Past is present

I have no belief in ghosts, spirits or ouija boards and I don’t believe that the past hangs on to the present to make itself palpable. But I have several times experienced a kind of spooky resonance when visiting certain famous battlefields. 

The thought re-emerged recently while watching a French TV detective show that was set in Normandy, and seeing the panoramas of the D-Day landing beaches. I visited those beaches a few years ago and had an overwhelming rush of intense sadness. It was inevitable to imagine the thousands of soldiers rushing up the sands into hellish gunfire, to imagine a thousand ships in the now calm waters I saw on a sunny day, to feel the presence in the concrete bunkers of the German soldiers fated to die there manning their guns. 

The effect is entirely psychological, of course. If some child with no historical knowledge of the events that took place there were to walk the wide beach, he would no doubt think only of the waves and water and, perhaps, the sand castles to be formed from the sand. There is no eerie presence hanging in the salt air. The planet does not record, or for that matter, much note, the miseries humans inflict on each other, and have done for millennia. 

But for those who have a historical sense, the misery reasserts itself. Imagination brings to mind the whole of human agony. 

Perhaps I should not say that the earth does not remember. It can, in certain ways. Visiting the woods of Verdun I saw the uneven forest floor, where the shell craters have only partially been filled in. Once the trees were flattened by artillery, leaving the moonscape littered with corpses. The trees have grown back, but the craters are still discernible in the wavy forest floor. 

This sense came to me first many years ago visiting the Antietam battlefield in Maryland. There is a spot there now called Bloody Lane. Before Sept. 17, 1862, the brief dirt drive was called the Sunken Road, and it was a shortcut between two farm roads near Sharpsburg, Md. All around were cornfields rolling up and down on the hilly Appalachian landscape.

The narrow dirt road, depressed into the ground like a cattle chute, now seems more like a mass grave than a road. And it was just that in 1862, when during the battle of Antietam Creek, Confederate soldiers mowed down the advancing Federals and were in turn mowed down. The slaughter was unimaginable.

You can see it in the photographs made a few days after the battle. The soldiers, mostly Southerners, fill the sunken road like executed Polish Jews. It was so bad, as one Union private said, “You could walk from one end of Bloody Lane to the other on dead soldiers and your feet would never touch the ground.”

Even today, with the way covered with crushed blue stone, the dirt underneath seems maroon. Perhaps it is the iron in the ground that makes it so; perhaps it is the blood, still there after 160 years.

Antietam was the worst single day of the Civil War. Nearly 23,000 men were killed or wounded. They were piled like meat on the ground and left for days before enough graves could be dug for them. There were flies, there was a stench. The whole thing was a fiasco, for both sides, really.

But all these years later, as you stand in Bloody Lane, the grassy margins of the road inclining up around you and the way lined with the criss-cross of split-rail fencing, it is painful to stand in the declivity, looking up at the mound in front of you, covered in cornstalks in a mid-July day. You can see that when the Yankees came over the rise, they were already close enough to touch. There was no neutralizing distance for your rifle fire to travel, no bang-bang-you’re-dead, no time, no room for playing soldier. Your enemy was in your face and you had to tear through that face with lead, the blood splattered was both Federal and Confederate, in one red pond among the furrows. In four hours on 200-yard stretch of Bloody Lane, 5,000 men were blown apart.

It is difficult to stand in Bloody Lane and not feel that all the soldiers are still there, perhaps not as ghosts, but as a presence under your boot-sole, there, soaked into the dirt.

It is almost, as some cultures believe, as if everything that happens in a place is always happening in that place. The battle was not something that occurred before my great-grandfather was born, but a palpable electricity in the air. You can not stand there in Bloody Lane and not be moved by that presence.

A similar wave of dismay overcame me at several Civil War sites: Shiloh; Vicksburg; Fredericksburg; Cold Harbor; Petersburg; Appomattox. Always the images rise in the imagination. Something epochal and terrible happened here. 

Visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, there are gravestones on the slope below the so-called “Last Stand,” but you also look down into the valley where the thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne were camped. 

I’ve visited Sand Creek and Washita. And Wounded Knee. That was the most disturbing. You travel through the Pine Ridge Reservation and the landscape is hauntingly beautiful, then you pull into the massacre site and you see the hill where the four Hotchkiss guns had a clear shot down into the small ravine where the victims huddled. The sense of death and chaos is gripping. The famous image of the frozen, contorted body of Big Foot  glowers in the imagination. It feels like it is happening in a past that is still present. 

This sense of horror and disgust wells up because of the human talent for empathy. Yes, I know full well that there are no specters of the victims waiting there for me, but my immediate sense of brotherhood with them resurrects them in my psyche. I am human, so I know that those dead were just like me. I can imagine myself bowel-loosening scared seeing my comrades to either side being blown to pieces and an enemy who I’ve never met and might have been friends with races toward me with bayonet stretched in front of him, eyes wide with the same fear. 

History is an act of the imagination. The most recent may be memory, but for me to know what my father went through in France and Czechoslovakia in World War II requires my identification with him, my psyche to recognize the bonds I share with him — and with all of humanity. 

So, when visitors are shaken by visits to Auschwitz or stand on the plains of Kursk, or the shores of Gallipoli, they well may sense that history as more present than past. I have had that experience. The ghosts are in me.

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