Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hallowed Ground and Highways

I don't like cars. I never have. They're loud, they're dangerous, they're smelly, they're bad for the environment, and they make walking around otherwise nice cities an exercise in frustration. If I really put my mind to it, I could think of a thousand different reasons for why I dislike cars. I would much prefer to travel by train or go really old-school and ride a horse. I think that the ascent of the automobile in the early 20th Century marked a significant diminishment of human civilization.

On top of all the many reasons why I dislike cars, I would add the fact the damage that they do to the physical and historical landscape of our nation. Allow me to explain.

I recently returned from a five-day trip to see Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia with my father. Part of the purpose for the trip was to do research for my upcoming novel Shenandoah Fire, but it was also simply to have a good time with my dad and recreate some of the wonderful trips on which he took me when I was a boy. We visited nine different battlefields and also took in the battle reenactments associated with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek. We also ate some wonderful food at local restaurants. All things considered, it was a lovely trip.

My father and I acting like kids at the Monocacy Visitor's Center.

The first battlefield we visited was at Monocacy in Maryland, just south of Frederick. The Battle of Monocacy took place on July 9, 1864. A scratch force of about six thousand Union soldiers hastily gathered by General Lew Wallace (most famous for being the author of Ben Hur) fought against the Confederate Army of the Valley, fourteen thousand strong, under the command of the colorful and irascible General Jubal Early. The Confederate force was marching on Washington D.C., whose defenses had been stripped of troops to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. The possibility of the Southern forces capturing the United States capital city was very real. Had they succeeded, the course of the history would have been very different.

A peaceful part of the Monocacy Battlefield

Wallace knew he was terribly outnumbered. Even worse, half of his small force was made up of poorly trained militia, while Early's men were some of the finest infantry in the world. Knowing that he could not hope to win the battle, Wallace's objective was simply to delay Early's advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive in the defenses of Washington. Wallace knew that he was engaged in a life-or-death struggle that might determine the fate of the nation.

All day, the two armies battered one another. Using his superior numbers, Early was able to outflank Wallace to the south and roll up the Union line. On the field between the Worthington Farm and Thomas Farm, a Confederate force led by General John C. Breckinridge (the major character of my novella Blessed Are The Peacemakers) engaged in an epic struggle with the Union division under General James Ricketts. Hundreds of men were slaughtered under the hot summer sun. Breckinridge eventually drove off the Union force, but only after they had delayed the Confederate advance for a few precious hours.

The Worthington Farm House

Jubal Early won the Battle of Monocacy. Yet it amounted to a defeat. When Early and his army formed up for an attack on Washington on the morning of July 12, they were too late. The defenses bristled with the rifles and bayonets of the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, which had arrived just a few hours beforehand. The courageous stand made by Wallace's small force at Monocacy had won the Union the time it desperately needed to reinforce the capital. Had the Battle of Monocacy not delayed Early's advance, he could have captured Washington on July 11. Years later, speaking of his men who had fallen at Monocacy, Wallace wrote, "These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it."

On October 16, I walked for hours across the fields in and around the Worthington and Thomas Farms at Monocacy National Battlefield, thinking about the brutal battle that took place there, trying to imagine what it had been like, remembering the courage and heroism displayed by the men on both sides of the awful struggle. So many men experienced their last moments of life at this place. Some were killed instantly, others suffered terribly from grievous wounds before dying on the field or in the nightmare that was a Civil War hospital. How many thought of their wives and their children before they gave their last breath?

It was not easy for my mind to focus on such thoughts, however, as there were thousands of cars and trucks roaring past me at 70 mph, only a few hundred yards away.

Highway 270 carves through the core of Monocacy National Battlefield, right across the fields where the crucial fight between Breckinridge and Ricketts took place. It is a major thoroughfare leading from Washington D.C. to the northwest and is clogged with heavy amounts of traffic. Walking the battlefield, it was impossible to ignore the roaring of the tires and engines, the honking horns of frustrated drivers, or the smell of car and truck exhaust. The highway was like a smallpox scar on the face of the battlefield.

I'm sure that, for some topographical reason determined by some Department of Transportation bureaucrat in some Washington office, it made perfect sense to run Highway 270 right through the heart of the Monocacy battlefield. It probably saved money and a fraction of a second off the driving time of people using the highway. Yet I'm equally sure that the Department of Transportation bureaucrat never considered, even for a moment, what damage he was doing to the country and our collective historical memory when he drew the line on the map that crossed over the Monocacy battlefield. In all likelihood, he didn't even know what had transpired on the piece of ground.

Monocacy is far from the only battlefield scarred by roads and highways. During my trip, I visited the battlefields at New Market and Cedar Creek in Virginia; both battlefields are cleaved in half by Highway 81. Manassas Battlefield has constantly been threatened by highway construction as the suburbs of Washington D.C. expand ever outward, as have the cluster of battlefields around Richmond. The same can be said for literally dozens of other battlefields around the country, including some from conflicts other than the Civil War.

These bits of land, were so many men gave what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion", are hallowed ground. They deserve to be protected. Of the multitude of threats facing historical battlefields across the country, rerouting highways away from them would seem to be the most easily solved, for the politicians in Congress or in the state legislatures can simply decree that the highways not run across the land in question.

I don't like cars. I do like preserving the historical memory of our nation and remembering deeds of great courage. I don't think I'm saying anything radical when I end this blog entry with a simple assertion: highways should not be run through battlefields. That's all.

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