Spending last week in the Washington D.C. area was terrific. It was a rare chance for me to unwind, take walks, read and reflect. Although Doug’s primary purpose was work, we managed to pack alot of miles, a lot of sights and a lot of good food into the in between spaces. I love good southern cooking, but oddly enough had the best Thai dinner of my life in Virginia…a testament I suppose to our diverse American culture.
As Civil War buffs, we had no lack of places to go and things to do. I collected pictures and recorded experiences for future posts. Thought I was ready to move on to new writing material…get back to the old job…back to the normal. But where I was last week just won’t let me go. Sights and words and those Whitman brothers from my last post keep rolling around in my head.
At Antietam National Battlefield, Doug and I climbed the observation tower in the middle of the corn fields. The original tower, built by confederate troops to track the advancing army was made of logs, chinked and stacked high. The stone tower we climbed (huffing and puffing greatly) is a monument to the original. The cold wind whipped us, but the view was breathtaking.
To get to where I’m going I need to describe something sad… please bare with me. Imagine if you can …. September 17, 1862 …. 75,500 Union and 38,000 Confederate soldiers coming face to face … right there … in these pictures. The battle started at 5:30 A.M. and ended at 5:30 P.M.. It claimed over 23,000 casualties…the single largest amount of dead, wounded and missing in one day of any battle during the entire war.
Looking closer in is the Sunken Road…a lane the famers used to move crops from place to place. …An 800-yard stretch of road where 5600 casualties were claimed alone.
Painting pictures of death and dying is not my thing, but I am swept into what happened there. I don’t understand it. I know the history books are full of the “whys” of the Civil War, but I still cannot comprehend the “how” for the average foot soldier….how they could face each other…so close.
But the picture of Antietam that sticks with me most, is the Witness Tree at the bridge.
Not far away from the corn fields is Antietam Creek and the Burnside Bridge. During that part of the battle a portion of the bridge was blown away by cannon fire. The stacked stone walls, so common in that area, became the backdrop for temporary graves of too many soldiers.
Wood slats from the bridge were used as temporary grave markers until each soldier could be reinterred elsewhere. Beautiful foliage, groves of trees were blown to bits…except for one.
As I walked across the bridge and down the other side I was thinking of Walt Whitman, tending wounded soldiers somewhere, worrying about George. I wondered if George had been where I stood.
Indeed, he had. This fact may not impress some, but to my geeky self, one who loves to dig up facts and weave stories together, it was like finding that missing jigsaw puzzle piece.
The Witness Tree…it stood there as George engaged in combat around and over the bridge. It stood as cannons roared and rifles cracked. It stood as men sought shelter and fell. It can’t speak the story that unfolded beneath it …. but it does stand today as a memorial to the service and sacrifice of men locked in a terrible battle within a war that ultimately pulled the nation back together again.
Unlike the tree, Walt Whitman could speak and did ….his poems and letters giving testimony to the life and times in which he lived. Like the tree he could stand…he did that by tending those in need, putting action to his words. He was a witness tree for his time.
Could it be we all are a witness tree in our own corner of life….growing, gathering wisdom and esperience…sharing that along with our talents to those our lives touch? Well, I like that analogy anyway.
Earlier this year I made a committment to myself, to God, and joined an online mentoring group of like minded folk …. to make this a year that counts. I don’t want another year, five or ten to pass only to look back and see the same old roadblocks and habits exist … those things I allow in my life which keep me stuck. In the end I want to have stood for something. The old Witness Tree has helped me pull some of that into deeper perspective. Thanks, tree.
Yesterday I stumbled on a scripture that made me laugh…kind of a confirmation of what’s been rolling around in my head and heart,
“You have circled this mountain long enough. Now turn north”