My 17-year-old son likes to hike, so we drove to Port Hudson last Sunday, where he walked the six-mile trail that loops around land where thousands died in a 48-day siege during the Civil War. He wanted some time alone, so I found other things to do at the Port Hudson State Historic Site near the Louisiana community of Jackson.
Beneath some pine trees, the staff had set up a lectern, table and a few folding chairs so that a ranger named Marvin Steinback could talk about how Port Hudson’s warriors buried their dead. He was dressed as a 19th-century minister, with a straw hat and long black coat to evoke the kind of men who once presided over the grief of the battlefield. There was a small cross on his lapel. Within the half-circle of chairs, a wooden coffin rested as a reminder of how the lucky ones got buried. Since coffins were a luxury, soldiers would often go in the ground covered with nothing but a blanket.
A cool autumn wind blew through the trees, and strong morning sun left long stretches of grass throughout the park free of shadow. A few antique cannons and the raised earth of what had once been fortifications hinted at the carnage, but the grounds looked pretty much like a pasture waiting for its cows to return.
“When soldiers were buried at Port Hudson, they did not have ID tags,” Steinback told the dozen visitors gathered in the shade. Some bodies weren’t recovered for days after a battle, another challenge in identifying them. A video in Port Hudson’s visitor center explains that the stench of corpses was so bad during the siege a Union officer thought the smell would drive his opponents to surrender.
That horror feels distant at Port Hudson today, though the staff does its best to bring it to the foreground. At Steinback’s lecture on burial practices, he invited guests to file past a table full of Civil War weapons. The tableau was disrupted when a little green lizard made its way to the top of the table and found a comfortable spot on top of some shrapnel. One of the audience members raked the lizard into his palms and gently returned it to the ground, a small lapse of comedy among the relics of war.
It’s hard to know what to think at an old battlefield. So much space, so much quiet and, on a good day, the warm light on your back as you stretch your legs. But is it right to enjoy a spot stained by so much pain?
What I felt, I guess, was some hopeful sense of how resilient the world is, that it could take so much suffering and still reclaim some beauty in it when given time. It’s a thought I’ve tried to keep close these days, reading headlines that seem short on miracles.