In the midst of nothing, yet everything

October 28, 2010

August 24

It is atypical for houses like these to grace a railroad corridor

This morning, what led us into town, led us out. Ellen and I pedaled away from the franchise strip on the outskirts of town to intersect with the Center Street rail line that formed the spine of Ashland’s center city. A connection to the railroad must have been of great importance to 19th century residents, because many grand Victorian era homes flanked both sides of the tracks. These were proud-looking homes, bursting with color and character. The rumble and roar of the passing trains were perhaps a comfort, and seemingly not a nuisance, to these track side dwellers.

After leaving Ashland we began traveling in the northeast quadrant above Richmond, a city where significant historical events took place during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In the Colonial Era, Patrick Henry gave his “Give me Liberty” speech here. In 1786 the Virginia legislature, relocated here from Williamsburg, passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This law first defined the separation between church and state and granted religious freedom for all Virginia citizens. During the Civil War, Richmond was of both economic and political importance. Well positioned as a crossroads for river, then rail traffic, it became one of the prime manufacturing cities in the South. This industrial prowess, coupled with its emergence as the capital of the Confederacy, made Richmond strategically important (for diametrically opposite reasons) to both the Northern and Southern forces.

At this point we had reached the tide line of Richmond’s urban expansion, which had washed the land behind it with busy roads and dense commerce. But jutting out from underneath that tide were outcrops of history that took full shape only in our minds.

As we turned onto Route 156 near Mechanicsville, Ellen and I joined a path that retraced the progress of the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862, an intense series of conflicts in which Robert E. Lee’s armies successfully repelled the Union Army’s second attempt to capture Richmond. We first rode over Beaver Dam Creek, where the second of six battles was fought. The road crossed the creek right near the point of the heaviest fighting. As a tourist, I had the time to ponder how this now-placid stream was once a place of mayhem. But as drivers impassionately zipped past us on the road, I began to wonder how often local people thought about what took place here.

One hundred and fifty years ago Confederate troops swarmed out of those trees and overwhelmed the Union gunners

A few miles away we reached the site of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, which took place one day after Beaver Dam Creek. It was located in a quiet field, away from the main road. The National Park Service had recreated the bulwark fence of the Union line, behind which cannons were aimed toward a creek’s ravine. From this vantage point the Confederate soldiers were mercilessly barraged most of that day as they repeatedly tried to advance onto the field plain. Ultimately though, the Southern soldiers broke through and forced a Union retreat and eventual abandonment of the Richmond assault.

The battle was declared a victory for Lee and the Confederacy. I could only understand that claim from that macro perspective (and isn’t that how wars are judged). Standing on that field, at a point where the Confederates first saw the Union cannons, then where the cannoneers would have been overrun by the Confederates’ surge, I could only think about war from a micro/human perspective. There were 15,000 casualties across both armies that day, the most of any of the Seven Days’ Battles. Over 2200 deaths and 10,000 wounded. Today, the field existed in an ironic silence. Because buried beneath this quiet veneer was the cacophony of war—the sounds of fear and hate and pain. Suffering imposed not only upon the combatants, but also their families. As I had on the Flint Hills prairie, I struggled to absorb and understand an experience totally foreign to me. But here I was thankful I have never lived it.

We rode on and reached White Oak Swamp, where lethargic actions by Stonewall Jackson unraveled a plan by Lee to cut off and destroy a significant part of the retreating Union army. Our day’s travel ended down Willis Church Road near the town of Glendale, where on the next-to-last day of the Seven Days’ Battles, the Confederates came precariously close (even given Jackson’s blunder) to defeating the Union forces.

This road took us along where the Union reinforcements had once staged before moving up to plug breaches in their front lines. The fighting took place less than a quarter mile to the west. As we cycled past the Union cemetery, I again began to think about how much these battles were on the minds of today’s landowners. How often did they think about the war when they walked or tilled these lands? Were they somehow compelled to honor the sacrifices that were made?

We stopped to bunk at the Willis United Methodist Church, today a faithful reconstruction of the original church that was situated in the midst of this battle. At that time it had served both as a Union headquarters and later a Confederate field hospital. It took a bit of effort to have it serve as our lodging. The pastor had left for the day, so we were presented with locked doors and a list of phone numbers to call. Contrary to wireless carriers’ boasts about wide-ranging cell phone coverage, I could only get a reliable connection within a 5 by 5-foot square section of the parking lot. In it, I paced like a caged animal while working through the list of numbers. On the last call, I finally made a connection with a couple who could unlock the doors.

This toad stood for a larger-than-life photo outside our lodging at the Willis Church

True with my other stays at churches, we were once again entrusted with full access to the church and our sleeping quarters in the “Hut.” We cooked our dinner in the church kitchen. Ellen played the piano for a bit, then read through the logbook entries written by cyclists who had preceded us here. She discovered a small toad outside on the sidewalk, which surprisingly endured my close-up flash photography. Our day ended soon after I called Wayde, my serendipitous acquaintance from the Virginia border, to confirm our meeting/dinner two days hence in Yorktown. Alternating feelings of ambivalence, regret and accomplishment began to swirl in my brain.

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