Letter from Fredericksburg

Civil War ghosts collide with memories of a high school friend

| November-December 2011

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    Tim Wimborne / Reuters

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Dear Walsh,
The last two mornings, my wife and I have woken to a scurrying sound over our heads, and the last two afternoons, I’ve pulled down the attic ladder and climbed up to see what’s there, roaming around the flattened cardboard boxes we stored when we moved to Fredericksburg two years ago.

Today I went up, hammer and stapler and roll of screening and scissors in my pocket, and frog-walked under the roof beams to the windows, where something tore away the screens and bent the thin metal slats. I affixed new barriers to our house, another bulwark against invaders.

Walsh, I’m trying to remember if we had Mr. Dillon’s history class together, and if we learned about the Civil War in it. I find that now, 15 years since we graduated, so much of high school has escaped me—the quadratic equation and the point of Marbury v. Madison, the Council of Trent and almost anything I did in Student Council.

I remember you looking older than you actually were, a freshman who could have stepped onto an assembly line and picked up a welding gun. You drove a black car, a hand-me-down from some relative, I guessed, with a Dead Kennedys bumper sticker, and I was intimidated by you and your fuck-you cool. I can’t remember how we got to be friends. People in common, maybe.

Anyway, Walsh, the reason I bring up the Civil War is that I now live within a 20-minute drive of four major battlefields. I teach in a building that’s next to Confederate artillery earthworks, walk our dog down the Sunken Road that the Union tried and failed to take, and run along Stonewall Jackson’s trench lines, visible in the earth after 150 years. In Mr. Dillon’s class, the war felt abstract, “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown and all those things they used to try to connect it back to where we lived; I don’t know about you, but it was always arrows on a map to me. Grant moves here; Lee moves here; Stuart rides here.

But, Walsh, I get it now. I’ve run up the hill of Marye’s Heights, thinking about doing it under fire; I’ve stood at the point at Chancellorsville where Jackson’s soldiers burst out onto Hooker’s unsuspecting soldiers, scattering them, scarring them. I’ve visited Gettysburg, driven from the start of Pickett’s Charge to the spot where it fell back, and I have to admit that at that spot, the whole thing—the romanticism of the Lost Cause, the reenactors who loiter on my town’s sidewalks, the sentimentality of a sacrifice I never believed in—it all made sense to me.

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