Our family holiday traditions include two that are, maybe, a bit odd. They started years ago when we were reading Shelby Foote's wonderful Civil War books and decided we'd visit every battlefield we could reach. Elkhorn Tavern and Wilson's Creek are two of my favs, but every year we re-visit Drewry's Bluff and Cold Harbor. Drewry's Bluff is reserved for Christmas Eve, which started as a trek designed to wear the kids out so they'd go to sleep that night. Not that the ploy worked, but we tried. Now, we hike the trail to the bluff overlooking the James River, listen to the Park Service sign tell us about how the Union tried just once to attack Richmond by river, and enjoy the sight of the city rising in the distance, framed by bare-limbed trees and a washed-out winter sky. The walk, except for one year when it was sleeting, is pleasant. Nothing scary remains at the site where the Confederates blew the heck out of the unfortunate ironclad.

Our second trek takes us on New Year's day through Cold Harbor, where Grant threw men like confetti at Lee's army. He wrote in his autobiography that Cold Harbor was his one regret. Men pinned their names on scraps of paper to the backs of their uniforms, hoping their bodies could be identified when the shooting stopped. Corpses were stacked for barricades, as Union soldiers tried to shield themselves from bullets that ploughed the dirt fields without ceasing. We just returned from there, and as has happened each time my feet hit the ground at Cold Harbor, I feel uneasy. There's something about the place that forces me to walk faster, get back to the car quicker. They're still there, the thousands of dead, and I honor their sacrifices, their horror, their sheer guts that forced them to their feet to run into a wall of sharpshooters when the command to do so bugled forth.

Every time we pull into the tiny parking lot, I remember what those men, dead so long ago, sacrificed to keep our country a union. I feel, through every inch of my being, a pale shadow of those long, awful days under a hot June sun.