Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Honeysuckles and Blood

I work a lot in Virginia these days. There are as many historical markers and Civil War battlefields here as their are gas stations. Sometimes, between appointments, I can't resist the call of these places.
The brown sign near Spotsylvania read: "Stonewall Jackson Shrine - 5 miles". I was going to turn left and head up I-95 for an appointment near Fredericksburg, but instead I nosed the Prius up the two-lane road and followed the signs. I was curious. What was the "shrine"? Why was it here? As I crossed the tracks of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, I made a left and followed the signs to an empty parking lot. 60 yards away sat white house where the famous Confederate general went to recuperate after losing his arm. He was riding through a dense forest one night during the Battle of Chancellorsville and his own soldiers shot him, mistaking him for the enemy.
The wound weakened him and he caught pneumonia and died in this little white house. The historical markers told how it all happened. I stood alone in the fading sunlight and read the markers and studied the old photographs.
I walked over to the house. It was after 5 p.m. and I supposed the caretaker of the "shrine" had gone home. I looked through the windows and saw the bed where Stonewall took his last gasp. It was popular for people in that era to have "last words". His were "Let us cross over the river and sit in the shade of the trees". I wonder if he really said that or if it was just something someone made up to add to his legacy. Just sounds kinda fake to me. People don't keep track of "last words" these days, do they. Gerald Ford died a couple of years ago. What were his last words? Nobody knows. Nobody Cares.
Yesterday I got up early and took in the Bull Run battlefield near Manassas VA. The northerners call it Bull Run, after the little creek that winds through the countryside 25 miles west of Washington DC. The Southerners called it the "battle of first and second Manassas".

"You are here" said the historical marker. I read how thousands of men marched into cannon fire and died that way, grape and cannister blowing holes through their lines. Other thousands died from rifle fire or hand-hand-fighting. I could not help but wonder how many of those doomed men had "last words" other than cries for help or water. Right at the spot where I was standing the ground had long ago absorbed the blood of these men, turning it into fertilizer for grass and flowers. The sweet scent of honeysuckle was thick in the air and the only sound was the lazy hum of bees in the clover at my feet.
One more thing about last words. I like the last words of famous Irish playwrite Oscar Wilde, who died in 1900. His last words were said to have been: "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."

No comments: