Listening to the Dead at a Civil War Battlefield

Just a few miles south of Chattanooga and 15 miles from where I grew up is the Chickamauga National Military Park. It was the site of the second most deadly battle of the US Civil War, behind only Gettysburg. Casualties on both sides totaled 34,624, with 3969 killed. It was declared a national military park in 1895. Today there’s a small museum and many monuments, but mostly it’s been preserved as it was during those fateful days in September 1863.

The park is popular with runners, cyclists, and hikers. There are horse trails and open fields for free play, but no organized sports beyond the occasional race.

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I made a handful of visits over the years. I remember a church hiking trip when I was 9 or 10. I ran a marathon here in 1999.

I’ve always felt like the current uses of the park are right. Not just OK, but good and proper. This is sacred ground where the blood of thousands was spilled. It is good that people come here, see the monuments and remember, even if that’s not their primary reason for visiting the park.

It’s quiet here, even though the city is less than four miles away. Perhaps it’s the trees or perhaps it’s the lay of the land, or perhaps it’s something else. Every time I’ve been here I’ve felt a sense of reverence, and even though I’ve never been particularly sensitive I’ve always felt like the dead were very close.

Last Saturday I heard them screaming.

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Cathy and I took a weekend trip to Chattanooga to visit family and friends. I took my camera – I intended to visit a few familiar places and take some pictures. We had a couple hours on a beautiful afternoon – the Battlefield was the only place we made.

We took the driving tour – eight stops representing key places and points in the battle. At each stop the intensity grew stronger. Not flashbacks to the fighting, but the presence of the dead, or what remains of them.

If I seem imprecise it’s because I’m a Druid and a priest, not a psychic or a medium, much less a necromancer. But I pay attention, and the world of the dead is constantly close these days. I can’t not hear them.

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What I heard was soldiers in the middle of battle: many voices screaming many different things. I felt fear, pain, and terror. I heard the moment when invincible young men realized they were indeed quite mortal. I heard the realization that dreams would never come true. I heard the hope of heaven, the fear of hell, and the whispers of something that was neither.

Metaphysically, it’s interesting to speculate as to just what I heard. By my belief system and the belief system of most, those who died here went on to the afterlife, however you conceive of such a place. Those who believe in reincarnation would likely assume that many have been reborn, perhaps several times. Who knows – maybe some of you fought here in a previous life. I’m fairly certain I did not.

Perhaps there are a few souls trapped here 153 years later, but surely not many. Perhaps the physical remains (both human and man-made, like the cannons) facilitate a connection across the realms. I don’t know.

I just know I heard the dead screaming.

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Given the state of affairs in this country, it is tempting to read messages into the screams, to turn them into warnings from beyond. But that would be dishonest and would profane the memories of those who fought and died here.

In school we learned the social, political, and economic reasons for the Civil War and those reasons are important. But each and every soldier and supporter had their own reasons for fighting, and for dying.

Some fought to end slavery and others fought to continue it. Some fought to preserve the Union and others fought to defend their homeland. Some fought because they were conscripted and others fought because they were paid to fulfill the conscription of the rich. Some fought for glory and others fought to avoid the shame of being called a coward. Their reasons are their own and we have no right to project our preferred histories and mythologies onto them.

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Because of my own religious relationships, I said a prayer to the Morrigan. Was She here all those years ago? This is America, and virtually everyone who fought here was Christian. But men of Ireland fought here – on both sides – and the crows are ever and always on the battlefield.

At the last stop I felt the need to be alone. I wandered up a hill and into the woods. I passed a young couple stretched out in a loving embrace – I tried not to disturb them. A crow cawed. I followed the trail deeper into the woods, but even there I found more monuments to those who fought and died.

The dead scream for their own reasons. Today, the living are screaming in many places, though not here, at least not in these numbers. Not yet, anyway.

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620,000 people died in the Civil War, and 150 years later we are still not done with its aftermath. They died because the world changed and some refused to change with it. They died because the rich and powerful chose to go to war rather than accept that all are truly created equal.

I do not believe the dead of Chickamauga were screaming to warn us. They have their own lives to live, where ever they are now.

But I absolutely believe we will either learn from the mistakes of their generation, or a few hundred years from now people will still be hearing the remains of our screams.

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