I joined the DC-area Sierra Club chapter in an afternoon walk through the Antietam battlefield in western Maryland, followed by a drive through the annual illumination.
It was enough just walking by spots still haunted by the slaughter of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers in a single day: a cornfield, the renamed “bloody lane,” a church, a bridge that too many died trying to hold or take over. There was the farmhouse that a family had abandoned out of fear of what they suspected was coming.
Monuments and plaques throughout what is now part of the National Park Service detailed the various attacks and withdrawals, too strategically descriptive for my taste for what had resulted in the deaths of many husbands, sons and fathers.
My mind kept returning to lots of questions: what were they thinking as they kept moving forward into cannon volleys and musket shots? As they fired upon men who could have been relatives or former neighbors?
At dinner afterward, I happened to sit next to a man retired from the Army. I asked him what propels people into such situations. He replied that a man might go into war for “country, mama and apple pie” but in the heat of battle he fights to protect the buddies on either side of him.
That conversation and the whole day’s experience were of more interest to me given that I’m reading a wonderful novel — My Name Is Mary Sutter — that is set during the Civil War.
Throughout the walk we saw thousands of volunteers out in the fields lighting candles set inside paper bags, in preparation for the night’s special event. I stopped to talk to one guy, who was the great-great-grandson of a Union chaplain. He said other Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War had come from as far away as Connecticut.
Since we had gotten there early for the walk, our cars were first in line to slowly drive through the battlefield after dark. The three of us in the car I was in were mostly silent as we contemplated the 23,000 luminaries spread out throughout the vast landscape, each luminary for a soldier killed, wounded or missing during this one-day battle. It was a sacred time to think of an experience I can never even begin to fathom, and the wives, mothers and children who never saw their loved ones again.
While we were waiting for the solemn procession to begin, our driver popped in a CD and searched for a particular tracks. It was a reading of a letter of a soldier to his wife, detailing his sense of duty in fighting for the Union and his regret at the years lost to her and their sons if he were to be killed. He was killed just a few days later.