Friday, August 15, 2014

Reno & Garland: How We Met Two Dead Generals

On our Saturday hike, Mark and I abruptly walked into a mowed field. The tree-shrouded path of the Appalachian Trail deposited us into this open expanse without warning. One moment we were in the embrace of woods, the next we were on a road side, facing a field. We stepped quietly, wondering if we were trespassing or walking through park territory.

Then, we noticed the sign. A green board, trimmed with gold: a historical marker. We had walked right onto a little-known historical battlefield. The field, its broad green interrupted by one sprawling oak, had been the stage for a bloody conflict involving some 90,000 Michigan men. As the birds tweeted in the shrubs and a farmer's tractor rattled in the distance, I had difficulty imagining the field, so serene now, full with men. Men arrayed in precise lines, their nervous banter punctuated by hoof beats and then the sudden blast of artillery. Considering the numbers--90,000 on the Union side alone--the large field suddenly seemed small. So much life collided and clashed in one spot, on a little-known backroad in Maryland.

"You know, you don't learn about these battles in school. The little battles that happened way out in the country," Mark said.

Perhaps my Civil War history is simply not up-to-snuff, but try as I might, I couldn't remember the Battle of Fox Gap, one of three battles pitched in the attempt to possess South Mountain (ironically, also the sight of the Washington Monument we visited in this post). One of the Confederate generals involved in the South Mountain battles, General James Longstreet, lived in Gainesville, Georgia--my own stomping grounds. You may recognize Longstreet's nickname "Old War Horse," bequeathed by Lee himself.

Beyond the field lay a rectangular stone fence with what appeared to be a grave marker jutting from the middle. Mark and I trudged over to investigate. Closer inspection revealed the monument to honor Union General Jesse L. Reno. Off to the side, less than twenty feet from the memorial site, was another marker, smaller and worn. This one honored a fallen Confederate general, Samuel Garland, Jr., born in raised in Lynchburg, Virginia. This fallen Confederate was from the same town as my husband.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Garland fought and fell in this forgotten spot, hidden on a backroad, his memorial stone small, cast aside from the victorious Reno's, nearly hidden in the trees. He drew his last breath on a trail Mark, myself, and countless other hikers now stomp past, booted and weary just as he and his troops were booted and weary.

"He was from Lynchburg, baby," I shouted over to Mark. He looked up, eyebrows raised.

"Really? That's crazy."

History converges with us, with our present state, in so many ways. It lies, untouched, on our roadsides, in museums, in the very earth beneath our feet. The very landscape is changed and scarred by its passing. A field which should have been reclaimed by the forest remains mowed and kept, one faded wreath and green sign marking its significance. Hundreds of men fought and died at Fox's Gap--yet I did not even know of their existence until I practically tripped over their death site. there their memory lies--even if we don't remember or acknowledge it, even if we would rather praise some, and hide others in the tree-line. Sometimes, history reasserts itself, demands that its people be remembered and it's monuments be seen. I And I truly believe that doing so reminds us where we've been, what we've fought for, and what we're living for. 

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