvered.

And then the fighting started. In the rain. For twenty-two hours.

It’s impossible to fathom the carnage of that “saturnalia of blood.”

When I’ve given tours of the Bloody Angle, I’ve described some of that horror, and I’ve invited visitors to juxtapose that terrible experience with the natural beauty that surrounds them. It makes the horror seems almost surreal. “We’re able to enjoy this beautiful scenic landscape because of the sacrifices those men went through during those long, blood-soaked hours,” I remind them.

I know the landscape I look at today, black as it is, bears little resemblance to the muddy, blasted landscape after the battle. Trees looked then as splintered toothpicks; today they’re casting off their bud covers and beginning to foliate. Dogwoods are in full bloom. The air is already heavy with pollen.

By summer, the field would be an unruly tangle of grasses and young oak trees and scrub brush. It would be almost impossible to understand the ground, obscured as it would be by vegetation. Earthworks would drown under the foliage; they’d be swallowed whole, invisible to all.

Fire, as a natural process, is useful for keeping the field a field—and thus preserving the historical integrity of the landscape (which is, after all, why it was preserved in the first place). The Park Service uses fire as an important tool for maintaining healthy ecologies, too. Fire is part of the natural life cycle of any wild area.

Maybe the sprouting green casts a shade of hopefulness over the landscape, stoking my subconscious toward optimism. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the field after it’s bounced back from past burns. Maybe it’s because I know the terrible destruction war had once inflicted on this ground. Whatever it is, these swales and hills don’t look damaged or sullied.

The black-tinged landscape looks beautiful.

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photos by Caity Stuart

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