Yesterday’s celebrations of the Fourth of July are now vivid memories: backyard barbecues, American flags, booming fireworks exploding into a rainbow of colors followed by a smoky sulphuric smell. Underneath all the celebration we honor those who’ve earned our freedom. I was reminded of that on my solo journey to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia when I visited Antietam Battlefield.
It was unusual for me to go to a battleground. I’d never done that of my own choosing, only because my parents made us during a family vacation or because volunteers were needed for our sons’ Boy Scout field trip.
But when I was in Harper’s Ferry, I overheard two veterans talking about all the battlegrounds they’d visited. The older man commented, “Antietam, to me, was the most impressive.” If he felt that way, then surely it deserved my attention. I’d prayed before the journey that God would bless me through the people and the places in my path—knowing sometimes the place has a message.
I didn’t think much about war when I was a girl. But that changed once I became the mother of two sons. When they turned eighteen and had to register with the Selective Service, I was fearful that the draft would be reinstated– remembering my male cousins who’d gone to Vietnam. I’d placed those completed forms in our mailbox and prayed that would never happen again.
Moving through the Antietam Museum, I took my time with each display. There were Civil War uniforms, small treasures the soldiers carried, and then something that stopped me in my tracks– a snare drum. The signage said it had been played by a fourteen-year-old soldier who’d led the cadence into battle. Only fourteen, I thought. Just a baby. My younger son had played snare for his high school marching band. I had fond memories of watching him leading them onto the football field. How scary it would have been for that boy soldier to march onto the unknown field of war.
I drove about the grounds of Antietam, watching the late afternoon sun cast a golden light across the broad expanse. The site appeared deceptively peaceful. I imagined that young soldier with the troops behind him headed into that infamous cornfield. It was hard to fathom how in twelve hours a total of 23,000 soldiers were killed—the bloodiest day of war in history. The bucolic setting before me had been a field strewn with bloody bodies, the smell of iron and gunpowder in the air. I could hear the haunting sounds of groans and cries of the wounded and dying. I imagined the boy shot down in this foreign place and crying out for his mother.
I said a prayer in the dying light for all the mothers now who worry over their soldier children, both their sons and daughters. I felt guilty that these parents have this burden to bear while some of us haven’t experienced the costs of war. My heart was filled with gratitude for our volunteer soldiers, protecting our country and keeping us from the draft.
It was a small thing to take the time to visit Antietam. Walking about the field, I realized this hallowed ground had been in my path to remind me not to forget those who’ve gone before, and to pay tribute to those brave soldiers who now serve.
I join with their mothers in prayer for their safe return to the ground they call home.