On the battlefield, he runs headlong through overgrown weeds, gales bending the stalks in beautiful unison. The deeper he ventures, the taller the grass. The soil is more giving in the low belly of the field, shot through with capillaries of water that burst at his footfalls.
Squinting against the wind, Bug calls back to me, “How will we ever find our way out?” The boundless jungle enraptures him. He crouches, pretending to be a tiger, his knees darkening with mud. His eyes are too low to see the house, the visitors’ center, the violet swath of the Appalachians beyond. Below his vision, two lines of cannons face us down, one on the west hill and another on the east. Surging between their sites, Bug feels no sense of danger. He does not hear the sighing of the ghosts as they turn in the soft tangle of roots beneath his feet.
Bug unfolds to his full height and takes in the field. “Was there really a war here?”
In broad strokes, I paint a picture of a whole nation of people disagreeing about the way things should be run. I tell him that for a while, America was divided in two, and if the Confederates had won, we would live in one country with one president and one kind of money, while his Massachusetts cousins would live in an entirely different country. The war, I explain, was full of terrible fighting. The Union won, so we stayed all together.
Bug races to the first of the cannons and attempts to peer down the bore. We talk about how they worked, making sense of vent and breech and cascabel. Across the field, a mirror image: the Union line, in formation. Before us towers the mounted figure of Stonewall Jackson who, it stuns me to discover, was only a year old than I am now when he died.
Inside the visitors’ center, Bug is ravenous. He presses his face to the glass displays and asks the name and use of every single shell casing, every scrap of rope. He tells me we should go back outside to dig up more bayonets. We read the placards and I fill in gaps as best I can, describing scenes of war, the smells, the boys no older than his young uncles wearing those worn out boots and dragging themselves into position as fire rained down. Twice through, Bug watches the narrative light display flickering over a wall-sized diorama of the battlefield. He absorbs the tiny dots as they cross Sudley Ford, march into formation on Matthew’s Hill, and finally face off from either side of the lone Henry House. The only civilian to be killed in the whole of the Civil War was determined to go about her business inside the house on that July day. Bug wants to know about her, asks again and again who she was and how she was killed.
Then: “Did any horses die?”
We make our way to The Capture of Rickett’s Battery, a Sydney King painting on display near the entrance. The image horrifies me and I wonder if I am exposing my boy to too much. He spies a horse with its angry wound, asking if it is hurt and if it is dead now. I deliver my spare answers gently. He pauses there for a few minutes, quiet, looking. Then we are outside again. This time, he clambers up the dull iron body of a Union cannon.
As lightly as I can, I ask, “Bug, have you learned about slavery at school?”
“No.” He is trying to gain a foothold on the wheel.
“Slavery is when one person owns another person, like owning a car or a toy, and forces the person do work for them.” This is the best I can manage on the fly like this. Bug is focused. He may or may not hear me. “People who are slaves are not free to live where they want or even have the friends they want. They don’t get paid for the work they do.” Bug continues to make his way up and onto the top of the ammunition case, the harsh wind wreaking havoc on his hair. “One part of the country wanted to keep owning slaves to do work. The other part thought it was wrong. That’s one reason for the Civil War.” I still my tongue, pressing back the urge to go on about the economic and political rifts between the industrial North and agrarian South. The rest will have to wait.
“It was right here?” He is crawling slowly out to the chase of the cannon, balancing on the narrowing cylinder.
“It was all over the country, but yes, one big battle happened right here.” Low clouds streak across the searing blue. “A lot of people died because they couldn’t work it out by talking. When the war ended, we were one country again, and no one is allowed to own anyone else.” Finally, I say the thing I hope will someday be true. “Now, all people here are free.”
“Did our team win?”
We are standing in the dead center of Stonewall Jackson’s strike zone, but what can he do from his impotent perch? Virginia is ours now. “Yep, baby,” I say, reaching out. “We won.”
Bug takes my hand and leaps from the muzzle to the ground, then plunges once again into the sweep of grass as it dances on that soft, sorrowful earth.