Have you ever experienced an adventure when none had been expected? Better yet, have you experienced the adventure in two stages, years apart, and both again unanticipated? And has that adventure been something to shake your belief systems and even challenge your faith? The first chapter in this adventure story happened in 1986 with the closing chapter three years later in 1989. I did not have plans or anticipations for either one; the second event shook my faith and beliefs deeper and more profoundly than the first. This adventure is true, but it is up to you as a reader of these words to buy-in…or out.
July 21, 1986, started innocently enough when my wife and I left our home in Fairfax, Virginia for an afternoon of shopping and sightseeing in Washington, D.C. Our plans were to head toward the city and enjoy whatever may present itself as an opportunity. Chances were good a little Chinese hole in the wall diner at 21st and L Street, NW would become our lunchtime destination.
Upon reaching Interstate 66, things changed for no real reason, and we turned to the west rather than East toward the city. A last-minute thought of going antiquing in the Front Royal area of the Shenandoah Valley played enough of a catalyst to change our volatile plans with a simple turn. After several short miles passed and three exits, a second unplanned and very uncharacteristic decision caused yet another change of plans and we turned off the exit for the Civil War battlefield park at Manassas, Virginia.
Neither my wife nor I had ever been to this battlefield; in fact, we had never been to any battlefield as spouses because she was so against violence in any form. For some reason, the attraction to visit this day overwhelmed her biases and pointed for me to pull off the exit; a suggestion not consistent with one who has a penchant for avoiding things war at all costs. I figured she carried a constant craving for any musty old dump we might discover to forage for antiques.
So there we were on a muggy July morning preparing to walk in the footsteps of soldiers over a hundred years earlier. We were early enough to beat the opening of the Visitor’s Center and pulled into a near empty parking lot. There may be no basis in fact, but I had the strongest feeling this was not my first visit. Had I been there before? I will grant you that my passion for Civil War history combined with an overactive imagination could have contributed to the sense of Deja’Vu, but not for what was about to happen. Something otherworldly definitely made the hair stand up on the nape of my neck.
With the Visitor Center dark inside, we left the parking lot and headed for the guided trail that wove through the battlefield park. About every thirty yards or so were pedestals with maps that marked key points of interest and a button to push to learn more about the battle from prerecorded narrations. As we walked on the trail and approached the second pedestal, weird showed up.
I could not only imagine the battle in my mind’s eye but short bursts of sounds of battle and even the acrid smell of black powder burning confronted my senses. I discounted sounds of battle to my active imagination, but trust me, it is impossible to “imagine” the uniquely distinctive smell of burning black powder in the air. You just do not transition from the fragrance of wild honey suckle to black powder in an instant.
What just happened? I drew in a sharp breath and staggered momentarily. My wife grabbed my arm and asked, “Are you okay?”
I replied, “I’m not sure. Did you smell that?”
“Smell what?” she replied.
I just stared back at her in disbelief, “Burning black powder…it’s a sulphury odor, you know, kind of like fireworks. I smelled it just now; suffocatingly strong! And you did not smell anything?”
In two more steps I staggered up to the second pedestal and a wash of cold air contrasted the morning heat when simultaneously a sharp pain struck my back above my left kidney. I flinched and whispered, “Ow, man, what the…”
“What do you smell now?” asked my wife with more than a little sarcasm on the side.
Turning to see behind me and what had struck me, I saw an imposing line of cannons and Parrott guns lined up on Henry Hill, the ridge where Stonewall Jackson sat on his horse and directed the battle. I stared straight down the barrel of the third weapon from the right side of the line. I just pointed up the hill to the artillery line and said, “Look!”
“She responded with what sounded like mock concern, “Oh, so you’ve just been shot?”
I glared at her and shook my head. She shook her head too and I guess the look on my face told a story she did not and would not understand. She stared at me with new shade of concern as if I had lost my mind. I may have lost it but recovered quickly as the sensations passed. She grabbed my arm and quietly suggested we take a detour to follow a fork in the trail that wound up the rise and into the shade of the woods to get out of the growing heat. I agreed and we soon slipped into the woods. Turned out weird showed up there too.
The trail we followed had been an old roadbed where Confederate soldiers and supplies made their way toward the high ground of the upper ridge on the battlefield. Chalk it up to imagination again, but I heard horses snorting and straining against the jangle of tackle and the squeak of leather harnesses. No voices, just straining horses and hooves pulling cannon, caisson, and supplies of war.
