Posting now, immediately following our Fredericksburg field trip, while everything is fresh and easily flowing from my fingertips.
Our first stop was the battle ground on Sunken Rd, which was the site of an extremely bloody massacre of Union soldiers. The geography of Marye Heights gave the Confederates at easy victory, despite the fact the Union had more troops and had been stationed in Fredericksburg longer. However, none of this is really that interesting, lets be honest. Far more interesting was the wedding party taking photographs nearby as we commented on their ironic existence in the space. Where thousands upon thousands of men were killed 150 years ago, now hosted a group of well dressed young adults smiling, laughing, and embarking on new life. I believe it was Professor Brady who made the Whitman reference saying something like, “how Whitmanic, new life springing from a place of death.” Then later, Professor Groom alluded to “This Compost!” The foul meat that perhaps remained beneath the shiny leather shoes and high heels of the wedding party, reminding us that the Earth, “grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.”
Chatham House, formerly known as The Lacy House, was our next stop. This was where Whitman spent time nursing wounded soldiers. The house is beautiful, though one room was painted in an off-putting Pepto Bismal pink color, and the grounds surrounding the property are perfectly manicured and stunning. Again, the irony played within my mind. Where hospital tents had stood before, now grows flowers and grape vines. We watched the informational DVD on a flat screen TV in the room that had formerly been the amputation room. The chasm between the past in the present seems alienating and inescapable. However, there was a specific moment when that chasm was bridged (perhaps like the pontoon bridge built by the Federals over the Rappahannock?), and when we all experienced something tangible in 2009 that Whitman experienced in the 1860s.
Still standing outside the Chatham house are the two tangled Catalpa trees where Whitman saw a pile of amputated limbs. The trees are directly outside the windows of the amputation room. Our tour guide was kind enough to read Whitman’ words about the trees. It seemed a sobering moment for everyone as we all realized that this was the “closest” we have been to Whitman so far; we connected his words to our physical surroundings. After this moment, I found myself looking around with new eyes, wondering if Washington, Lincoln, and of course Whitman, looked over the Rappahannock River and Fredericksburg as I was at the same time of day, on the same day of the year, many years ago. Maybe that’s nerdy… but we were all a little bit nerdy today.