On Hell's Hallowed Ground

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    On Hell's Hallowed Ground

    By

    Derek Rush

    They will come together again under higher bidding,and will know their place and name.

    This army will live, and live on,

    so long as soul shall answer soul...

    Major General Joshua Chamberlain

    There are few examples which render a more precise vision of hell on earth than during some ofthe savage fighting experienced throughout the American Civil War, where waves of infantry marched

    across shell-swept fields, shoulder to shoulder in rank through drifting clouds of smoke and debris,headlong with their tattered colors into the withering blaze of musketry. More Americans died during

    these four years of bitter conflict than in both World Wars and Vietnam combined. Advancements intechnology, including the repeating rifle, introduced a divided nation to untold carnage in its rawest

    form.

    The battle of Chickamauga was among the most bloody. It was in the late summer of 1863 thatfierce fighting broke out in the fields and woods surrounding a small creek in northwest Georgia.

    Because of the rolling wooded ground over which much of the struggle was waged, linear battle

    formations proved arduous to maintain; with visibility limited to 150 feet in places, neither army knewthe exact position of the other, and with lines extending nearly six miles at the start of action, the

    situation became highly confused for commanding officers and soldiers alike. Fighting, at times, was

    hand to hand. It was utter and complete madness. There were reports of small brush fires erupting fromthe spark of muskets and cannons, and those wounded unable to escape were consumed by the flames.One soldiers description claimed the scene to be a struggling, reeling, inextricable mass of

    confusion.

    All told, after two days of battle so intense it scarred the earth for more than twenty years, some34,000 men were either killed, wounded, or missing. Many of the soldiers that drew their last,

    agonizing breath there were buried where they fell.

    Much of what I learned of the battle was passed on to me by my father; a man as versed inscholarly fact as he was skilled in a way with words. Having grown up not more than a few hours drive

    from the battlefield, the two of us had made the trip a number of times over the years. Hed cover the

    battle in great detail as we drove slowly along the winding roads of the park, becoming quite involved

    in the movement of troops and cavalry, the deployment of artillery. As he did, I imagined the smoke ofbattle still hanging heavily amongst the trees, listening with an ear to the wind for the cries of wounded,

    the distant crackle of gunfire locals still claim to hear from time to time.

    I often wondered what it must have been like for the soldiers that had fought and died there, menwho sacrificed their lives for a few more feet of ground, a rock fence, or a copse of trees somewhere

    across an expansive field. It was all part of the experience.

    I hadnt been back to the battlefield in the better part of a decadenot since dad had passed away.And it would have been many more had a unique business opportunity in Atlanta not presented itself.

    Within a week I had most of my affairs in order and all my worldly possessions stowed in the back

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    of the Tacoma. Although my old college roommate was not expecting me until sometime Monday

    afternoon, I was eager to get settled into my new life, and therefore left a few days earlier than I had

    planned.

    My route out of southern Tennessee took me down I 75, and within a stones toss of the park. Itwas late Saturday afternoon. My thoughts were adrift. I was certainly not intending to stray from the

    interstate as I did, but by the time I recognized what I had done I was nearly upon the park, being

    drawn further on by the same familiar sights which commanded my rapt attention nine years earlier.Approaching from the present-day town of Boynton the road dips, crosses the river, then rises.

    Almost immediately the signs of war are upon you. Cannons, markers, and memorials appear in

    increasing numbers as you move east to west down the country road. The Ecno Lodge my father and Ifrequented was just up the road a ways. It would be a good place kick back after a quick drive down

    memory lane. What's the rush? I figured.