I stopped suddenly and turned to my wife and said, “So I guess you aren’t hearing any of this either.”
Her response confirmed my fear, “Hearing what?” I decided then I had reached my limits of enduring sensations real or imagined. Time to go.
“I have to get out of here!” I exclaimed, a little more frantic and frightened than I intended. “Let’s get back to the Visitor Center now, it should be open.”
As we walked swiftly back to the parking area and Visitor Center, my eyes tracked down over the terrain to trees and a small creek at the bottom of the draw. The slope was not that extreme, but I imagined it had to be extreme of the Federal soldiers crossing the shallow creek and charging up the hill under fire. We hurried onward with no further attacks on my imagination. Maybe I had outrun weird. I desperately needed air conditioning and a nice seat in the darkened Battlefield Theater inside.
Turns out weird ran the recorded program that recounted the First Battle of Manassas as the Confederates fought to protect a critical rail junction outside of Manassas that served as critical supply lines to feed their campaigns to the North. The Union forces wanted the same junction for the same reason but to transport supplies to support southerly incursions. These battles happened twice. The Confederates prevailed both times.
Then came the shock that took my breath away. The morning of July 21,1861 was the morning of the First Battle of Manassas. We were here and walked the battlefield 125 years to the day after the battle, and highly likely during the hours the battle raged. I am not sure I heard much more of the narration until the mention of the shallow creek at the bottom of the hill – Bull Run.
Growing up, I had a penchant for Civil War stories and read of many battles. For some reason, my favorites were two battles called Bull Run. If you were a Yankee, they were known only as First and Second Bull run. If you were a Confederate Rebel, the battles were known as First and Second Manassas. It never crossed my mind that First and Second Manassas were the same battles as Bull Run. Weird just smiled and pointed at the unlikely synchronicity of my accidentally being here on this anniversary day of the South’s first major battle. I just sat quietly in the air-conditioning mulling over strange combinations of sensory shock. One hundred twenty-five years ago today, I thought to myself and shook my head in silence.
Why today? What forces were at work to bring me to a very unlikely place like a Civil War battleground? I wondered if this place marked the spot where I died many years ago? Add another checkmark for imagination. It had to be imagination; my faith did not align with reincarnation or past lives. Was my faith mistaken? The compelling events of that July morning shook more than a few beliefs. Little did I know that three years later this past-life possibility would resurface again and shake me further still.
When we had lunch and arrived home, creativity stoked by an overwhelming dose of weird moved the muse I followed to author the following poem.
My Last Battle
I sensed a strange attraction,
To come upon this place.
What stirred this curiosity,
Now spread across my face.
We walked through fields,
Where struggle once took place.
Meadows teemed with quietness,
Signs of battle? Not a trace.
My mind traveled slowly,
Back some hundred twenty years.
I can see this same green meadow,
Wet with blood, wet with tears.
Many men were here then,
Each champion of his cause.
Was I right here with them?
Those thoughts made me pause.
Cannon rightly placed
Along ridges where they fought.
They guard an empty meadow,
Where souls of men were wrought.
As I looked across the field
Staring down the face of death.
A feeling left me chilled.
It was hard to catch my breath.
The thoughts came back again,
Was I standing in this spot?
Was it here it all ended,
By cannon or rifled shot?
I imagined how it sounded,
As men and boys prepared,
To fight the morning battle,
Common fears they must have shared.
Sounds of squeaking leather,
On horses fully dressed.
Soldiers trudging onward,
A pace that seemed hard-pressed.
Many cannons and caisson,
Pulled by horses and by men.
Rolled into position,
High ground they would defend.
A long day’s march behind them,
Tired feet earned a welcomed rest.
Weary souls searched for strength
To pass the morrow’s test.
Campfires dot the night,
Together, each stood alone.
A single lone harmonica,
Cries of memory, thoughts of home.
Faces blankly stared,
Into sparking campfire’s blaze.
Expression filled their eyes,
Along with smoky haze.
They were teachers, farmers, and shopkeepers,
Some never owned a gun.
They found themselves caught up,
In a war just begun.
Filled each and every head.
Sleep was found by few,
Sunrise came with dread.
A lonely sentry stood
Silhouette against the night.
His own questions unanswered,
Would he stand? Would he fight?
