By Wendy Hodge
If you follow a winding country road out of Columbus and head south while following a slight curve to the east, you may find yourself in Andersonville, Georgia. It’s a lovely little spot where you can eat amazing BBQ, where the sunsets are glorious, and where the dead outnumber the living by more than 100 to 1. Somehow, in all my years of school field trips and Girl Scout travels, I had never made it to this national park which is home to a Civil War museum and former POW camp site. That changed last weekend when a friend mentioned that it was great for history buffs like myself to visit. In my usual pursuit of other’s people’s stories, my friend and I hit the road armed with GPS, lots of snacks, and my trusted camera.
The work week had been long and tiresome. What a relief it was to turn up the volume on the radio and let the highway unspool behind us. It wasn’t until we arrived outside the park gates and saw the “Closed Until Further Notice” sign did it occur to either of us that calling ahead might have been a good idea. Turns out, the government had “shut down” – overnight, it seemed.
We stood there and looked at each other a moment before reluctantly deciding to return to the car. We slowly pulled away from the gate, heading past the cemetery. I almost missed him – the little old man on the side of the road. He was walking toward a car parked on the shoulder. We pulled over.
“Howdy, folks,” he said with a nearly toothless grin. “You all here to see the park?”
“Yes, sir… but it looks like that won’t happen today.”
He gestured over his shoulder. “See that gap in the fence? Turns out there was wreck the other day when the snow storm hit, and they haven’t fixed it yet. So I just spoke to the caretaker, and he said legally they can’t keep us out of the park. The museum isn’t open, but as long as you don’t mind walking you can see the whole park.”
I rarely have to be asked twice.
Already getting my camera ready, we turned to head in, but our new friend stopped me by reaching out for a handshake.
“Thank you for the information,” I offered.
“You’re welcome. I’m just glad I made it in to see my wife. It’s a long drive from Albany.”
“Yes. Lost her a while back. She’s buried over yonder.”
There was a respectful silence while he sniffed a few times.
“So this cemetery is still in use?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. Veterans and their wives can still get a spot here.”
He pointed to his cap with the patch on the front. Vietnam Vet.
“I used to come here every day, but on my pension I just can’t afford it anymore. I come every other day now.”
With tears in his eyes, he said, “It will take a lot more than government nonsense to keep me from visiting my wife.”
Reaching out for another handshake, he said, “You folks have a good day.”
He slowly made his way to his car, and we walked through the wreckage of the fence and into the park.
Row upon row of headstones stretched out in front of us. Each northern state whose soldiers were among the POW’s at Andersonville had erected a monument to commemorate their sacrifice. They are majestic, with the sun striking the marble and granite; each one as unique as the states themselves.
My friend and I walked slowly, speaking in hushed tones, sotpping occasionally to read a name.
Lemuel Baker, 16 years old
Joseph Cleiland, 21 years old
Marcus Samuels, 14 years old
Children, really. Dead before they ever got to live.
Many of the markers bore no name at all; time and weather can be cruel.
About half a mile into the park, a wooden barricade stands tall marking the site of the prisoner of war camp where confederate soldiers stood watch over union soldiers while they slowly died of exposure or starvation. Children, again. Dying or dead. All that senseless loss. The air is thick with and silent with grief.
At the base of a hill, almost hidden, there is a natural fountain whose crystal water burst from the earth one hot summer day while the war raged on. The despairing soldiers in the camp named this unexpected blessing Providence Springs. A gazebo made of stones has been built around it. It was there, with the cool wall to our backs and the trickle of water filling the marble basin that we stopped to sit.
“What if all these poor lost soldiers could somehow rise up right now and see what the world has become? What would they think of us taking pictures of their gravestones? Imagine how amazed they would be.” I said, breaking the silence.
My friend, who is a veteran himself, turned to me and said, “They would shake their heads and ask why we haven’t learned enough yet.”
“You’re right. They would, wouldn’t they?”
“Here’s what politicians and people on the TV news don’t understand. Everything they say, all their lobbying and pushing and shouting, is just noise. Meaningless, chaotic, empty noise. If we could load up half of Washington and drive them down here, or to any military cemetery in the country, and have a good old fashioned field trip, it just might do them some good. Let them see that THIS is reality. In the end, they all end up just as dead and quiet as the heroes buried here. And in the meantime, while the noise rages on, it’s people like our friend back at the gate who fought, without thanks, for our country and now drives 6 hours every other day to visit the woman he loved…. It’s those men who built America.”
My friend is wise.
I asked, “It’s those men, those average extraordinary men, who pay the price for the decisions handed down by people so far removed from reality, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t even ask his name… our friend at the gate.” I said, barely above a whisper.
“But you’ll never forget him, will you?” He wiped a tear from my face.
“No. I won’t forget.”
He reached for my hand, and we sat…. letting the silence sit with us.