What I Learned Watching Two Dogs On A Battlefield

Road warriors in “their” motorhome before heading out to the battlefield.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my adopted aunt wanted a personal tour of New Market Battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley, and I was pleased to share one of my favorite historic sites with her. This battlefield tour walk was a little different than others I’ve led because we took her two dogs with us. (New Market Battlefield State Historical Park welcomes leashed dogs and responsible owners.)

Bosco, a seven-year-old black Labrador Retriever, thinks the world is made for him to explore and enjoy. He can’t get enough of anything, from food to the comfy spot on the couch to all the new sights and smells on a trail. We jokingly call him “the drunken sailor” because of how he wanders haphazardly from side to side of the path, tugging at his leash and anxious to make everything the grandest adventure. Then, there’s Bailey, a seven-year-old Great Pyrenees, who stalks gracefully along and watches the scene with a studious, judgmental air. She’s the one who quickly senses danger and make subtle movements to protect those she loves from potential harm. Shy and quiet, she loves the cold and is one of the most sensitive guard dogs I’ve ever met.

The battlefield walk had gone extremely well. We took the trail from the museum toward the Bushong House, then through the kitchen yard, to the orchard, and the battle fence. Bosco had reeled his way through it all while Bailey paced carefully, and the humans had been having a good conversation about historic leadership. We entered the Field of Lost Shoes, descending into the former mud pit and then climbing the gentle ascent to the Cadets’ marker cannon.

Bailey does her impression of “Stonewall” and will not move closer to the cannon.

As we approached the gold painted cannon, Bailey started acting nervous. I was walking her and verbally reassured her. About five yards from the gun, she froze, then started to cower and slip behind me. There was nothing visible to the human eye except the cold, silent cannon. My aunt and I looked at each other, puzzled by Bailey’s behavior since she had never been near a cannon before and shouldn’t have been afraid, but we didn’t say anything about it then. I patted the dog and tried to calm her. She eased to my side again, but was very unwilling to get any closer to the cannon.

Meanwhile, my aunt had Bosco and wanted a photo next to the iconic artillery piece. She posed, and as I got ready to take the photo, Bosco decided to jump up on his hindlegs and peer into the cannon’s muzzle. The picture looks like we might have placed a treat there, but we had not. After laughing at his antics, we continued up the slope of Bushong Hill. Bailey relaxed when we moved away from the cannon, and she did not visibly react when we passed to the two cannons at the crest.

“What’s THIS?” (The second before his nose was in the cannon)

That night over pie and tea my aunt and I reflected on the two dog’s reactions. Bosco acted predictably—with great curiosity. Bailey’s behavior was harder to guess. However, the next day we were walking at a different historical site and along a path through a potential graveyard (not marked, and possibly a future archaeology study site) and Bailey went into “get me out of here” mode. She did not shy the way she had at the cannon, but she noticeably picked up her pace for no visible reason and was focused on getting somewhere else, trying to pull me out of the area. Then, my aunt told me that Bailey had a similar reaction over a year ago when my aunt’s mom was nearing the end of her life. We began to wonder if Bailey smelled or sensed Death. Did she see that cold metal cannon as a death-dealing weapon?

In the next week, the memory of the two dogs’ reactions at New Market Battlefield stuck with me. Perhaps both of them represent the ways we humans should approach battlefields and military history.

There’s a place for the eagerness…

  • “Wow! This is incredible.”
  • “How did this cannon work?”
  • “Let me touch and see EVERYTHING.”
  • “The regimental lines moved where?”

But then there is also a place for solemn remembrance…

  • “This is a place where people died.”
  • “Every effect shot from this cannon caused pain and suffering—physical, mental, and emotional.”
  • “Sometimes we just need to pause, and think, and feel.”
  • “In those lines of battle were individuals who had hopes and dreams.”
My battlefield dog-buddies at Montpelier

Personally, I want to have my geeky moments when, like Bosco, I will literally (or figuratively) stick my head in a cannon. However, I also need those moments where, like Bailey, I recoil in horror and sadness at that same cannon as I remember the loss and sacrifice. And that’s what two dogs on a battlefield reminded me to explore and see.

5 Responses to What I Learned Watching Two Dogs On A Battlefield

  1. Great combo of two of my loves. The War and pups. Sarah, you are a great writer and I always find myself looking forward to your next article. You bring a unique twist to the War be it dogs perspective or your cooking series recently. Thank you.

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