When my daughters were young, floating down the Rappahannock was our rite of spring.
We would put our canoe in as far upstream, near the source at Chester’s Gap, as the snow melt or thunderstorms allowed. The river is so narrow here that a single fallen tree or a cattle farmer’s possessive fence necessitates a portage. Such obstacles form part of the adventure; we are going exploring.
Each bend in the old river brings something new; if we are quiet, even surprises: whitetails bending to drink from its waters, turtles sunning on a rock, a snake entwined in an overhanging branch, a duck fluttering vulnerably to distract us from her offspring. Had it not been for the Rappahannock, my own children might not be here now. They were born from a love for a woman whose family lived downstream at the mouth of the Rappahannock, where it enters the Chesapeake.
Fate needn’t lie in the stars but in currents right here on earth.
As the children became toddlers, they would float messages in bottles down the river toward their grandparents. It was an exploration into the forces of nature — gravity, displacement — and of love. Now, as evening falls over our sycamore-embowered campsite on a midstream sandbar or in a daisy of a meadow right at river’s edge, ghosts become liminal.
Yes, ghosts: Amid the murmuring ripples, pulsing frogs and singing katydids, you can discern the soft breathing of sleeping soldiers, blue and gray, tens of thousands of them. In the still-hot evening breeze, you can feel the presence of these fathers — if not their actual bodies, the stories they told. I repeat them, the stories they told.
Stories of that apparition in his own time, John Singleton Mosby, “The Gray Ghost” who used the landscape carved by the river’s upstream tributaries to elude the Northern intruders. Of the young artillery officer home Robert E. Lee called “my gallant Pelham,” killed at Kelly’s Ford. And stories, of course, of Stonewall Jackson, mistakenly shot from his horse by his very own men among the dense spring foliage and underbrush near the river at Chancellorsville, felled at the precise moment of his greatest victory.
For this was the bloody Rappahannock line that divided Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the multi-headed Army of the Potomac, the line that served to separate Richmond and Washington. In some senses it was an artificial line — the rolling Piedmont estates north of the river were just as “Southern” as Lowcountry plantations. Yet the natural barrier of the Rappahannock, forcing armies to ford and flank, was as real as a fault line running through the heart of the nation.
Onto the campfire, you throw another piece of driftwood. Still damp, it wheezes, and you hear steel teeth on bone. Before he died, Jackson’s left arm, shattered by the furious fusillade, was amputated, you remember, and you cannot sleep.
There are other ghosts. Your own. Lost youth can become a demon. The betrayal is as unintentional as the shots that mortally wounded Jackson — and just as deadly. That my professional life became devoted to words, and (as a publisher) finding the money to print them, can be traced to the Rappahannock. The very first story I ever wrote was about whitewater canoeing. It was published in Boy’s Life. I was 13, the same age as my younger daughter, now sleeping by the campfire on the river. I could be she. Or she I, a third of a century ago.
And when she is my age now? I’ll no doubt be a ghost … if I’m lucky. Will I haunt the Rappahannock? Will it have me?
Walter Nicklin is former publisher of the Rappahannock News. This essay, adapted from his 1997 book “Pieces of the Piedmont, the Puzzles of One Life,” also appears in the latest issue of The Piedmont Virginian magazine.