    It was nearing the end of another beautiful autumn day. I had just turned onto one of the more

    secluded back roads leading into the park, when a rather acrid, foul-smelling odor like rotten eggs camewafting in through my open window. The odor, very much like burnt black powder, provoked only a

    minor curiosity at the time, for I was far more perplexed by how little traffic there was upon entering

    the confines of the park itself; being a weekend, and a rather pleasant afternoon, I was figuring there tobe more tourists out and about, soaking up the atmosphere of the place, studying the monuments,

    reading the plaques, paying homage to those who fought and died upon these hallowed grounds. Yet the

    farther I drove the more convinced I became that I was indeed the only person around for miles.The woods crowded me on either side. I can not easily explain the sense of unease which began to

    settle over me at this point, nor the distinct heaviness about the air that made it difficult for me to

    breath I felt as though I was in some strange way surrounded, or trapped, and I kept turning in myseat to search for the cause of what a sneaking suspicion warned to be more than an overactive

    imagination.

    Despite my concerns, I continue on.

    That decision would ultimately prove to be the greatest mistake of my life.I had just rounded a bend in the narrow road, and came suddenly upon a smoky haze which

    obscured much of the area ahead of me. For a moment I could not see the edge of my hood much less

    where I was going. As a result, I had all but crawled to a stop.Seger was on the radio, singing Roll Me Away. But his husky tone had gone to static. Instead of

    fumbling for another station, I simply reached down and turned the radio off. I needed the quiet to

    concentrate.The rotten egg odor only grew in intensity, stinging my nostrils, watering eyes. I remember making

    a face and bowing my head briefly, pinching my eyes in an attempt to clear my suddenly blurred vision.

    There was a momentary feeling of static electricity in the air, raising the hair on my arms, tingling

    my scalp. When I looked back up, jolted to attention by the sudden rough condition of the roadway(had I driven off one side or the other?), I was utterly awestruck to discover the scene before me had

    inexplicably changed.

    The smoke had cleared enough to reveal some macabre version of reality in which my view of theoutside world seemed cast through windows tinted a muddy shade of red. The paved road I was on was

    now a narrow dirt lane as far as I could tell through the haze. And I was hearing the sporadic crackle of

    distant gunfire, the thunder of hooves and the whinnying of horses, along with the crack of leatherrigging.

    There was the roar of what sounded like cheering men in the distance. But I was primarily trying to

    focus on the indistinct shades darting about in the smoke around me.My first thought was that I had inadvertently strayed into the middle of a battle reenactment. I've

    been to quite a few over the years with dad. With thousands of reenactors coming together each year to

    participate in the living history events, things can get rather intense. And loud. Seeing, however, as

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    these things often occur on or around the actual dates, it would have otherwise made perfect sense to

    me had the anniversary for the battle not been nearly a month ago.

    And added to which, it was not commonplace for the National Park Service to allow such staged

    events, which usually involved hundreds of enthusiastic onlookers, within the boundaries of the parkitself. While living history exhibits may feature drills and other demonstrations as forms of

    entertainment, actual recreations of the fighting has always been forbidden, and held elsewhere.

    Perhaps this year things were different.Leaning forward to look at the sky, I saw dark billowy clouds through the leaves and smoke,

    roiling frantically among one another in heated dispute, and knew at once that something extraordinary

    was occurring. Something clearly beyond my scope of reason to understand.I felt suddenly tight and sick inside. There was a chill at the nape of my neck, and the hair on my

    arms continued to stand on end. I used my hand to rub my arm as I looked around.

    My concern had morphed into a tight ball of fear that burned in my gut.

    For crissakes, Aaron, just turn around! Don't be your usual stupid self. Get the hell away from thisplace while you still can, while there is still time.

    A reasonable enough argument posed by that judicial little voice inside my head.

    Words of wisdom some may even say.If not possessed of a strange and unnatural urge to keep going, I just might have listened.

    Why the hell didn't I listen?

    Ahead of me, now, I could see figures darting back and forth through the drifting smoke. To oneside men were gathered on horseback shouting orders, emphasizing their commands with eager

    gestures. Things seemed chaotic. A booming report startled the animals, startled me. It was promptly

    followed by a second. Then a third.Cannons firing?

    Somewhere to my