I have a confession: It’s been almost two months since I’ve been on a Civil War battlefield, and I am getting antsy.
My travels this summer have taken me far and wide, so I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff: the rocky coast of Acadia National Park awash in the pounding surf of the Atlantic; the dim silhouette of Chicago set against a fiery sunset on the far side of Lake Michigan as I stood on the lakeshore at Indiana Dunes; and the rough-hewn frontier life of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home. I’ve walked in the footsteps of Martin Van Buren at his home outside Albany and in the wheelchair tracks of FDR at his summer cottage on Campobello Island. I’ve paid tribute the veterans of the U.S.S. Indianapolis at their national memorial and I’ve watched Ben & Jerry make ice cream.
But no battlefields. Not since May.
My constant companions for most of the summer have been Shelby Foote, the man who wrote, and Grover Gardner, the man who performed, The Civil War: A Narrative. I’m nearly, nearly, finally, finally finished with the third volume. One-hundred thirty-two-and-a-half hours (132.5!). It has taken all summer. That’s a whole lot of Civil War—but it’s no battlefield.
The closest I’ve come to a battlefield was St. Albans, Vermont, site of a Confederate raid on October 19, 2012. I’m not sure I can even qualify it as a real battlefield because Kris and I, when we battlefield, like to break out cigars as we walk. Considering the unkind history St. Albans has had with fire, though, I didn’t dare light up.
The great irony is that my dissertation deals with the connections we have to our Civil War landscape. Why are battlefields important to us? Why are they important to me? That I’m not on these battlefields at the moment is disappointing to me—and every word I write reminds me of my separation from the land.
That’s the crux of it, I think. I have a powerful connection to the land itself and the stories that have endowed the land with special meaning. I have made a professional career telling these stories and sharing them with readers and visitors.
I also know there are stories I don’t know—stories that I’ve not yet learned, stories forgotten over time, stories never told. Lost stories haunt these battlefields surely as any ghost, just as real and as unreal.
Other lands have other stories, of course—stories of hardscrabble daily life, stories of invention, stories of silent wonder, where nature just gets to be and I, as a visitor, get to revel in it. In fact, one of the things I most appreciate about battlefields is their natural beauty. Most Civil War historians I know can classify trees into three types (living, dead, and Christmas) and animals into two types (critters and varmints) and are content to leave it at that—but they all have their own ways of immersing themselves in the contemplative environments the battlefields offer. “Any day in the field is better than a day in the office,” one friend says.
I have another week of writing to get through, and then I’ll be hitting the road again for a mini speaking tour that will take me, for the first time ever, into the majestic Smokey Mountains. I’m particularly looking forward to that. Then I’ll soak in the rays on the Outer Banks and sleep under the stars with the Atlantic lulling me to sleep. I’ll visit my old hometown, the “Sweetest Place on Earth,” Hershey, PA, where the most serious battle is between willpower and chocolate.
But during that haul, I will also sweep north through Virginia. I will get to hear the gravel crunch under my feet as I walk Fredericksburg’s Sunken Road. I will stand under the oak tree at the Bloody Angle and appreciate the horror those men went through there so that I can stand there and enjoy peace. Maybe, as I continue to pass north, I’ll watch the sun set from Little Round Top.
I will finally get a battlefield fix after a long summer of loving the land from afar.