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.

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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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