By Andrew Clark
The Hyatt Place hotel in Fredericksburg is a five-minute drive from the Virginia field where 12,500 Union soldiers were killed or wounded in the month of December 1863. The Hyatt Place Fredericksburg has ninety-three well-appointed rooms and is right next to Mary Washington Hospital. It has a pool and each booking comes with a free self-serve breakfast buffet which, in warmer months, guests can enjoy on the hotel’s outdoor terrace. It is a well-run hotel suited to tourists and those travelling on long journeys along Interstate 95, the main interstate highway that runs north-south along the east coast from Houlton-Woodstock in Maine to Miami. If you are driving along the I95, it’s worth a visit.
I stayed at the Hyatt Place Fredericksburg with my family in the summer of 2015. We were driving to North Carolina to spend a week in Hatteras body surfing and eating shellfish. Recalling our stay, conjures up the scent of brewed coffee, disinfectant, bananas, canned orange juice, microwaved breakfast sausage, croissants and cigarette smoke from the young couple on the terrace who were trying not to argue. It was the middle of August and the heat (in the nineties) had a hold on the city.
Arriving in the late afternoon on a Friday, we were welcomed by the cool air of the Hyatt Place lobby. I checked us in, the kids bickered for a bit and then we went to dinner at nearby Nino’s Diner, a shiny jukebox-style spot that has a pale blue exterior accented by bright neon lights. The menu was indistinguishable from all the other diners in the area – pizza that would not be acceptable in any major eastern city, decent burgers, “Pasta Bolognese” (which I assume no one ever orders), sandwiches, steaks, and fish and chips. I order a cheeseburger, fries and Coke with plenty of ice. Regular Coke. I never order Diet Coke. I do not drink Coke Zero. I will not drink Pepsi. If I’m having a cheeseburger and fries, anything but a Regular Coke is wrong.
The customers were a mix of tourists and locals, all of whom revelled in the air conditioning, which I found to be equal quality-wise to the air conditioning at the Hyatt. Our waitress was short, around fifty years old and what one might describe charitably as “not overtly fat.” She was familiar with the people seated at two tables nearby us and greeted them like friends. One lady asked if she had had her hair done recently. She had. After ordering my cheeseburger, I was pleased to hear the waitress click her teeth in approval. This gesture validated my habit of being cautious when ordering at strange diners. It does not pay to get cute with the menu. If you are eating at a diner, order a burger, a cheeseburger, wings, a hoagie, a sandwich, or maybe a wrap, but don’t get adventurous and be wary of the specials. They’re prepared with food that’s about to go off.
A tanned bald man in a grease-stained Washington Redskins t-shirt made three trips to the washroom in the space of forty-five minutes. I considered this excessive. If you need to go that much in such a small span of time, there is something wrong and you should be at home or at the doctors, not out in public. You need medical attention. He had a smell that told the world something was amiss. He left an odour behind him. If pressed, I would say that he reeked of spiralled ham that had been marinating all night in anxiety-attack induced flop sweat. The kids noticed too. My youngest son’s head snapped back from the hoagie he was eating. It was obvious that he wanted to ask what the smell was but was too polite.
The dessert menu at Nino’s Diner was, and I would assume is still, limited, so after dinner we went next door for an ice cream. We drove back to the Hyatt Place; the kids watched television and went to bed. I sat on the terrace and soaked up the evening’s sanguine humidity – at eleven thirty it was eighty-three degrees. I went upstairs to bed.
As you know, I was arrested the next morning not far from the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and taken into police custody. To be precise, the police took me into custody at 4:22 a.m. near the Sunken Road, which the National Park Service describes thusly: “On December 13, 1862, United States forces under General Ambrose Burnside attacked the stone wall along the Sunken Road. Wave after wave of US soldiers marched towards the Confederate line; none made it closer than fifty yards. Confederate troops behind the stone wall and atop Marye’s Heights held the high ground with their well defended line. The Federal soldiers’ assaults across Fredericksburg’s open fairgrounds proved futile and left the soldiers exhausted and demoralized. They would not forget the loss they experienced at the Sunken Road. After the battle, a question haunted these soldiers: how did this happen?”
I am haunted by the same question: “How did this happen?”
How did I end up being arrested on the Fredericksburg battlefield on August 15, 2015?
How is it that I awoke at three that morning, as if from a dream, my nostrils filled by the heavy scent of mowed grass, the hard ground cooling my back and above me through the branches of the surrounding trees the milky way splashed across the night sky. In the distance, a dim hum from traffic carried over the field. Dressed in jeans and a green Lewiston Lancers t-shirt, both smeared with dirt, I found my legs and arms speckled by mosquito bites. I felt my Air Jordans were on both feet, but no socks. Searching my pockets I found no wallet, no cellphone, no watch, and no memory or idea of arriving there.
