Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Journal Entry: Wilderness, Virginia; May 23, 1865

 I have been staying in the one room school house, west of the blacksmith shop. I am still uncomfortable sleeping in a bed, so most nights, spread my blankets on the floor, my pistol close at hand. My night mind resembles the rattle and chatter of the camps; it is only when I rise, with the welcome morning light, that I can work one task at a time to quiet my mind and see a moment without sabers of doubt flashing, gashing me.

My brothers have left for Fredericksburg; they want to be a part of the rebuilding. They each find enjoyment in the hand work of carpentry and mechanics. Even though Fredericksburg is now known as part of Military District No. 1, they feel that one day she will again be our beautiful city. There are too many people in the city for me, too many hollow eyes standing, staring into ruins that once held life; too many hollow hearts, looking for opportunities to take advantage. Had President Lincoln lived, a more perfect union might have prevailed, but I fear retribution, not reconstruction, may be the new order for some time to come.

Marianna has returned from western Virginia with Cousin Betty. Betty’s Ellwood home has been taken over by a carpetbagger who declared her farm a part of the spoils of war. She will move to Fredericksburg until they are able to evict him. My brothers offered to remove him by force, but thought better of it; no reason to be hanged now after surviving the noose for four years.

Marianna has grown quiet, as have we all. Her work in the hospitals was greeted with disdain by some doctors working there. There may now be a path to equality for men that were slaves, but women of all colors are still treated as chattel. She longs to go to New York to join the suffrage movement; if she goes, I will follow. So many women worked tirelessly throughout the war to bring equality to all people, but it seems that many of the abolitionists were only interested in freeing men that would vote and work for Northern interests. That is a broad brush I paint with, but I see no desire among the politicians to now bestow equality on women.   

I hope Marianna will stay with me on our land; I will be farmer, blacksmith, miller, cooper, all of the tasks it takes to rebuild, even if I can never return to the simple sylvan paradise that was the Wilderness. If I stay busy in my work, I can control my doubts, my fears, my fitful nights.

I cannot explain my doubts to Marianna, so we simply walk to the run along the water’s edge near the plank road. I sit on the split oak, while Marianna wanders along the smooth stones, spotting spring minnows; the sparkles of sun from the water skip about her skirts; tiny stars of hope and happiness that seem to always circle her. She is my hope, my one happiness, though I never find the words to say it true. I have known her since we were children and still can not describe the depth of her eyes.

Words seem insufficient; Marianna says only deeds are true. Together, one task at a time now; we two could create a perfect union, with no separation, no words. I could cease the babble and chatter; a honeysuckle vine could tie this journal to a piece of the split oak and float it away down the Wilderness Run. While Mari watches the minnows, I can watch my fight float away. I can take her hand and leave my pistol on the plank road.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Walk to the Run

Journal Entry: Wilderness, Virginia; May 3, 1865

When I left to join the cavalry, I had fears, because I knew nothing. Returning from war, my fear has grown, because I know too much.

Returning from war is as difficult as leaving for war. I try to return home, but everything reminds me of war. I am back on my land, but this was the field of battle; it no longer resembles the fertile farm of four years ago. The land is scarred and aches, like my own wounds ache. Just a year ago, 28,000 casualties on this ground within a mile in any direction; one battle of the hundreds of battles; every witness tree weeps from its wounds. The burnt pine woods hide shrieking skulls still waiting to be recovered. At night, I hear them wail. 

I will work to turn our warhorses to draft horses pulling the plow, but the wild-eyed stare of the cavalry charge is still in their eyes; still in my own eyes in the glass. I have avoided mirrors for some time; it shakes me to come upon my reflection.  After four years on the front, I cannot sleep without a pistol beneath the pillow.

I walk down to the Wilderness Run to listen to the sweet rippling creek song of my youth. A ancient fallen oak, split straight down the middle by lightning, provides a bench along the upper half of the S curve in the run; its torn edges remind me how I felt, split down the middle at Spotsylvania. Spring rains have flooded and receded, like the fight that flooded Virginia and receded. A far off wind in the high trees can, at times, sound like a thousand warhorses at gallop and I am at once back battling at Brandy Station, with ten thousand troopers in crazed combat. I am not yet home when every sound and sight brings me back to war. Where are the whispers that calmed me at Fredericksburg?

I move along and sit close to the edge of the run, where its S turns to shallows and it sings sweet lullabies that too soon turn to the sound of battery wagon wheels fording Antietam Creek and I am back at the red fields of Sharpsburg, with the smell of blood and black powder.

Hawk, high above the tree tops, sails in circle, effortless, shining silver in the afternoon sun; smaller circles until he barely moves at all. The stillness of his flight returns me to the hellish fire at Gettysburg with its birds above the battlefield. Nature stays constant; still I am not home.

The Wilderness Run rolls, drip-rippling over stones, white foam rising, its rhythm repeats, repeats, repeats, reflecting sun and soul, ancient runes in water; are we water; running, repeating, running from our past, and then repeating. The run repeats the sounds that I hear in it, be they violent or peaceful. I must work the sounds away from the sounds of war.

There will come a day when I stroll in the cool of the early evening to sit on that fallen tree; when the tree will be a tree and that is all it will be; the wind will just be the wind; the creek will be the creek. The sounds will be simple and sweet, and will not remind me of other times. There will only be the sound of now, the union of the land and the man. And then, I will be home.

Until that day, to find the calm; I close my eyes and repeat the lines I wrote at Fredericksburg

I am the breath,
the whisper,
of all that came before.
I am the breath,
the promise,
of all those still to come.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Penny Parcels

Journal Entry: Front Royal, Virginia; April 30, 1865

I always figured my first mission after war ended would be to collect the parcels I have hidden over the course of my travels; penny parcels cobbled together from captured cartridge cases and pieces of mislaid metal and wood, holding small bits of life and memories lost in the chaos of four war years. Finding a penny; I picked it up. Now, I am not sure I want to retrieve those memories at all.

Those parcels are stored, buried in the deep soil of my soul. If I try to unearth them, they may fall apart like dead leaves in my hand. I can not go back to those times; I can not go back there; there is no there. Let someone a hundred years from now unearth that life; it is no longer mine.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Quiet Beast

Journal Entry: Winchester Virginia; April 29, 1865

I am traveling under the white flag; our army has surrendered, but I carry this reminder to soldiers who might fire first out of instinct, or out of vengeance. That is who we are now; men of war; the bloodstain does not wash away in a day. We are each uncertain how to react around the next bend in the road, to the next sound unseen. Who am I now? What am I now? I am the quiet beast outside your door; my claws are .44 caliber and never retract. I may turn on a spur, and take you down, not out of anger, but out of habit. This is the uncertainty of returning soldiers riding the long roads home.