Antietam National Battlefield

IBurnside Bridge, Antietam National Battlefieldn spring of 2006 I was attempting a rewrite of a twenty-three year old story about a teacher at a prep school in upstate New York. The original story was awful, but there was something about the characters and their situation that remained mysteriously compelling to me. I realized that the problems I had in writing the original version — I had written and rewritten it for about a year trying to get it right — mainly stemmed from the fact that I had written it in third person. My new attempt was to retell the story in first person as a novella.

As I started working on the retelling, I imagined a history of the fictional town and prep school to include in the piece. I awoke one morning in a hotel room in Seattle, where I was working at the time, with the name “Antietam” in my mind. Suddenly, my novella became a novel, which I have been working on at a snail’s pace ever since.

I’ve never been a civil war buff, and in fact always thought those who are civil war buffs to be a little strange. Nonetheless, something Shelby Foote had spoken about in Ken Burns’ documentary had been rattling around in my subconscious during the twenty years since I had seen it. At the time, I had no idea where or when the Battle of Antietam occurred. To my surprise, a Google search later that morning revealed that the battle took place near Sharpsburg, Maryland, about fifty miles from my home. I knew that I would have to visit the site eventually, but work and family commitments made me keep putting it off.

Meanwhile, I began the work of writing a novel, something that I considered too ambitious for where I was, and probably still am, in my writing career. Winslow is a set of threaded stories about the fictional town and school located at the foot of the Berkshires that threads multiple time periods: a contemporary story about loss, missed opportunities and regret, a story set in the early 1980’s about the centenial anniversary of the school (the basis of the original short story), and story about the imagined romance between a minister’s daughter and a young man in the town who dies at Antietam in 1862. Clearly there’s easier things I could attempt for a first novel.

When I finally got a chance to drive out to Antietam it was spring of 2007. Like any other battlefield that has been turned into a memorial, Antietam’s natural beauty is overwhelming. The knowledge of what happened there, the tranquility of the setting, and the hushed tones of the visitors, who all seem to be on their own pilgrimage, makes the only way to describe the feeling as “spiritual.” I’m not a particularly religious person, but it brought to mind those words from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” I found myself mourning the death of a young man who existed only in my mind and on the pages of the novel I have been writing, and aching in sympathy with Sarah, the minister’s daughter in my imagination.

 

The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American combat history. The events of that day are documented and the numbers of the dead and wounded have been counted and re-counted. Those numbers include the twenty-seven sons of the town of Winslow, New York. The numbers of the spiritually wounded include eight widows and nineteen children. The sorrow that enveloped Winslow lasted generations and is still recalled by the statue that stands in the square in front of the post office.

Time has forgotten, however, the wounded that are never counted. They were not widows; they were not orphans. They were the young women of the town of Winslow, who had tearfully posted their perfumed letters at that very same post office. Some of those letters were later found, muddy and blood-soaked on the battlefield. Their sorrow was private and they carried it for the remainder of their days. Their betrothed had left the earth, leaving no tangible sign that they had ever existed. These women would never see their lovers smile in a child’s face.

Instead, they were left to mourn their whole lives, driven from joy to sorrow and back again by memories of lives they had only imagined.

-Epilogue from Winslow

© 2008 – 2014, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.

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