I discovered myself sprawled close to the base of a monument. All attempts to stand were useless and so I crawled across the dewy grass and leaves. Moonlight revealed the statue of an officer with his hat in hand. This was the Union General Andrew A. Humphreys. If, like me, you have studied the strategies and tactics of the Civil War, you will know that, on the late afternoon of December 13, after being told the Confederates were withdrawing, Union General Andrew A. Humphreys ordered his division to attack. Confederate infantry and artillery fire shredded their ranks. In a little over an hour, a quarter of Humphrey’s four thousand men were killed or wounded. Through the darkness it was possible to read the monument’s engraving.
THE CHARGE OF
GENERAL HVMPHREYS’ DIVISION
Lifting myself up, neat rows of headstones revealed themselves stretching across the field; their lines ran endlessly. I prayed for something familial, a clue to what had brought me there. Perhaps my car was parked nearby? Perhaps I had driven here? There was no illumination, except the light that cast from the windows of the houses of nearby Fredericksburg. A thick darkness hung over the cemetery.
What I saw next was far from familiar.
A hundred yards across the field a two-lane road shone bone-white in the moonlight. It circled below the cemetery, and at its furthest end, leaning in a bruised grey haze, a group of horsemen in trotted by in parade. Following behind them were men on foot, a column marching with dimly gleaming rifles slung over their shoulders. They strode in slow measured silence. Column after column passed, horsemen and infantry and cannon in an endless current. I strained to hear the tread of the soldiers’ feet and the clank of the horses’ hooves but there was no sound, not of a voice, nor a hoof, nor a wheel. Shivering as the night’s cold brushed my skin, the last man vanished into the darkness. My head swooned. My skull throbbed.
Subsequent efforts to stand failed, even when I employed the monument’s foundation as a brace. It goes without saying; I’ve spent my life dealing with adversity. You know this as well as I do. I thrive on adversity. I get through. I lead and I overcome. My inability to stand or walk was merely one more hurdle to jump. I dragged myself along a line of gravestones, making mental note of the names.
Private J. J. Blodgett.
Private Edward Green. PA
Capt. P.H. Lennon. NY
Private Levi Incolsbee WIS.
Corporal James L Kane
Private E Egerton
Private John Nasy PA
Private Simon Nathans
Sergeant William Rankin NY
Private Willard Reeves ME
Private Edward W. Stacy MA
Sergeant Sylvanus B Babson MA
There was a thunderous boom out in the faraway distance. Rolling onto my back, my gaze turned upward; the sky was clear and cloudless. A breeze ambled over the cemetery grounds. The stars flashed and glimmered as if they were resting on the surface of a deep black pool. It occurred to me that this might be the appropriate time to scream. Here was I, alone in a cemetery, with no memory of arriving there; a scream was the right course of action. Drawing in a deep breath, I held the air for a moment and released it, mustering as loud and desperate a scream as I was able – but nothing came out. My mouth opened mechanically – wide and gaping – yet only a few whiffs of steam escaped. I tried again and with the same result.
A boot pressed down beside my head. Above was the dark figure of a man, who was soon joined by another. The first man nudged me with his foot.
“I saw him at the opening of the ball,” the second figure said. “When the hornets started flying.”
“Well, he seen the elephant.”
I felt the second one began to untie my Air Jordans, and slip them off, saying “These a do me fine.”
The other went through my pockets, and as he did, the outline of his face became clear; leaning over me was a young man, no more than twenty. He studied me for a few long moments and then cocked his head in recognition. “Why hello,” he said. “I allow I know this body. Check the buckle.”
His friend pulled on my belt. He confirmed the inscription. “SNY. State of New York.”
“Good-bye pard,” the first man said. “Time to absquatulate.”
The pair strolled away between two rows of headstones. Their voices faded to nothing. Pressing my palms against the earth to search the ground near me, I found no footprints or wearing of the grass, no sign that they had ever been there at all.
What compelled me next, is not certain, but finding myself without voice to speak and no means of walking, I slithered through the cemetery gates and down along the grass beside a gravel walkway that led to what was left of the battlefield. The sunken road ran straight across the breast of a hill. It was a waist-high stone fence with a gravel path behind it. I crawled beyond and spread out on my stomach.