Then the word came quickly,
“Y’all git ready, it’s time ta go!”
Each man hoping wishing,
What he did not want to know.
Some men knelt and prayed,
Having never prayed before.
A new unity with God,
Brought about by war.
All eyes strained to see,
The blue-coats slow advance.
Waiting yielded waiting,
Prompting numb dreamlike trance.
Jackson had his cannon,
Lined up on Henry Hill.
The Yanks marched slowly onward,
Time choose then to be still.
Saber raised up skyward,
The signal he would give.
A simple gesture told them,
When to die, when to live.
The smell of black powder,
Filled senses, clouded morning air
The crashing of musket fire,
Followed by screams of despair.
Hours passed like days,
Battle’s din rarely ceased.
Hell’s fury ran rampant,
On men it was released.
When fighting finally ceased,
The dead lay with the dying.
Some men moaned for mercy,
Others only crying.
Those not severely injured,
Crawled up to a friend,
Taking last breath messages,
Before their life would end.
This fight was caused by hate,
Though hatred found delay.
As battered bluecoats shared their water,
With dying boys dressed in gray.
Those who lived through that day,
Fatigue truly hurt.
Where is the glory of doing battle?
Perceptions left disconcert.
No glory was shared that day,
By those who gave up life.
Glory’s meant for the living,
For flags, drums, and fife.
The South called it Manassas.
The North called it Bull Run.
The battle that was fought that day,
Came with the rising sun.
Was I there so long ago
Are those memories of my past?
If I fought and died that day
I hope that battle was my last.
Trust me, there are times when I cannot rhyme two lines together, but the experiences of that morning tossed creativity into my lap and this poem took around half an hour to write. Did that feat indicate there were more things real than imagined behind all of what happened?
Three years later…
As I mentioned, more of the mystery unfolded in late 1989, again with no planning or warning. Weird just showed up at a work event when I was on the road as a Sales Training Manager. Our corporate training crew had just finished the second day of New Hire Orientation and decided to meet in a colleague’s hotel room for a few beers and general debrief chit chat. After about an hour and several beers, Natalie, one of my trainers whipped out a deck of Tarot cards and offered to give readings for any who wanted to take a dare. She credited herself to be Wiccan causing me to both roll my eyes and step a safe distance away to prevent any black magic that might spill on my shoes. She gave each of us the choice of past, present, or future readings; I reluctantly choose past when the others prodded me to participate. Weird happened once again.
She told me numerous things I found to be unremarkable and then a few things started to align with and validate weird. Supposedly, I lived a previous life in the south somewhere in the Carolinas, my name had been Billy (yeah right, which card divulged that info?) and I had died a violent death. Okay, lived and then died. Got it. She added more to weird…My violent death happened during a war a violent conflict and that I joined the battle after an exceedingly long walk to get to the battlefield. Okay, Carolina to Virginia, I can see it, do not want to, but I can. Then she added that I died at the hands of friends. Those nuggets uncorked what grew swiftly into those weird memories first experienced three years earlier. Too much of what she revealed began to align with my experiences at the Manassas Battlefield Park.
Okay, so I walked a long way to get there. I wore Confederate gray. Died at the hands of friends? That part did not compute at first. Then it hit like a bolt of lightning…friendly fire…the pain in my back…aligned with cannon on Henry Hill. Having research much on the Civil War I recalled that many early casualties were at the hands of poorly aimed artillery weapons…friendly fire…at the hands of men with no military experience…never owned a gun…shopkeepers…farmers. Pieces slammed together for me, and my reader was equally stunned when I recounted my story as she her translated the tarot cards.
It got even more weird when she asked me to show her where the pain struck me in my back at the battlefield park. I pointed to the spot, and she lifted my shirt to find an oval shaped birthmark just above my left kidney. Her shriek scared me and the others as they listened slack jawed as the reading progressed. Through tears, she explained that birthmarks (according to her research) marked where a fatal injury had taken place in a previous life. I read the same thing later on but found no scientific facts to back it up. Still…weird was weird and the hair stood up on the nape of my neck.
Like I said earlier, these experiences and everything related to times and places weave a compelling mystery that contradicted my beliefs and my faith. Regardless, it all makes for a good story, and whether real or imagined I hope beyond hope that battle was my last!
* * *
Thanks for reading my words.
I hope you enjoyed this piece!
Gary G. Wise