Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Ghosts of Antietam

The Ghosts of Antietam

I stand where the raw recruits of Colonel Dwight Morris stood over 150 years before. The wind gently brushes my salt and pepper hair and ripples the long expanse of grass slowly rising in front of me to the wagon road, known throughout history now as The Sunken Road. The sun bathes the entire expanse in bright warmth.

A cloud crosses over me, briefly slightly darkening my little patch and giving my skin a respite from the sun. Did I hear the jingle of a harness and a muffled word? I look left and right. Perhaps it was an exclamation from a couple further up on the interpretive trail I had so recently left.

I step forward with a slow measured step, much like the boys of the 108th New York, greeting the elephant for the first time that fateful September day. I swear the truck so far away sounds like the drums beaten by the tiny drummer boys. It must be my eyes playing tricks (I forgot my sunglasses at the hotel) but the grass ahead seems to be moving and puffs of white appear, almost like skirmish fire.

The illusion grows as I take each deliberate step up the gentle slope. I can’t ignore it or make it stop. Now I hear the jostling of men nearby, though I am alone, the clunk of wooden canteens on cartridge boxes, the swish of woolen uniforms through the tall timothy. There is a roar as I reach a point 400 yards from the sunken road. I feel an extra gust of wind pass by and hear a grunt, like the canister has found the range.

A twinge of uncertainty affects me, as the untried men so far from home must have felt to see the effect of those crude weapons for the first time. Do I go on, and brave the building illusion, or go back? Reach for the objective or run for safety?

I push on.

As I expected the illusion continues to grow, gain form, substance, sensation. My mind paints the outlines of men, so close, with every detail present but hazy unless I concentrate when it pops out in exquisite detail. An officer on horseback rides forward only to fall in the next blast of canister. Ahead, the gray-clad skirmishers fire and retire until they drop into the sunken road a scant hundred yards ahead of me. Then a leveled line of black musket muzzles steadies on the lowest rung of the fence bordering the road and an illusory ripple of red flame and white smoke pours all along the line.

I feel more than see my ghostly companions recoil in the effect of the imaginary volley. All around me the ephemeral forms litter the ground or clutch at wounds as they stagger forward and back. Another thunderous volley, accompanied by a further gust of wind, and my blue-clad companions have had enough. They recoil and head back from whence I started, some running, others walking backwards, still more stumbling numbly. And as they move they gradually disappear, leaving the fields again empty under the modern summer sky.

Antietam holds the ghosts for me, more than any other site, even Gettysburg. They are everywhere and need very little effort to conjure into consciousness. Both sides; all over the field. Burnside at his bridge, the veterans of the Stonewall Brigade as they rush to save the day. Hooker’s men and McLaws’ in the West Woods struggling in the morning mists. Even Porter’s veterans as they stood by, desperate to add the coup de gras but restrained by the cautious hand of McClellan.

They swirl restlessly by at times when I am far from the battlefield. They worry about being forgotten; lost in the sands of time. Not while I’m alive, anyway.

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