Virginia

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The Wilderness.jpg

IV. The Wilderness


By Saturday, Virginia is overwhelming. It is clear that some things will have to be missed for now--Berkley, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg. There is a cemetery, just south of Richmond, filled with USCT dead. I want to go there and say nothing, since I believe in the nothing of death, even as I am pulled to all of these bloody places with beautiful names--Chaffin's Farm, Milliken's Bend, Port Hudson, Cold Harbor, The Wilderness.

Still it takes time, and I know how I am, how I never understand that I've been hit, until I'm on my ass. It could be several months from now--I'm out at a beautiful bar on 81st street, friends all assembled, Walking Wounded playing in the background, and I'm crying in my third martini. Kenyatta feels things with more immediacy, and I take my cues from her general disposition. She cares about Civil War history intellectually, but she isn't compelled. And yet Petersburg was a punch to the gut, and she hasn't fully recovered her form. Which means I have not recovered my form, but I'm too male and macho to know.

We will make this one last stop. We cross 64 again, and head up 95. We stop at Wa-Wa and laugh at our attachment to their coffee, lemonade and sandwiches. Samori punches some keys, and a woman will hand him an egg sandwich. We make it in 90 minutes, with traffic, and I wonder where people in Virginia have to go, and then note how quickly I've become an arrogant New Yorker.

The drive gets good toward the end, just before Plank Road, where the highway gives out, and the box stores give out, and there is tall grass, barns, and bales and bales of hay. I want to keep driving until we collide with Blue Ridge, until we fall into the Valley.

We pull up to the welcome center, which is nothing but a few maps, some charts, and a shaded bench area where a ranger is taking refuge from constant sun. It is almost 90 degrees today, but it feels so much better than 90 in the city, where the buildings and subways pump out hot air. Out here, the shade has actual meaning.

There is not much to see, but almost too much to feel. The Union took over 17,000 casualties here, a harbinger of the grim, grinding mathematics, the superiority of numbers, that Grant was bringing to bear.  A forest fire, ignited by the guns, burned many of the wounded men alive where they had fallen. We saw earthworks, trenches, still preserved. They were hidden behind about ten feet into the woods, and looked out on a beautiful bright green field which Union soldiers charged across, and were mowed down like the grass under their feet. We looked out and could see precisely how that happened.

I love the lore of the Wilderness. Early in the fight the Union had pushed the Confederates all the way back to Lee's headquarters. Lee stood up, about to lead the counter-charge himself, until a division of Texans held him down, "Go back General Lee!" they yelled. I think that is so beautiful, the complete disregard for logic, and personal safety. Still I see it through a cracked glass. It's like reading a lush love story about a man and a woman, who do not like you.

I love Grant staring down a panicked officers who's come to tell him all is lost, that Robert E. Lee has wrought yet another tragic miracle:

I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land on our rear and on both our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.

We walk a good ways down the main path, and when we hear animals skittering off to the side, we are not convinced that they are animals, and it is unsettling. Unlike Petersburg, much of the Wilderness is only barely marked, and yet despite not quite completely knowing what happened where, the stillness, the quiet of it all, save the crickets, tell the story. Or maybe I've just been in the city too long.

The Wilderness is hallowed ground, and at the moment, there's a movement to build a Wal-Mart at its door-step. Some the store's proponents are local folks. They are not wrong--they want the jobs. Still, as we drive out the area, I am thinking of the precarious state of so many of our Civil War battlefields. We are a country enthralled with the military, even as we struggle to honor the places where they have fallen.

We drive to Cracker Barrel, drink more coffee, and eat pancakes. There is a lot of small talk that I will not remember. We buy a pack of Andes mints, gift-wrapped in cellophane, and consume many of them on the way home. It's our last day in Virginia, the last leg of our summer, the last month before Kenyatta goes back to school. Already, I have pushed the Wilderness back into some corner of the mind where, weeks from now, it will emerge swinging left hooks. I turn on to I-95, fire up War on the IPod. It will soon be a normal day, again. And then Kenyatta covers her eyes, and starts to cry.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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