The earth shook as if a herd of cattle was trampling across a plain. Men raced past, some jumping over me, and the sound of their charge was joined by whistles and the buzzing of bees and great thunder and lightning. Surging lines formed waves of bristling bayonets as men crossed the field. Buzzing, whistling, howling through the air, cracking bone and smashing muscle. Skulls shattered. Cannister tore flesh, tossing severed arms and legs above as they rushed forward and with all my soul, I wished that I could join them. I cast a look heavenward to see if I could behold a winged messenger of peace. But no; instead, inhuman cries and screams called out into the dark. The men pressed their cause forward and reached within one hundred yards of the stone wall. My head swooned once again. The darkness of my dreams drew the curtain on the conflict.
If you have ever dealt with Virginia law enforcement, you will know that they are extremely professional. I was arrested by a very polite Fredericksburg police officer, who I later learned was named Officer Bartley Walters.
“Care to tell me what you’re doing here, Major?” said Officer Bartley Walters.
I had never seen the man before in my life.
“Can you hear me?”
I nodded yes.
Another officer arrived. “We got a problem here tonight, Major?”
This man was a stranger to me also.
Officer Bartley Walters frowned. “Sometimes he’s not good on time,” he said to his partner. He addressed me, raising his tone,
“Major. Can you tell me what year it is?”
I told him.
“It’s always 2015,” said his partner. “Ain’t it Major.”
Officer Bartley Walters reached into my pocket and removed a weather-beaten wallet.
This surprised me.
“Why don’t you tell us where you served, Major?”
What could I tell him?
“Basra. Fallujah. Operation Murfreesboro. Moshtarak. Dananeh. Lots of places. You wouldn’t have heard of them…”
“Shit,” said the partner.
“Major,” Officer Bartley Walters said. “You know you can’t be on the battlefield at night.”
“We’ve talked about this,” said his partner.
I had no idea what they were on about and recounted my story. I was there on the battlefield by accident and had no memory or idea of how I had gotten there. My family was at the Hyatt Place. We were going to the Outer Banks to do some body surfing. We were on vacation. I described my wife and children. All the officers needed to do was call my wife.
“Major.” Officer Bartley Walters paused a moment uncomfortably and as he did the thunder and buzzing exploded in the air around us. Just as quick, it tumbled down into the grinding din of the faraway freeway.
“Major,” Officer Bartley Walters said. “It’s 2023.”
His partner, in a bit of a singsong, continued. “It’s October 5, 2023.”
You know I am not the sort of person to argue with police officers, even those who have evidently lost their minds. You know I keep cool. I am calm under pressure. Ask any of the men who served with me. Given Officer Bartley Walters’s apparent confusion, it was clear that it would be best to let them escort me to the police station where I could communicate about the correct day and year with Officer Bartley Walters’s superior officer.
He (I assumed it would be a man) would no doubt understand that it was August 15, 2015, the day after we had arrived in Fredericksburg, and that I was on the way to the Outer Banks with my family for some body surfing. There had to be a rational explanation for my presence at the Fredericksburg Battlefield, I was just unaware what that rational explanation was at the present time. Perhaps I had suffered an attack of some kind, or perhaps someone at Nino’s Diner had drugged me. They had put some sort of narcotic in my Regular Coke. Perhaps that was how I found myself on the Fredericksburg Battlefield in the middle of the night.
Officer Bartley Walters and his partner gathered me up gently. Their firm hands pressed against my back in a comforting manner. They seemed familiar with the procedure. I slung an arm across each man’s shoulders, and as they walked me away from the Sunken Road, Officer Bartley Walters read me my Miranda rights.
“Major, you have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions. If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future…”
Light fell from the lamps near the parking lot and as we neared their cruiser, I beheld a curious sight.
There, reflected in the window, were two police officers – Officer Bartley Walters and his partner – carrying an old man. The old man wore a Lewiston Lancer’s t-shirt. The man’s jeans were conspicuously folded back at the knee. As we drew closer, I realized that the man had no legs. It appeared that both his limbs had been amputated above the knee and his jeans were folded over just below where the kneecaps would have been. Sadly, I have seen this sort of dress on the Vietnam veterans you sometimes find begging on the street. The man was dirty and had long grey hair and a grey beard. You know that I am not the sort of person to stare. Yet how I could turn away? It pained me to see him, to see such an abject figure. Had I some cash I would have offered it to him.
“But for the Grace of God,” my mother used to say. Not everyone was as fortunate as me. Not everyone had a family who loved him, and a vacation planned in North Carolina. Not everyone had all the time in the world.
Andrew Clark is the Road Sage columnist for The Globe and Mail. He is an award-winning journalist, and author of Governor General Literary Non-Fiction Award-nominated A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle, and Director of the Comedy Writing and Performance program at Humber College in Toronto.